Why Saying No is the Best Answer Yet (Ep. 082)

For everything you say yes to, you have to say no to something else. What are you willing to give up, and is it worth your students’ instructional time? In this episode, Cassie talks about her decision making when it comes to all the extras, including her thoughts on art contests, fundraisers, and what she chooses to do instead in her classroom.  Full episode transcript below.

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Cassie: Okay. Full disclosure. It is a rare occasion when I check my school email. I know, I’m the worst. It’s really bad. It’s so bad, in fact that thankfully my specials team, they have my back. They come down to my room every morning, grab a cup of coffee and they’ll say … they always start every sentence with, “I know you didn’t check your email, but you might want to know that second grade’s on a field trip today.” “I know you didn’t check your email, but we do have a faculty meeting this afternoon.”

In fact, it’s gotten so wackadoo that even my admin will come down to my room and say, “I know you didn’t check your email, but your evaluations coming up and I really need your lesson plan.” Let me just tell you this. I’m not going to spend an entire podcast to telling you all about why I don’t check my email, but just a little side note.

I don’t recommend not checking your email but I will tell you that the one beautiful benefit of it is that ignorance is bliss and the amount of work that I might kind of wiggle myself out of by not checking my email is kind of amazing, but that is completely unprofessional and I don’t recommend that you do it.

Yes I do. I totally do. Anyway, I am starting this podcast telling you this because I happened to peek at some of my emails last week and then I was immediately smacked in the face, reminded why I don’t. I had a couple of emails from the art teachers in my district whom I love, talking about at least three y’all. Three separate completely different art shows that our district is asking us to participate in. Three. Not to mention the email I got from my own mom asking me if I had gotten word of the Doodle for Google contest.

I also had several other messages and even in my real for realsies mailbox there were several flyers about art contests for kids and different art shows and then of course there’s always the fundraiser emails. I don’t know what it was, but I remember closing my laptop with a snap and leaving school quickly pretending I hadn’t seen a thing.

Can they actually tell if you’ve seen an email? I need to figure that out. Regardless, I know you’re probably like me. Swamped with requests for art shows, big and small, contests, fundraisers, what do we say yes to? What do we say no to and how do we sleep at night having said no to some of these things? Let me tell you, just gonna like blow the whole podcast and ruin it right here for you. Saying no is the best answer yet. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m Cassie Stephens.

I’m going to throw a little disclaimer out there before I get too deep into this podcast. If you are a first year teacher, I’d even go as far to say if you are a second or third year teacher, I know you feel obligated to say yes to everything. You’re green, you’re new, you’re just figuring things out and you’re wanting to make everybody happy.

So when you get an email about a contest or a fundraiser, an art show, your knee jerk reaction is to say yes, but let’s be honest, you’re just struggling to make it to the end of the day. It’s my 20th year teaching. I’m struggling to make it to the end of the day, but in your first handful of years you really are and you should really focus on that, on becoming the best teacher that you can be in the setting and in the situation with your students and try really hard not to just get distracted by things like art shows, contests and fundraisers.

I just wanted to throw that out there because as I’m talking about all this today, I don’t want you green, brand new, shiny art teachers to feel obligated to do everything because it’s always those sweet, brand new teachers that do feel that way and then burn themselves out pretty quickly.

I speak from experience. Listen to your Mama Cass. So let’s say that you are a more seasoned art teacher like myself, and your inbox is filled with art shows, contests and fundraisers. What do you do? I mean, they all sound so great, but you can’t do them all. So here’s what I recommend you do. Ask yourself some questions and really think hard about this. If it even helps to grab a sheet of paper and an ink pen just to write down a couple of things I would recommend doing so. I’m a big lister.

I love to write things out. I have sketchbooks, notebooks, piles of useless pieces of paper in my purse with written notes, all about things that I’m trying to work out mentally. Ask yourself this, is this worth my time? And I’m being really selfish right now. I’m not talking about your time necessarily as a teacher in the art room. I’m talking about your personal time, because you’re going to have to give up something if you say yes to doing a fundraiser.

