Saying “No”: The Biggest New Lesson I’ve Learned About Teaching and Life

Good authors develop their themes through various creative processes designed for easy absorption into the reader’s mind.  If my life were a book, and these past few months were the latest chapter,  the author of my story would be trying to show you the tremendous importance of the ability to say the word, “No”.   It seems a small thing and an even smaller word, but it is essential for life.  It is essential for teaching.

My current role in the school that I teach at is Instructional Aide to the Special Education teacher.  This means that I assist students with special needs throughout the day.  Regularly, I go into five or six separate  classrooms to provide whatever service is required.  It is quite the learning opportunity to observe the same students responding to different teachers and their particular styles.  These three months have taught me many invaluable lessons, but chief among them has everything to do with the thing that distinguishes a good teacher from a bad one.  It has to do with classroom management and respect.    The best teachers understand it, and the others either lack the knowledge, or the fortitude to act.  I am referring to the ability to stand firmly by a proclamation of, “No!”

My favorite classrooms to enter are ones in which I know the teacher will maintain order.  If I understand this, surely the students do as well.  And since I also understand that certain classrooms lack the promise of order, students know this as well.  I have witnessed as structured rooms grow more orderly, and I have witnessed as unstructured rooms grow more chaotic.  Certainly, all (at least most) teachers want a peaceful environment in which to educate, but some get swallowed up in ever increasing noise, disrespect, and misbehavior.

Once again, I have seen clearly the difference maker, and it is the boldness to declare how things must be, and the integrity  to see that things operate according to that standard. Students need to know what is expected of them.  Teachers must communicate their expectations very clearly.  Once this standard is established, students then choose to follow or disobey.  If a teacher has failed in this first step, they must either rely entirely on their imposing presence to ensure order in the classroom, or they will find themselves fighting a losing battle as the students experiment with pushing the boundaries of behavior.  If  the structure is established  successfully, which means the teacher has communicated clearly their expectations for work and behavior, the teacher then has only to stand firmly.  When a student breaks from the structure, the teacher either allows it or corrects it.  If students learn that a teacher can’t stick by their “No”, disorder will likely be the result as more students stray from the standard.  Without an adult to hold the line, immaturity triumphs.

Unfortunately, I’m seeing that it is becoming harder for teachers to stand by their “No”.  I’m sure there are many reasons for this.    Could any of you argue me on the point that we as a people are growing weaker in our ability to say “No” to ourselves?  On the one hand we have more conveniences and freedom through technology (iPods, smartphones, social media etc) which encourage greater selfishness by giving us more direct control of how we interact with the world.  On the other hand we have a culture driven by pleasure, materialism, and a growing acceptance of moral relativism.  If we view the world with no moral absolutes, how can we teach children effectively by standing firmly by our “No”?  If we can’t identify a clear standard of right and wrong for ourselves, how do we expect our children to behave?

If the adults can’t say “No”, if the standard isn’t firmly established and maintained, if there’s no one to hold the line, what results can we expect?

3 thoughts on “Saying “No”: The Biggest New Lesson I’ve Learned About Teaching and Life

  1. Steve

    A profound realization, Dave. I had a professor say that teachers who learn to say “No” early on last longer as teachers. Saying “No” and laying out clear expectations not only benefits the students, but also, benefits the teacher.

  2. myfriendmissmiller

    I love this post. We have a few teachers in our building that SERIOUSLY let their students run around like animals in a zoo. Really though, my 9th graders everyday complain around 1pm because it gets so loud. The teacher doesn’t ask them to sit down or be quiet, she is old and she just keeps going. And the kids don’t listen. I learned the hard way, because I taught in a really rough inner city school my first year. There, kids didn’t RESPOND to you unless you were yelling. Now I am in a different district and teaching ESL kids from other countries, and I’ve found that saying no doesn’t have to be yelling. It’s just about consistency. Once the kids know you’re not going to budge from your plan, they give up trying to push you over the edge.

  3. When I was in grad school, taking Education classes, I read about and discussed the differences between strict teachers and stern teachers. A strict teacher tends more toward authoritarianism and weaves tension into the classroom and instruction. A stern teacher knows what must be done and how the class needs to run in order for the students to benefit the most from instruction.

    It’s interesting to speculate that a teacher’s own moral compass and inner reserve leads to which teaching style he or she utilizes more naturally, and with good result. Thanks for writing about it!

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