How to Say No to All of Those Stupid Requests (Ep. 026)

We do so many superfluous things as art teachers–what can we get rid of? Tim and Andrew talk about the best ways to turn down requests when necessary and to focus on what we need to do to be great teachers. They discuss dealing with the politics of your building (8:15), focusing on your passions in teaching (11:15), and the best way to deal when you NEED to say yes (14:30). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teacher. This show is produced by The Are Of Education and I’m your host Tim Bogatz. There are a lot of wonderful things that come with being an art teacher, probably too many to mention. There are a few things that we’d rather not deal with as well, and even though we try not to dwell on those too much there is one that I want to talk about today, and how we get through it, those stupid requests that we get far too often. Whether from administrators, other teachers, students, parents, it almost seems like a job requirement to have to deal with requests for our time, our energy, our budget, our supplies, and who knows what else. Why do we get all of these requests? Do people think that our art supplies are there for everyone to take? Do people think that we don’t do anything during class so we have time to make their posters for them or do their projects for them?

There are so many terrible requests that come our way and we really need to find a good way to deal with them, and also find a good way to stand up for ourselves, show that we need our supplies, we have a curriculum that we have to teach, our time is valuable. Thinking that you’re a bad person for saying no is never the right attitude. It’s a symptom of what people like to call the disease to please, because saying yes when you need to say no causes burnout.

You do yourself and you do the person making the request a disservice by saying yes all of the time. If you’re too busy, if you’re overwhelmed, if you’re burnt out, you’re not going to be doing your best work, and that goes for both what’s happening in your classroom and what’s happening with request that you’re trying to fulfill. The people that are asking are not going to be happy with what they receive from you and at that point you both lose. Maybe that’s okay sometimes but in the long term it can really be damaging to your relationships. It’s better to just say no at the beginning.

We’ll talk today about some of the ways to do that. I talked at the Art Ed Now conference this summer about how we need to say no to all of the extras, all the things that don’t really matter, those things that we’re just doing to be nice. Instead we need to focus on what we’re passionate about, what we do best in the class room. That focus and that passion will be what helps our students find success. It’s okay to follow that passion and keep that focus because think about it this way, are you going to be a better teacher when you’re paying attention to what you want to do and what you love to do, or are you going to be a better teacher when you’re spending all of your time fulfilling requests from eight different directions. It’s better to focus on what you do and what you do best. It’s better for you, it’s better for your students.

Andrew has also written about this topic on the AOE website. He has an article titled, Why Saying No More Often Can Make You a Better Teacher. It’s worth reading and we’ll definitely make sure to set up a link in the show notes. One point in makes in the article is that for everything we do there’s something else that we can’t do. We need to keep our priorities straight. Andrew’s really bad at this himself so I probably need to ask him why he can’t seem to follow his own advice.

Before he comes on I do want to tell you one last thing. I know a lot of teachers are listening to this episode because they’re saying yes too often and that’s leading to a lot of burn out. One thing that you can do, one course that really helps from AOE, it helps you discover your creativity, your passion. It’s called Creativity in Crisis. It’s all about finding who you are as a teacher, as an artist and as a creative person. So many people who take that class talk about how it saves them from that burn out and helps them really rediscover what they love about teaching. It helps them love what they do again. I want you to listen to this from a teacher who just participated in the July class.

They said, “The activities, readings, videos and discussion with all of you wonderful educators has rekindled my desire and will continue on with this profession. I’ve lost hope before and this was a wonderful way to regain it. It’s been a breath of fresh air for me and I look forward to the coming school year with anticipation rather than anxiety.” That’s a pretty powerful quote and it really does show what you can gain from this course. If that sounds like something that would help you go to and check out creativity in crisis. It’s a five week, three credit hour class that start the first of every month. It is a great way to rekindle that passion.

But enough from me, let’s bring on Mr. Always-say-yes-to-everything-that-comes-my-way, Andrew McCormick. We are going to start the show here with a little bit of role-playing. I’m going to take the role of an administrator or a colleague, or a community member, or anybody else who asks for stuff.

Andrew: Okay.

Tim: You take the role of the resolute art teacher who’s trying to say no to all of these stupid requests that we always get. Are you ready for that?

Andrew: I think I’m ready, I think I can do it. I might have to … What’s that song? The Megan Trainor song? I’ll have to channel my inner diva here, my name is No. Get ready for this.

Tim: Let’s see how we do. Can you and your students create a mural for the cafeteria? We can pay you with free school food for the next two weeks.

Andrew: No.

Tim: Okay. We need to spend all of our budget on other stuff for the classroom so can you use your art budget to buy art supplies for our classrooms?

Andrew: Heck no. No.

Tim: Okay. I’m sorry to walk in during the middle of your instructional time but my teacher didn’t plan ahead at all and we need boxes and paper and clay and paint brushes for our diorama project that we’re starting right now. Can we have all of that?

Andrew: No, I’m sorry this is not a Walmart. No. Best of luck to you, but no.

Tim: Now, since I’m an administrator I can afford a much nicer house than you but I don’t want to pay for the artwork to decorate it, also I can’t pay you personally but I would really appreciate it if you made a four foot by six foot canvas for above the headboard on the bed in my fifth bedroom, can you have that done by next week?