That’s the biggest time suck right there. Fundraisers. All of the hours that you have to put into preparing the students, preparing the artwork, getting it labeled, getting it boxed up, shipping it out, dealing with orders if it’s something that you’re doing and then having it all delivered back and passing it out. I mean, I’m getting tired just talking about it. So think about this. Is it worth your time?

What are you willing to give up in your day and in your personal time to make something like this happen? Is it worth your students instructional time? That’s a big question for me, especially when it comes to contests. My first school where I taught at, my principal, whenever he would get a contest for posters or Arbor Day, Earth Day, whatever, he would just stick them in my mailbox.

I think he was just doing that because he thought it might be something I would be interested in. I took it to mean it was something I was obligated to do. Next thing you know, I was kind of like scooting my curriculum aside and building my lessons around these contests. When I went to my current school, my principal told me, during like a … as soon as I got hired, we don’t do contests. I don’t believe in contests.

And I loved her philosophy on it. Her belief behind it was, is that what might lift up a small portion of kids, think what it does to the ego of all of the other kids who participated. Sure, one kid may win the contest and that kid might feel really good about it and that’s wonderful, but how will all of the other kids who put in a lot of effort and a lot of thought, how will they feel?

So is it worth your students instructional time and if you want to, if you want to present a contest to your students, why not present to them as something that they can do on their own? If you wanted to do, let’s say Doodle for Google, why not just tell them about it? Get them excited about it. Let them do it on their own time. You could even provide the supplies for them.

But for me, in my situation with my students, I’m not willing, and this is just me speaking, I’m not willing to give up my kids’ instructional time. I’m not willing to give up my personal time to make these things happen. And my biggest issue with contests, I’m still mostly just chatting about contests here, is the blow to the ego like I was mentioning before, just to lift up a small portion of kids or one kid and have the other kids not feel so great about themselves.

When I was in elementary school, I remember we did contests, coloring contests were like the thing in the 80s. Just any kind of contest. We did them a lot and I never won and I hated that. I hated that feeling and I just thought, why? What’s wrong with me? I tried my hardest. I thought my artwork look great. I thought it looked better than so and so’s. Why wasn’t I picked and that, I mean it didn’t make it so I didn’t continue to pursue art, but it definitely was a blow to my ego.

Not only does this apply to contests, but a lot of the art shows that I’m asked to do within my district, I can think of nearly half a dozen art shows that I do that I’m asked to do in my district. One art shows that I do with a local art museum where I’m asked to pick 10 works of art out of the 350 students in my school. Another is to pick 25 works of art to send to our central office to put on display. Another one is to pick one work of art to send to the local library. There’s one for the community where I’m also supposed to pick just a half a dozen works of art to send off and then there’s a summer thing.

Yeah. This is nearly half a dozen. I just counted five. There’s a summer art show where I’m supposed to select just a handful of works of art to go on display. These contests drive me bananas. Or they’re not even contest. They’re art shows, but essentially what they sound like to me is a contest. I only, out of that five, I only do two of those, both of which are pretty much required by my school district.

I want to support our local art museum in Nashville. The Frist Center for Visual Arts, actually they’ve changed their name, Frist Museum. So, of course, we’ve always participated in that. That’s required of me. I’m not thrilled about that. I’m going to speak frankly, simply because I can only pick 10 of my students and my students know that, that art show is a big deal. It’s a big deal to have your artwork in an art museum.

So it’s a pretty big deal to 340 kids who don’t get picked. I mean, I’m getting like emotional about it. That’s not fair. Then we have the local central office art show, where I’m supposed to select 25 works of art. And because I know how disappointed my kids feel when their artwork doesn’t go to the local art museum. I try not to make too big of a deal out of having their artwork sent to these places.

And then the other thing that I do to lift up those kids, to kind of make them forget that their artwork hasn’t been put on display in these other showcases, will say, is we have a huge end of the year art show. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

So when you get these emails, get these requests for art shows and contests and fundraisers, really stop and think, is it worth your time? Is it worth your kids’ instructional time? And is it worth lifting up just a handful of kids and not being able to lift up all of the kids?

I mean, that’s our job. So with that in mind, I unapologetically say no to a lot of things. I said no to three of those local art shows. in my district. And when I did, I went to my admin and I said, “You know what? We will not be participating in these three art shows.” And actually I think it’s four, I just thought of another one that’s required, not required, but requested of me by my district. And I just said, “We’re not doing these four art shows. I’m letting you know that I’ve already responded to the email with a “No, thank you for asking. We’re going to politely decline the offer.”

