Crushed by the ‘No’

A few years back, the director of counseling and I brought in a group of high school leadership students. We tasked the students with developing a student workroom/support center. The only major job I assigned to both myself and the director was that no matter what questions came from the students, we had to start our response with a “yes.”  While the students fired off ideas that ranged from bowling alleys to giant slides, my director and I found we enjoyed the session. With big smiles, we crafted a yes response to every question. The students fed off our positivity and we found their student workrooms were not only were creative, but they became more practical the more we said yes. Through the process, we developed a student work center that serves as a gathering place for all students seeking academic support.

On March 12, I lost the power of yes. That is the day our school district closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I, like many other principals I spoke with, got lost in the distance instruction/learning void. We were buried by the uncertainty of academic requirements, instructional processes, assessments, student mental wellness, and the legal issues that faced building leaders. I found myself answering questions with pat responses such as, “We are waiting for further information,” “We are uncertain at this time,” and, “We will find out more at a later date.” However, too often the response was simply no. The no’s went out to students, parents, teachers, coaches, and counselors. No to coming into the building to use the weight room, no to filming a lab to support student learning, no to hosting meetings with advisories, no to club meetings.

Author and life coach Susie Moore wrote that saying yes leads to more doors, saying no closes a door. In a school where I support innovation among teachers and students—where most have learned that if they ask for something that will improve instruction or student learning, they will find a yes—I was saying no.

I had highly motivated staff members wanting to complete tasks to benefit the school and the response was no.  When I reached out to my central office staff, I often got a no, and that no then flowed right through my organization.

Tony Schwartz called no a fear response. My no’s and many of the ones I received were fear responses. School and political leaders were uncertain of the impact of distance instruction. They were uncertain how to measure success, uncertain about the safety of students in the online environment, and uncertain about the legalities of bringing students and staff back into the buildings. The uncertainty was passed onto building administrators. It highlighted the fear of failing students, but more important it amplified the fear of causing severe health problems or an outbreak of COVID-19.

The fear and concern for public safety were legitimate; however, the need to find a different way to proceed with education often first came from a no. As I grew tired, I realized the long days were not the cause. High school principals call a 40-hour workweek “a vacation.” I was used to 10- to 14-hour days most of the time, especially at the end of the year.  It was not the long days, but the repeated no’s that were taking their toll on my health and well-being.

Schwartz wrote, “The problem with ‘no’ as a starting place is that it polarizes, prompts defensiveness, and shuts down innovation, collaboration, and connection.”

However, repeated no’s were crushing me. I became tangled into the reasoning of no. I was managing the tasks of supervising instruction, teacher evaluations, staffing, and resource management, yet I was enjoying developing different ways to communicate with students, staff, parents, and the community—but I was still weighed down by no’s. I lost sleep. I constantly tried to reason a defense as to why it was a no.  I found myself avoiding quick feedback and even found myself wanting to dodge questions like Neo in “The Matrix” dodging bullets. In slow motion, I would think, “Don’t ask”; “Didn’t you read my updates?”; “Haven’t you kept up with the nine-hour school board meetings?”; “Can you go the district web page and get your no?”  But as the school leader, the questions were fired at me, and I had to load up the no.

Even when I asked the junior class officers and class sponsor to organize a virtual prom, I had to tell them no after I presented the idea to other district principals. This hard no landed heavily on the excited students after they planned an event where juniors and seniors from the entire district could participate. The plan had been quickly rebuffed by the other school principals, who were justly worried about our legal responsibilities.

The difficulty of closing doors with no’s is that you are not sure how the receiver will respond or recover. As someone who embraces change and innovation, I am used to working through, around, or in a different direction from a no response. I realize some no’s come from fear of changes or additional workload, while some no’s, like the decision to not have students in school, are excellent decisions made from concern for public safety.

When the no came for the virtual prom, I immediately contacted the class sponsor for her work and thanked her for an attempt to bring a joyous event to our division. She had been with me for nine years, so she understood my no would not limit her next attempt to be creative or innovative. The class officers needed a live digital meeting, so I organized a Google Meet and listened to their frustrations. I explained that sometimes things do not work out, but a no is only for one idea, one event. One no is just one stop sign.

When staff started the 2020–21 year, which began for most about two weeks after the 2020 graduation, I decided to focus on more yes answers. I know we have the challenges of starting the year with distance instruction, a new grading policy, and a new online platform. And yes, I believe teachers will figure out ways to deliver quality instruction, develop meaningful assessments, and build equity into their distance learning environments. I know there are still some uncertainties that will be answered with a vague response, and there will also be some more no’s. But with certainty, we can do education well in any environment.

Lastly, I’m excited to celebrate, advocate, and collaborate with my fellow principals during National Principals Month. Together, I know we can come out on the other side of this pandemic and get back to saying “YES!”

Doug Fulton is principal of Freedom High School in Chantilly, VA. His opinions are his own.

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