How – And When – To Say No

You already have a full schedule. You are always a hairbreadth away from overwhelm. And now you have been asked to do something else. What do you do? Can you just say no?

What if the request is coming from your principal? What if it’s a teacher you are good friends with? My guess is you say, “yes,” and then you try to make it work. Maybe you stay late – and cut out some of your self-care. Yes, it cuts into family and personal time, but you had no choice. Right?

There is always a choice. It’s how you manage it that makes the difference. Something that frequently worked for me, especially with teachers, was asking, “Can we do this differently?” Then I would come up with alternate solutions. It could be anything from changing the date or time that was requested to sending a cart of books and emailing websites if my schedule was booked.

When it came to my principals, I, of course, couldn’t say no—not exactly. Instead, I would let them know that I’d be happy to accommodate them and ask for their advice regarding how to handle the shifts I would need to make to meet their requests. This lets them know that you can agree, but gets their buy-in or support for the things that will have to be dropped or changed.

There was a time I was asked by the secretary to close the library to accommodate a meeting of the athletic directors in our league could meet. I agreed and said I would contact the previously scheduled teachers to tell them they couldn’t come because of this meeting. A teacher complained to the principal. The secretary called me back “to apologize for her mistake.” She said the request was that I close a portion of the library to allow the meeting to happen. This had a double benefit. Not only had I completely acceded to my principal’s request, I also had demonstrated how connected I was to the teachers and curriculum.

As a leader, you may get requests from your state (or even national association) to take on a task. Do you want to do it? How much of your valuable time will it take? When this occurs, pause before responding and do your best to make your decision out of your purpose, priorities, and passion. If it doesn’t match up with these, say no.

In Saying No Is Better Than Saying Nothing, Shari Harley had advice for those times when “no” is the answer you want to give. She recognizes that saying no is hard. She says people often practice avoidance, ignoring the request or saying you will get back on that—and not doing it. That shows a lack of integrity and honesty in your dealings with people, something that hurts relationships.

Harley offers three options. Before exercising one of these, the first step is thanking the person for asking and saying you will give them your response in a set period of time (not too long in the future). Make sure you get back to them after you determine what your answer will be. Then you answer with one of these options:

Option One is to turn down the request but suggest someone else who might be able to do the task. Within the school, this option is rarely open to you. However, when it’s a district request or one on the state/national level, you should be able to recommend a qualified person who could do it.

Option Two is to agree but negotiate a different time. It gives you the opportunity to ask important questions such as by when does this actually have to be done. It enables you to prioritize your time in completing this new task. It may be possible to do an introductory piece and then complete the project at a later date. For example, if the teacher wants to bring in a class two days in a row, perhaps you can go to the class and do an opening to get students started and thinking, and then have them come in a day or so later to actually get to work. (Debrief them on their thinking process to begin the class.)

Option Three is to turn down the request but offer what you might be able to do instead. Ask if that would work. If not, see if you can find some substitution, but don’t change your no into a yes. You have thought the request through. You know it won’t work for you. Don’t push yourself into becoming overwhelmed.

Harley concludes with “keep your commitments.”  Whatever you said you would do, do it. You want people to trust you. Your word must have meaning.

Knowing how and when to say no is a test of your leadership. Don’t answer too quickly – and always follow through.


The Power of Partnership

Getting teachers to collaborate with you can be a challenge. At the elementary level, you are their prep period, and they are perfectly happy to let you work with their students however you choose. At the high school level, you may never see them. And if they do come into the library, they know what they want and look to you for assistance, not collaboration. They don’t always see how your vision supports their goals.

If there is to be a change, chances are good that you must be the one to initiate it. It will take time and multiple steps to achieve your goal, but it will be worth it to everyone—especially the students. As you develop these partnerships, keep in mind your Mission and Vision. Look toward the relationships you have already built and focus on those who are most likely to be open to an overture from you. New relationships take longer but are just as worthwhile.

How you approach your teachers to begin the process is critical to your eventual success. Jim Knight offers Seven Principles for True Partnership. Although written to address to the business world, they are powerful reminders for us as well.

Equality – Although you are the one doing the initial heavy lifting, both parties must feel heard. No matter the teacher or what you see you bring to the project, it’s important that we “recognize the value and dignity of others.” This means listening without interrupting and correcting, which will likely cause them to withdraw. Be sure you show you recognize and value their interest in their students’ learning and the part they play in the success of your collaboration.

Choice – Rather than trying to find ways to impose your plan, look for ways to incorporate their ideas into the process as well as the final design. A partnership means there are contributions from both sides. Identify what you see as good ideas in what they proposed. Rather than thinking of it as selling your idea, approach it as how can you create something good together. It will be stronger for having input from both sides.

Voice – Give them room to react to your ideas. As with creating Equality, listen attentively. Make sure they know you hear and value their ideas. Sometimes a teacher’s idea of resources, essential questions, and other components seem off base. This may be a matter of newness, not ignorance. Are they concerned the scope is too large? Do they think it will be more work than they can handle? Pay attention to what they are saying and any other silent communication that suggests some resistance. If you spot that, ask about it. Don’t override any issues they have.

Dialogue – Knight talks about recognizing the other’s strengths. This is one of the best ways to build a partnership and collaboration. Each of you has something unique to bring to the project. Dialogue is a back-and-forth process where both sides want to be heard and understood. How can you leverage this?

Reflection – Look inwardly to see how you behave and react as the partnership develops. We tend to jump in and fix things rather than allow the other person to find their way and learn. Telling someone what they should do doesn’t work unless they have asked for advice. Make certain that each step in the process strengthens the partnership you’re working to build because you want this to last beyond the one project.

Praxis – As Knight uses it, this is about the learning that occurs while a project is happening. Plans rarely go exactly as designed. Both of you need to be prepared to make changes and adjustments. Mistakes and successes will happen. Learn from both. And do this in partnership so that you each feel supported.

Reciprocity – Each partnership is an opportunity to learn and grow. Go into this collaboration knowing that you are likely to learn as much (or more) from them as they will from you. That is one of the gifts of partnership – it speeds our learning because we do it together. What have you learned from each other? Be sure to share how you benefitted from the other person. Hopefully, you will hear what they learned from you.

Librarians and teachers have days that are filled with tasks and deadlines. Both have goals that are difficult to achieve alone. Building and nurturing collaborations take time, but the benefits to students and to our own lives are worth it. With whom will you partner?