And I explained to her why. Now, I’ve worked at my school for 15 years. I have a really great relationship with my administration and she understands that, I’ve made this decision with a lot of thought behind it. That might not be your situation. You might be feeling a lot of pressure from parents, from PTO, from your administration. And if that’s the case, then you need to request kind of a sit down because they’re just not getting it.

They don’t understand why you’re there. If they think that you are there to enter contests and raise money for the schools, then hello. They need a reality check and you need to be delivering it. Now you don’t have to be ugly, but you need to go in with your standards. Go in very professionally and let them know that this is not required of me by my state standards.

Not to mention that if I teach this, I will have to give up the curriculum that I’m required to teach. So make sure that if you’re going to say no and you don’t have a relationship like I do, where you just waltz in your principal’s office and say, “Hey, we’re not doing X, Y, Z.” If you don’t have that kind of relationship, then you might want to make sure that you have all your ducks in a row and your support and support by the curriculum that you are required to teach.

So, now what do I do instead? Well, aside from sit around with my feet up and drink coffee, I do, do a couple of art shows and I actually do a fundraiser. So I know in a podcast a while ago, about a year ago, I chatted with you about how I do my art show. It’s a giant event. We’re going to change it up a little bit this year just because I’m looking to do something a little differently.

I’m going to give you kind of a break down of it here, but I thought I’d go into more detail in a future podcast about it, but essentially, like I said earlier, I don’t know if you caught it, but I teach at a small school. I’m really fortunate in that I teach at a small school, kindergarten through fourth grade. We have about four classes per grade level and I have not quite 350 kids.

I know some of you guys are sitting with a thousand students or more and you’re just like, “Holy cow Stephens. Why aren’t you doing every art show and fundraiser? You have only 350 students.” But the art show that we do, because I have such a small amount of students is pretty big. We’ve done art shows ever since I’ve been at my school for the last 15 years.

It was established before I got there, so when I was getting hired for the job, I of course agreed to do it. It was an overwhelming task my first couple of years because I took on everything myself, but now I have it down to a little kind of sort of bit of a science that requires the help of some amazing moms. But our school wide art show is this. We put on display every work of art that every child has made throughout the course of the year.

The other day at school, I was just kind of laying … we have it in May, so I have some time, but the other day at school I was just kind of laying out all of my students artwork in kindergarten, just making piles of their projects, so I can just kind of see how much artwork, what’s the girth of the artwork that we’re dealing with here.

My kindergartners have already made at least six big completed, beautiful masterpieces. So six times 20 per class. That’s a lot of artwork that’s going to be hung. That’s what we put on display outside of every single classroom teacher’s door. So for let’s say Mrs. Baker’s kindergarten class, might help our mom’s hang up all of the artwork that her class has created this year, right outside of her door. That way on the night of the art show, my students know exactly where to find their artwork because it’s on display right outside their teacher’s door, right outside their classroom.

Not only that, but we usually start hanging things about two weeks before the art show. So the kids have had a good amount of time to see their artwork on display and find it. So when it comes to the night of, there’s no question where their artwork is. Oh, there is questions, there’s always questions. “Hey, where’s my fish picture at?”

There’s 350. I don’t know where your fish is. You go look for it. When it comes to their clay display, we usually start clay right about after spring break because I like to live life dangerously and cram it right until the very end. And when I do clay, we always come up with a theme for our clay projects and then our art show is based around that theme. And those clay projects are then displayed in my art room. Here’s the beauty of our art show. My administration always gives me the day of the art show off.

I don’t have classes that day, so I have the entire day to make sure all the artwork is hung and all the three dimensional clay displays and anything else three dimensional that’s in my room, for our theme, is on display.

The other art show that we do is the one in the winter and we do it with the Artome Fundraiser. Art. O. Me. I’m not a spokesperson for Artome. It’s just one that we’ve used the last three years and we’ve had great success with it. There’s, in a nutshell, what we do instead at my school. Those are the things that I feel like I can pour … take all of the time that I would have spent doing these little tiny, piddly little art shows that only benefit a small amount of kids and doing something that can really lift up my entire school. When I do those big art shows, I make sure to let everybody know about it.

