What a no can mean

It’s a rainy Saturday morning. Because of the rain, we don’t have baseball or softball today. I already have been to the gym so that I could crush my #FitLeaders goal for the day. After getting home, my wife needed to run an errand. The kids are on the couch watching an episode of The Voice (sorry guys, not really my thing), so I decided to fire up Twitter and see what was going on. I was met with this tweet:

I love Todd Nesloney’s work. Kids Deserve It is one of my favorite books to help me set the course for why I do what I do. But I have to admit, seeing this had me a little worried because I have seen the power that the word no can have in a school. Now, don’t get me wrong here, I know that there’s a time and place where a no is necessary. But I want to share a couple of times, just in the past two weeks, where I could have said no because it would have been the easy decision to make, but I didn’t. And I think that by being deliberate in the decision-making process, we were able to do some things that had really positive impacts for our kids.

On the Thursday after spring break, I received an email from one of our fifth-grade teachers. She had been communicating with a parent who is also a teacher at a neighboring high school. His class was getting ready to do a weather balloon launch, and after some discussion with our teacher, she was going to be able to bring her students along to witness the event. The problem, it’s Thursday afternoon and the launch was the very next Tuesday. For any of you that have been responsible for planning a field trip, you might know what the potential snag would be – transportation! In our district, we are typically asked to give at least a 2 week notice for any field trips in order to allow our transportation to find drivers.

I knew that simply sharing the request with our transportation department would create added work for the person in charge of field trip assignments. This knowledge alone could have made it easy to say no. But then I thought about the potential learning opportunities that this trip would afford our students. So, I contacted our transportation department and made the request. Luckily, we work with an amazing transportation department that works very hard to help make these learning opportunities possible for our students. They were able to get our transportation set up. Two buses would be in front of our school around 9:00 am the morning of the launch.

While we were waiting though, I realized another snag. The trip would be happening on the morning we had scheduled as a 2-hour delay schedule so that all our students and teachers would be able to go through the required practice test for the upcoming ILEARN (our state accountability assessment). Again, it would have been easy to say that because of this, we couldn’t do the field trip. But… as I went back to our primary purpose here – learning and student experiences – it seemed like this was an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up. I talked it over with the teachers and we came up with an alternate plan for their ILEARN practice test. We created permission slips, informed parents of the possible trip, and and made it happen. Our kids had an awesome learning experience! Here are just a few pictures from that day:


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The second example revolves around out ILEARN testing schedule. During the week after spring break, I sat down with the leadership team in my building to look at the test requirements and build an ILEARN schedule that made sense to us and would be the best for our students. Due to the timing of the test, we knew we were going to have to break it up more than we have in the past. We built our initial schedule with our math and science/social studies tests in week 1, and out ELA tests in week 2. I shared the draft with staff and asked for feedback. I didn’t really expect to get much, but all the sudden, several math teachers asked if there was any way to flip-flop the 2 weeks. My gut reaction initially was to say no, but then I started thinking about the feedback I was getting and the reasoning that was being shared. So, I developed an alternative version of the schedule, put them out to the staff side-by-side, and asked for a vote of what the preferred schedule was. By an almost 2-1 margin, the alternative schedule that we developed was the most popular. While I felt that the alternative schedule would drag testing out too long because of some extra make-up days built into the middle, it was what teachers felt was best for students, so it’s the version we went with. It may not seem like something that super innovative, but it allowed the teachers in our building to feel heard, and I can’t tell you how many of our teachers, especially our math teachers, have said thank you for changing the schedule.

So… Back to Todd’s original tweet… I know that there are times that a no is absolutely necessary. That word can’t be avoided at all times. But I also know that there is great power that comes with the word no. If we are trying to lead innovative and transformative learning environments, we are going to have teachers approach us with ideas that feel way outside of the norms of our school. If we give a quick no to innovative ideas, what does it do to the innovative spirit of our teachers?

The problem is that when you say

I’m worried that the simplicity of Todd’s statement about no may give some leaders who are not as comfortable with innovative and transformative learning environments a “free pass” to say no, when maybe a little deeper thought is really what is needed. And in those situations where a no is necessary, make sure that you are deliberate in your thinking, and then take the time to explain the why behind the no. If those innovative teacher leaders understand the why behind the no, then they may be able iterate their idea enough to make it possible to say yes next time.

And I know that not everyone who reads this is a building leader. As a teacher though, you are the leader in your classroom, or you might be a leader in your team, department, hallway, etc. If we want to create learning environments that promote student voice, choice, and agency, we have to keep in mind that as the teacher leader, your no can be just as powerful for your students as any building leader saying no.

So what are your thoughts? Have you been told no about something you were excited/passionate for? How did it make you feel? What did it do to your spirit to try something the next time? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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