The first year that I took on a leadership role at my old school, I stopped eating lunch.
I’m not a person who thrives when I’m hungry. The term “hangry” seems like it was coined just for me. But I stopped eating lunch for months that year. Every day felt like an emergency. I was in charge, I thought, so I had to say yes to every request that came my way. Crisis support. Class coverage. Tech troubleshooting. Yes, yes, yes, I said into the phone. Yes, I texted. Yes, I said as I opened the door to my office two seconds after I sat down.
As you might guess, this wasn’t very sustainable. To develop healthier habits at school, I relied on my supportive supervisor and great colleagues, but there was also a very important tool I learned to use: boundaries. Boundaries are how we protect ourselves and others and how we stay centered in our roles. They are one of the best ways to combat burnout.
I’ve been thinking and writing lots about boundaries lately, but for today I want to talk about one of the fundamental aspects: saying no. Specifically, how might educators practice setting boundaries and saying no with our students and our colleagues?
Did you just have an immediate reaction to the idea of saying no at work? In Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s book Trauma Stewardship, the author identifies a set of signs that you may be overwhelmed with the work of supporting people who are experiencing trauma. One of these is the “sense of persecution,” in which we feel that we have no options and no personal sense of agency. This ties directly into a martyr narrative where we believe we must sacrifice ourselves in order to do good work (a narrative which is reinforced through media stories of self-sacrificing “hero teachers”).
If you find yourself thinking that you cannot possibly say no or set boundaries, you may be experiencing stress manifesting as a sense of persecution. Lipsky recommends that we recognize the reality that we may truly be overworked or exploited, but that “there is often a clear path around our obstacles if we allow ourselves to back up, untangle ourselves from the brambles, and find another way.” For me, saying no is a way to do this untangling.
The following examples are just a few ways to practice boundaries. Consider how you might start small, carve out even a little space for yourself by saying no. That small space can provide an opening for you to enter a more sustainable way of navigating work.
Just saying no
The simplest way to say no is just to say no! This can just look like literally saying no, or can include setting a limit, clarifying our role, or reminding people of context. For example, in the student-focused sentences below, you can remind students of your role or of “time and place” for some conversations alongside limit-setting.
When it feels scary to say no, remember that “no” is clear communication. Nedra Glover Tawwab, author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace, writes: “let’s assume that people only know what you tell them, honor only what you request, and can’t read your mind.” If I say “maybe” or “I guess that’s fine” or “I can make that work,” I have to remember that others have no reason to disbelieve me or read between the lines. To be heard saying “no,” I have to actually say no.
Saying no to coworkers or administrators can sound like:
- “No, I can’t take that on right now.”
- “My current role focuses on _____. I don’t have room on my plate for that.”
Saying no to students can sound like:
- “No, I don’t accept friend requests from students.”
- “No, I can’t have students in my room for lunch today.”
- “I’m here to help you learn ___, so I am not going to talk about ___ with you right now”
Of course, saying no isn’t actually simple, because we have to be prepared for the consequences of saying no. Tawwab cautions that “there is no such thing as guilt-free boundary setting.” Sometimes people will be unhappy when you say no, or push back. If your boundaries matter enough to state, they matter enough to stick with.
Slowing it down
Sometimes I get nervous to say no and set a boundary. I feel pressured to give a response in real time. Often when I say “yes” to something I wish I had refused, it’s because I panicked in the moment. So try slowing things down to give yourself time and space to truly consider a request and then say no. You may even find that creating space to slow down helps the other person rethink their request, or helps you recognize when things actually are doable.
Slowing down with coworkers or administrators can sound like:
- “Can you tell me more about how you see that fitting in with my other responsibilities?”
- “I’m potentially interested but I’m not sure how that will fit into my current workday. Can we discuss?”
- “I need to check my calendar,” “I need to assess my capacity for that,” “I’d like to consult our contract.”
Slowing down with students can sound like:
- “Let me think about it and I will follow up in class tomorrow.”
- “Thanks for asking me about this. Let me check with the principal and I will give you an update at the end of the week.”
After you slow things down, remember to follow up with your “no.” Pushing off conversations indefinitely isn’t helpful, so make sure to close the loop with clarity.
Boundaries aren’t necessarily just saying “no, I can’t do that.” They sometimes require us to also say “but this is who can.” Seeing yourself as a bridge-builder can help you say no, especially when you walk across those bridges alongside students.
To create the conditions for a bridge-building “no,” understand who is in your students’ “village.” What are the resources within your school and in the community? Who are the support people in your students’ lives? Do your homework ahead of time so that you feel more prepared in the moment to set boundaries and build those bridges.
Similarly, understand the roles of yourself and your colleagues. If you’re not sure about the difference between the role of the counselor and the social worker in your building, ask! If roles have gotten fuzzy on leadership teams or PLCs, put some conversation time on your next agenda to suss it out. When you know who’s in the village, you can feel more confident in calling in those connections to support students and teachers.
Bridge-building with coworkers and administrators can sound like:
- “That doesn’t fit within my current role. It sounds like a good fit for _____ to take on in their role, however.”
- “It sounds like you’re asking me to create X resource. I wonder if something like that has already been created by XYZ Community Group so we don’t have to reinvent it.”
- “I appreciate you thinking of me for this, but I don’t have the right training/expertise. Can I loop ___ into this conversation so they can help you find the next step?”
Bridge-building with students can sound like:
- “I want to help you get support but I’m not the right person for this conversation. Let me introduce you to…”
- “I’m so grateful that you trusted me to share this. I have to tell you that I can’t give you the support you need, but I will help connect you to…”
The biggest pushback I get when I suggest bridge-building is when teachers say, “that’s well and good, but what if there actually is no one else to take this on?” This is a legitimate concern. For example, many schools actually don’t have enough counselors or social workers to meet student needs. At the same time, just because someone else can’t do it doesn’t mean you should. And indeed, sometimes when we take on work outside of our role, expertise, or training, we can give a false sense that the community has the resources to meet the need, or worse, we can do harm by stepping into work that’s not ours to do. Tawwab writes, “The more you appear to handle, the more work you’ll be expected to handle.” Be honest about the limits of your role, and if possible, push back with a group of colleagues for more fair working conditions and workloads.
Try it out
Boundaries take time and effort to put into place and to sustain. Practice saying no to low-stakes things first: what does it feel like to say no to someone offering you food, or to say “I’d rather not talk about that right now,” or to step away from a venting session that’s stressing you out? Notice how you feel and use that awareness to help you with larger boundary-setting moments. You may also find it helpful to rehearse or role-play boundary-setting with a trusted friend or colleague. This is a skill like any other; don’t get discouraged if you struggle at first.
And remember that boundaries require follow-through. It would be lovely if we were able to say “no” once and then never have to address something again, but sadly that’s not how it works. Recognize that boundaries require consistent communication. Treat yourself gently as you practice this, and celebrate small wins when you or others around you successfully set boundaries.
Solving my skipping-lunch problem didn’t happen in a day. I had to let go of my ego a little bit and recognize there were others who could help. I had to learn to delegate. I had to learn to discern what was truly urgent and what just felt urgent. This work was all worth it, though. I am a better leader when I’m taking care of my body and prioritizing self-care, and the leadership of those around me flourished when I stopped trying to be the only problem-solver. As you go through your school year, I hope that saying no allows you to experience true self care and community care, too.