We invite the community. We have free ice cream. We invite the superintendent and everybody over at central office. I call the local newspapers, if I have a moment to think about it. I’ve even reached out before to news crews. I mean get the word out because that’s your advocacy right there.

And again, first through third year teachers, you just like go to some, go to your friends’ art shows, go to your … find art teachers in your district or nearby who are having art shows and definitely go to them and just soak it all up, take it all in, take lots of notes, take tons of pictures, but don’t feel like that’s something that you have to do.

When you’re thinking about fundraisers and art shows and contests. Think about providing … what’s going to provide all of your students an opportunity to shine? What’s going to give your kids a chance to know that they are all valued, all of them and what they create is important and cherished by you, their art teacher, by their parents, by the faculty, by the staff and by their family? What’s going to do that?

And that is where your time will be most well spent, so never feel like you have to say yes to everything when it doesn’t reach that goal of uplifting each and every one of your students.

Tim: Hello, this is Tim Bogatz from Art Ed Radio. This week I want to talk to you about Art Ed Pro, the essential subscription service for professional art teachers.

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Make sure you check it out and start your free trial, the art of Now let me turn it back over to Cassie so she can finish out the show.

Cassie: And now it’s time to take a little dip into the mailbag. Okay, this first question is giving me life. It’s from Anna and she says, “Thank you for inspiring me to get off my butt, take some risks and make some mistakes and start creating my own clothing so I can wear happiness.” How awesome is that? Ah, this brings me so much joy.

It is something she says, “That I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I was just too chicken.” Remember we were talking about that on a recent podcast. Sometimes you just got to do it. Trust me. This is my pep talk every single day. I still have so many things on my bucket list that I’m just afraid to try. So I’m right there with you Anna. I’m glad that you’re going for it. She says, “I just have a quick question about petticoats.” Don’t we all?

She said, “Do you wear them with all of your skirts or only circle skirts and are they all the same length and how many layers?” Okay, gentlemen, I am so sorry that you have to hear this question, but I love this question.

So we’re going to talk petticoats for a minute, but before we get too deep into the petticoat combo, I have to tell you what happened to me the other day when I was doing bus duty. Trust me, there is a petticoat tie in. I’m standing at bus duty and I have my little line of kindergartners right in front of me and my littlest, teeniest, tiniest kindergartner, his name is Pierce. I love him to bits and pieces. He is standing at the front of my line, right in front of me, but I’m not looking at him because I’m looking off in the distance, got my head over the shoulder, just kind of checking out the scene, trying to figure out what’s going on with bus duty.

When all of a sudden I hear a bunch of kids go, “Oh.” And I feel a draft. I turned back around and my man Pierce, whose teeny tiny, has lifted my skirt all the way up over his head. Y’all, he’s vanished under my skirt. And I quickly push my skirt down and I say, “What are you doing?” And he said, “I was just looking at the skirt that you have under your skirt. What is that skirt that you have under your skirt?” Oh Mylanta.

Thankfully I was wearing a petticoat, which essentially just looks like a skirt under a skirt, but I don’t think that everybody needed to know or see that. So that’s my little petticoat story for you. Anyway, where do I get my petticoats from? Amazon, I have found is the cheapest place to buy them. You can usually find them also in the Halloween section of stores and I usually get the ones, I think they’re are about 20 inches, 20 to 24 inches in length.

You can get them under 20 bucks on Amazon. They deflate, meaning they’re not going to stay nice and poofy for very long. So that’s why often times you’ll see that when I’m wearing one, I’m wearing a couple underneath. I just kind of pull a couple of petticoats on underneath my skirt. They add a lot of nice warmth, which is really great in the wintertime.

What else was I going to say about them? Do I only wear them under circle skirts? If you don’t know what a circle skirt is, it’s literally a skirt that if you sat down, it makes a circle around you. And those are super fun to make. I put petticoats on underneath any skirt that has a little bit of fullness. So if it’s a gathered skirt or a circle skirt, those work the best. If it’s a skirt that is like a pencil skirt, obviously that’s going to look ridiculous or anything that does not have a lot of flow to it.

