Alex Shevrin Venet stopped eating lunch when she took on a leadership position at her old school. The school leader turned community college teacher—and author of Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education—recalls saying yes to every request that came her way during that time because she was in charge and “every day felt like an emergency,” writes Venet in Unconditional Learning: “Crisis support. Class coverage. Tech troubleshooting. Yes, yes, yes.”

Venet soon realized this wasn’t a sustainable workload and that even relying on the support of her supervisor and colleagues wouldn’t be enough—she needed to set healthy boundaries for herself as well. “Boundaries are how we protect ourselves and others and how we stay centered in our roles,” she writes. “They are one of the best ways to combat burnout.”

It can be daunting to turn down requests from your colleagues and students at school, especially if you haven’t had a lot of practice doing so—and Venet notes that teachers may feel guilty about doing this. She shares a few concrete examples of what to say when you want to say no to colleagues and students in a respectful, productive way.

Just Say It

Saying no can mean literally saying “no” to a task, but it can also include clarifying your role at school or bringing in context for setting a limit.

When saying no to coworkers or administrators, Venet suggests using these phrases:

  • “No, I can’t take that on right now.”
  • “My current role focuses on _____. I don’t have room on my plate for that.”

Phrases to use with students include:

  • “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.”

Take a Pause

Saying no can sometimes be nerve-wracking due to the pressure to respond right away, writes Venet. She recommends slowing things down to give yourself some space to think through a request. “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,” writes Venet.

With coworkers or administrators, consider saying:

  • “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?”

With students, Venet suggests saying:

  • “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.”

Suggest an Alternative

Sometimes the best approach is to say, “No, I can’t do that… but I know who can,” Venet writes. “Seeing yourself as a bridge-builder can help you say no, especially when you walk across those bridges alongside students,” she adds.

With coworkers and administrators, Venet suggesting using this language:

  • “That doesn’t fit within my current role. It sounds like a good fit for _____ to take on in their role, however.”
  • “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 _____.”

There might be pushback when you do this, as Venet points out: “What if there actually is no one else to take this on?” This is a legitimate concern—many schools don’t have enough staff and resources to support their students. But it’s important for teachers to remind themselves that “just because someone else can’t do it doesn’t mean you should,” Venet continues. “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.”

When you begin creating healthy boundaries at school, it takes time and effort to sustain them, and there might be struggles along the way, but when Venet finally figured out how to assess what to take on and what to delegate to others, she found that it was all worth it.

“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,” she writes.

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