Andrew: No. I may be able to direct you to some people who are way worse off than I am, but me personally no, sorry.

Tim: Okay, and then lastly, I saw this super cool thing on Etsy but I think twenty dollars is way too much to pay for a handmade necklace. Could you copy it exactly for me before my dinner party in two days?

Andrew: Actually I think twenty dollars sounds more than reasonable for a handmade good. I think you should go ahead and pay that artist. No, I won’t do it for you.

Tim: See? Good, it’s so easy to say no, but we’re pressured with all of those things. Here’s my question for you, how do you say no to all of those things without coming across as a jerk?

Andrew: First off I’ve got to say, I think this episode could be subtitled as, do as I say and not as I do, because I rarely say no to people.

Tim: Man, Andrew …

Andrew: Well, I’ve gotten better over the last couple of years, so I can talk about some ways that I’ve done. One of the things I think as you’ve been in a building for a while, you kind of know if I say yes to this, and maybe this sounds really political but, this is going to gain me X, Y and Z, good graces, good favors, it’s just nice. Also you weigh, that’s really not that hard, I can totally do that. There are plenty of times where I will say yes to things and I’ll do it. There are also some tricks on how to say yes but you personally do it, and I can get into that in a second.

Just be honest with people, I just say, “Boy, I would totally loan you all the red paint that you didn’t plan for your lava dioramas, but unfortunately I only have two bottles left for the whole rest of the year. I’m really sorry I can’t do that.” I think if you’re honest and polite, and you give a little bit more than just a hard no, people can respect that. You know what teachers you see eye to eye with, and they understand.

Tim: Do you feel like you have to explain things though? Do you have to say, “I can’t do it because this.” Don’t you think you should be able to be like, “That’s ridiculous, no.”

Andrew: You know, I think in an ideal world where we really appreciate and support the arts of course, but then I also think those propositions probably wouldn’t even come up because people would realize like, “Wow, this is kind of ridiculous that I’m even asking this person to drop everything they’re doing in the middle of instruction to do this.” I do actually find myself having to explain and that’s just part of not coming across as a jerk. You don’t just say, “No, get the heck out of here,” but it’s like, “No, I’m really busy with the curriculum I’ve already planned right now, I’m sorry, but next time maybe if you gave me more than a one day notice that might be something we could integrate into what we’re doing.”

You do have to sugarcoat your nose sometimes unfortunately. Here’s the other trick, boy this is really meta right here. If you say yes to a lot of stuff and then don’t do a good job or don’t deliver, people stop asking you because they’re like, “He says yes but then he never gets the stuff done so I’m going to stop asking that guy.” It’s amazing, after a year of that you don’t get ask for stuff anymore.

Tim: Yeah, I don’t know if you want that reputation though as the guy who does all the crappy work.

Andrew: It depend on how much I like you or not. If you’re my administrator and we’re on good terms I’m going to help out, but if you’re not very pleasant to me, “Oh sure I’ll do that,” wink wink, nudge nudge, and then I don’t do it. They won’t be asking me again for that.

Tim: All right, I don’t even know where to go after that. You can keep on polishing that stellar reputation.

Andrew: I will, I will.

Tim: One of the things I talked about during the Art Ed Now conference is if you have a specific thing that you’re doing, a specific passion or a specific purpose as far as what you’re doing for the art room that’s the default no to all of these things where people will be like, “Hey, can you help me with this?” You can always say, “I’d love to but we’re really busy doing this printmaking project,” or, “We’re just about to start this painting project.”

If you can turn it back to your curriculum and say, “We’re too busy because we’re doing these awesome things,” then I feel like that is a good way to, I don’t if it’s necessarily to get out of things, but I feel like that’s a good way to shut those requests down and show everybody, “Hey, we’re doing this seriously and we have some very important things that we’re doing in our class.” You kind of touched on this but I’ll have you elaborate a little bit more, do you think we get a lot of these requests because people think that in art class we’re not doing things as seriously, our curriculum is not as important?

Andrew: Yeah, I think that is the basis of it, but I don’t even think it’s as personal as your teachers are asking you because they think your curriculum is not very good, it’s a general societal lack of appreciation for the arts in general. They think it’s just fun time, it’s not very serious, it’s a blow off class, it’s underwater basket weaving. It’s not a personal thing. I can say, I’ve taught at every level from high school, middle school to elementary, I feel like the past eight years or so being a high school and middle school teacher, I really didn’t get a whole lot of that.

The things I got asked to do where very sincere, like, “Hey, can you help us out? We need an ungodly amount of blue construction paper that we didn’t plan on.” If I can help out I’m going to help out, but I do feel when I was an elementary teacher there was an underlying lack of respect of the arts in general that was, “We have to go on a field trip, we can miss art, it’s just art,” or, “We can take the kids away from this,” or, “Ask the art teacher to this, because it’s just the art class. Really it’s just the class that we, the real teachers, can have our prep time.” I think as an elementary teacher, any teacher that’s in that situation, it takes time to build up and show that you have a legitimate curriculum and program. That stuff starts to die out, I think I got that initially early on and by the time I was done being an elementary teacher people knew that I was an integral part of the whole school and district’s mission of innovation, creativity, intelligence and all that stuff.