Just, you know what you should do. Just put a petticoat underneath it. If it looks good, wear it. If it don’t, don’t wear it. If you’re petticoat is too long … I kind of like it when it sticks out a little bit, but if it is too long, here’s my little bit of advice. Roll it at the waistline. That’s right. Just roll that little skirt up.

Gentlemen, aren’t you so glad that she asked that question and I thank you. I loved it. My next question comes from Julie. She says that she is wanting to make my pencil sculpture project and she’s wondering what material we used for the ferrule of the pencil? The ferrule of a pencil, I believe I’m pronouncing that correctly, is the little metal part on a pencil that keeps the eraser connected to the pencil.

And in my pencil sculpture project, you simply use a toilet paper tube, one of those snow cone cones to go on top to make the point of the pencil and then you wrap the whole thing in plaster or paper mache. It literally looks like a pencil. I did it with my first graders last year. So y’all first grade can do it. Anybody can do it. When it dried, they painted it. When it was done painted, they used metal for the ferrule.

I love every year to purchase a roll of metal. It’s like metal tooling metal. It’s thicker. It’s a thicker gauge than aluminum foil. Quite a bit thicker. It can be cut with scissors. But I usually cut it on my paper cutter. And they draw designs on that with a piece of foam core underneath. So it gives a little bit of a cushion and they use a very dull pencil to create the designs. So look in your favorite art supply catalog for metal tooling metal and get yourself a roll of the … it doesn’t have to be the thick gauge. Get the thinnest gauge stuff cause it will be the cheapest. Great question Julie. And then to attach it. I just use hot glue.

And my last question is about print making. This one comes from Hannah And she’s wondering about a radial design printmaking lesson that’s on my blog. I did it with fourth graders. They had a cardboard pizza circle. They put sticker backed stickers on the circle to create a radial design and then they printed it.

It’s a very similar project to what I just did with my kindergarten students. She’s wanting to know if she should use a rubber brayer or a sponge one. Great question. So in the project that I initially did with my fourth graders, we used a rubber brayer and the kindergarten, the project I just sit with my kindergartners, we used a sponge brayer. The sponge brayer works with tempera paint. Works way, way better.

Here was the problem with the rubber brayer and with that we used ink. The circle was so big it took a long time for the kids to roll ink on the whole thing. By the time they got around to pressing their paper on top of it and pulling the print, sometimes the ink had dried.

With the paint and the sponge, the sponge brayer delivers a lot more paint to the surface. The paint doesn’t dry as quickly as the ink. The prints turned out a lot better. I get my sponge roller brayer dealios at Home Depot or Lowe’s. I don’t know. They probably sell them in art supply catalogs, but I always seem to need things the night before. Does that sound familiar to you? Please tell me that’s how you live your life.

And there’s a Home Depot literally around the corner and opens at like 6:00 or something. Not that I’m ever there at six. I’m there at like, you know, 10 minutes until 8:00 because school starts at 8:00. So there you have it. If you have a question for me, why don’t you just ask it? You can find me at

When it does come time to do those art shows or those contests where you can only pick a handful of kids, here’s my general rule of thumb because like I said, I’m required to do two of those art shows in my district and when I have to select artwork instead of selecting the “best artwork,” I do a lot of thinking about the student themself. Who needs a little uplifting? Who struggles academically, but tries really hard in art? Who maybe they don’t try really hard in art, but need a little bit of love and need a boost of their self esteem and who would benefit the most emotionally from having their artwork on display in an art museum or in somewhere special or winning a contest? Who’s that really going to change their whole mindset about school, about art, about creating? That is usually when I have to pick, that’s usually what I’m thinking of.

When I’m selecting artwork for the art museum in town, I try really hard to be so fair about that, and if you feel obligated to do these kind of things, I would encourage you to do that too. I mean, at the end of the day, it’s not about your … it’s not your art show. It’s not your art that’s on display.

So you don’t have to worry about what makes you look good. Think about what’s going to do the best for your students, because that’s why you are there and you know that. So I don’t need to tell you what you already know.

I hope you guys have an awesome week and stop checking your email so much. It’s a glorious day.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.