Saying no: advice for setting boundaries

Many people working in education are uncomfortable saying no. Often it’s due to a well-meaning fear of letting people down.

Our advice is: get comfortable saying no! It’s an important tool for self-care in the workplace. This can mean leaning into uncomfortable conversations.

Guides / 4 mins read

Setting realistic expectations has benefits for everyone. The person making the request holds no false expectations. You maintain your professional integrity and avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Who wants to be the person who over-promises and under-delivers?

Although saying no is hard, it’s not impossible or necessarily unreasonable. Remember:

  • Everyone needs between seven and eight hours of sleep each night – make this a non-negotiable.
  • The average teacher is physically present at the school for around eight to nine hours daily, then spends several more hours at home planning and marking. You cannot do it all.
  • You don’t need to agree to anything that sits outside of your usual responsibilities or that will cause you unreasonable stress or physical effort.
  • Saying no to one thing may allow you to say yes to something else. Are you taking on responsibilities that align with your own priorities?

You will eventually need to say no. Remember:

Know your priorities

Write a to-do list. Rank tasks by importance.

‘I will literally be fired if I don't get this done’ is the most important category. Work down from there, to the least important item.

Review it regularly and be aware of how much wiggle room you have for new tasks. You are human, not a robot, and there are some items that might not get done.

Also consider the longer term picture. Work and life demands fluctuate. Be aware of which takes priority for you, right now. There may be periods when work take priority over home or social life, but know that it can’t always be like that.

My plate is full at the moment, but thank you for thinking of me

Be firm but friendly

When someone comes to you with an impossible request:

  • Don’t be dismissive. Really listen to the person’s request and give it due consideration
  • Show that you understand them but paraphrasing their request back to them
  • Maintain open body language and eye contact. Smile if you can!
  • Set your boundaries but don’t over explain
  • Remember that it’s likely this person is stressed out too: be kind

Phrases to use when you really mean no

  • Thank you for considering me for this. Let me check my diary before I commit
  • I can’t realistically commit to this without letting go of some other tasks. Let me discuss with my line manager
  • That time frame won’t be possible for me due to other commitments
  • My plate is full at the moment, but thank you for thinking of me
  • I'm going to take time to fully consider this. I will respond to you when I have an update.
  • I have some concerns. Can we find some time to talk this through?
  • Has anyone else been considered for this?

Be your own cheerleader

Remind yourself of your value and expertise. People likely ask you to take on tasks because you’re good at what you do!

Remind yourself of this next time you feel undervalued by a request.

It gets easier the more you do it

It takes time to get confident saying no.

Can you role-play with a friend or family member? Can you talk it through with a trusted colleague outside of work? You can also try it on yourself in the mirror (we’ve all been there!)

Practice saying no in a respectful but assertive way. It’s an act of self-care.

Remind yourself

  • Your colleagues and administrators have their own lives and their own issues, and are not likely as focused on you as you think
  • Familiarise yourself with the processes at your institution – what things can you be more flexible on and what other things need to be answered immediately? The procedures may inform what you say no to
  • Remember the big picture. Schools in the UK are under significant pressure to prove themselves and to show improvement. Try not to take it personally. The schools are looking at all facets of the system in order to improve, not a specific teacher or department
  • For non-teaching staff (e.g. administrators), it could be helpful to ask what teachers' specific needs are, and see if they can be addressed on a smaller scale/part-time basis

You’re not alone

Your line manager should be your first port of call for managing work load and building confidence with boundaries. But we know life isn’t always that easy.

Our helpline is staffed by qualified counsellor who can coach you through boundary setting at work if you need it: 08000 562 561

Further reading
Here are some additional resources for information and advice:

Written by: Workplace Options (June 2015)

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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