Tim: Yeah. Like you said, I think it is a tough battle to fight to get that reputation as being, like you said, an integral part of those things, but with enough effort I think it comes quite a ways with that. Do you think that maybe on that journey to being respected and being well thought of, do we need to say yes sometimes?

Andrew: Yeah. I do think that there are times where saying yes, it’s good, it’s important. I actually love doing murals. I think murals are a really great thing. Now there’s a difference between you doing the mural, or having plenty of time ahead of time to plan into your curriculum that your class is going to do a mural. When you can turn it into a viable and relevant piece of your curriculum, I think saying yes is a win-win. It shows that the arts are an important part of the school, it builds rapport with the administrators and other teachers, it shows what you’re doing is really important. I think it’s a teacher by teacher, case by case thing, to weight all the different factors of, “When can I say yes? When can I say no?”

One of the bits of advice I always give young teachers is always say no. If your kids ask you anything, no. If you don’t know the answer the answer is no. When a teacher comes to you and says, “You know the former art teacher used to do the holiday performance. They would do-” “No, I don’t do that. I don’t know how to do that, I’m sorry.” You can play dumb and you can say you have no experience in that, and then you can build up from there I think.

Tim: Yeah, I think so. Just to clarify for our listeners, Andrew is, correct me if I’m wrong, giving you permission to say no to all of these things.

Andrew: You can totally say no but every once in a while, you weigh it in and sometimes it is okay to say yes. I would say for me, this last year, and I told you off the top I’m working on this, I’d say I was a seventy/thirty no, seventy percent of the time it’s like, “No, I’m sorry I can’t do that.” Then there were things where it’s like, you know what, it’s going to be easy for me to do, it’s going to be a win-win where it benefits my students and the school and everything.

Another thing that I like to do, a trick where I can say yes but not put more on my plate, is I’ve been doing a lot with graphic design, so as teachers want a flyer made or this done or a logo created for their after school, whatever, whatever. They say, “Can you make this for us?” I’ll say, “I can’t do that because I’m really busy, but I have a handful of really gifted students who are actually done and ahead of schedule. I bet they would love to work on this for you,” and that’s been really beneficial. That’s a little trick where it’s still getting done but it’s getting done by students who are hungry for extra opportunities.

Tim: Yeah, that’s a good one, I like that. Maybe we should qualify our answer and say, we can say yes to the requests that are worthwhile and say no to the really stupid ones.

Andrew: Say no to the majority of the stuff but find those gems to say yes to.

Tim: All right, sounds good. Okay, let’s close it out here with one last question for you. Speaking of all those stupid requests, what is the worst thing that somebody has asked you to do?

Andrew: It sounded really cool but it was way out of my league and I had to say no. This is a lady I think highly of and she’s awesome, a community person. She emailed me and she’s like, “Hey, I think it would be great if you and your students could design the entire downtown holiday explosion, Santa coming to town with ice sculptures and flames and fireworks.” It’s like, “Wow, that’s way beyond my … ”

Tim: Let me just grab our chainsaws real quick.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, let’s get a bunch of thirteen and fourteen year olds with chainsaws and pyrotechnic licenses and we’ll make a great holiday fiesta here. I had to politely say, “I’m really too busy to take that on right now.”

Tim: Yeah, that’s probably for the best.

Andrew: Yeah, right.

Tim: Cool. All right, that is a good story for us to close on. Thank you so much, good talking to you as always. We’ll do it again soon.

Andrew: All right, see you later man. Bye.

Tim: Bye, thanks. You can see a difference there between Andrew and myself when it comes to these types of requests and these types of things that people ask us. I’m very hard lined saying, “No, I can’t do that,” “No, we’re too busy with this project,” “No, my kids are way too into this.” Maybe I’m mean, maybe I’m the curmudgeon that Andrew always talks about me being. He’s a little bit nicer, he’s a little bit more accommodating. I love his point about making it work for him and his curriculum. If you can do that I think it’s worthwhile, but more than anything it’s important for you and for every teacher really to do your best with the time that you have. When you’re worried about making posters or giving up your supplies or losing your instructional time, you’re not going to be at your best and your kids deserve you at your best. It really is okay to say no.

How you approach that rejection can be important, as we said you don’t want to come across as a jerk or not being a team player, but if you can emphasize how into your curriculum you are, or how involved you are with your next lesson, that’s probably the best way to go. If you want to be like and Andrew and incorporate that request into your curriculum and actually say yes, that’s even better, but sometimes you just need to say no, and it’s okay to do that. It’s okay to say, “I just don’t have the extra time to do that right now. I’m sorry.” I’m going to repeat that for those of you that are still feeling bad or feeling guilty about not doing everything for everyone, it’s okay to say no. If you have a reason for saying no, that’s awesome. If you don’t, that’s awesome too. It really doesn’t matter, like I said you need to do what works for you, what works for your students, so that you can be at your best. If that requires you to say no to the things that come across your desk, make sure you say no.

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