APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Online Teaching Lounge Podcast

How to Convey a Positive “No” When Teaching Online

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Teaching online effectively takes time and energy, and to manage this well, educators must learn how to say “No.” This kind of focus helps with decision-making, time management, committing to extra projects, and everything else. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the “Power of a Positive No,” by William Ury, to help online educators prioritize and thrive. Learn how to simplify online teaching, get better results, and feel a greater sense of satisfaction from your work. 

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Teaching online effectively takes time and energy. And to manage this well, educators must learn how to say “no.” This kind of focus helps with decision-making, time management, committing to extra projects, and everything else. And it can help you set boundaries between your work and personal life—something that can be particularly challenging when you work from home.

In this episode, we will discuss the “Power of a Positive ‘No,’” by William Ury, to help online educators thrive. Learn how to simplify online teaching, get better results, and feel a greater sense of satisfaction from your work. 

We’re starting with a look at time. It takes a lot of time to teach online. This could be because all of those things we would say in real time we end up writing or reading, so it slows down the process somewhat. One way to solve this problem might be to try efficiency tools, strategies, and time management ideas.

Time Management First Requires Prioritization

Here in the Online Teaching Lounge, we’ve looked at time management for online educators, and some of these strategies include using timers, task batching, time blocking, using time management schedules and calendars, checklists, and other tools.

We’ve also looked at some specific strategies to create efficiency like using autotext apps, the GradeAssist add-in toolbar for Microsoft word, dictating with Naturally Speaking or a smartphone, and grading in Turnitin, where originality checking happens.

And, while all of these are great tools and supports for efficiency, if we keep adding more to our plate, we can never catch up. Ultimately, these kinds of tools will only help us when we already have boundaries on our work and have focused our efforts in a specific direction.

Using the strategy of a positive “no” will help us with time management in our online teaching, because it gives us permission to stop taking on so many extra things in work and personal life to which we can’t figure out how to say “no.” This strategy frees us from the weight of responsibilities that really are not ours.

As we look at our time, the first step in saying no will be to set priorities. What is really most important in our work? And what is most important in our personal lives?

If we can point to a small number of key priorities, we know which areas we must focus on first. And priorities will be different for all of us. These can come from our personal values, which are those areas we find most important in life. An example would be family time. If one of our values is family time, and we know that needs to be part of our life somewhere, we need to protect that.

Priorities Help Us Make Decisions More Effectively

Once we have identified our top priorities, we also have to check these against the priorities of our employment situation. If we’re working for a school or university that prioritizes a few key areas, we need to find ways to bring that into our work.

For example, if your school is about humanizing online learning and really connecting with students as individuals, that might become one of your top priorities when you need to make decisions. Another school might instead humanize online learning to treat all students equally and give the same fair approach to all, without individualizing. And in that case, fairness and equity might need to become one of your priorities when teaching there.

As you think about your values and priorities, taking serious consideration of the employer’s priorities also, you can make decisions clearly. Billionaire Warren Buffet, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, in his eighties and one of the wealthiest people in the world, is a great example of mastering the ability to set boundaries. He has paid attention to what he has done, but equally important to what he has not done. He said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”

Making Decisions can Lead to Peace with Others

When we are faced with decisions in our work, we might be influenced by emotion. Or collegiality. Or the person in need who we would really like to help. And while helping others is something educators naturally want to do, choosing wisely where to say “yes,” where to offer ideas, and where to say “no” will allow us to be much more capable of teaching well and having work-life balance.

Making decisions requires clear priorities and awareness of those around us, with their priorities. And caring about others and what they need to accomplish is critical to being connected to others and caring about them. For that reason, the positive no can help us make decisions with clarity in our relationships and be able to feel at peace with others when we need to say no.

As an example of this idea, think about a time when you might have agreed to something you really did not have time or resources to do. In a situation like this, did you experience some conflict about it? For example, as the commitment moved along, did you want to find ways to give it back to the person who asked you? Or, did you have to give up something else you really needed to do, to meet the commitment?

Why do we say “Yes” to things when we really don’t have the time, energy, or resources? We don’t like to hear “No,” ourselves. We feel a sense of rejection, so in order to avoid that discomfort for other people, we say “Yes” to things we should not. And when we fail to say “No,” we  get too busy helping others achieve their goals and forget to achieve our own.

The positive no helps you stop the pattern of taking on too much and still help others with some contribution.

The Steps to a Positive “No”

If you need to say “No” to a request, it’s a simple three step method. It starts with “Yes,” has a “No” in the middle, and ends with “Yes.”

The first “Yes” is a priority that you have, or an interest you need to protect. For example, if you have a full schedule and a fellow teacher asks you to take on a project for them, but you don’t feel that you have space in your schedule to add it, you would be saying yes to a priority that you really care about. It would sound something like this:

  • “The quality of my current teaching is really important to me,” or
  • “My family time in the evenings is my top priority.”

Establishing your priorities and choosing to focus on them over additional things you could do but which would overload you is like strengthening the roots of your tree, the foundation of who you are and what you stand for.

The second step is the “No.” For example, you might say:

  • “And because of that, I’m unable to take on another project right now,” or
  • “And because of that, I’m unable to teach an additional class that would take away from that time.”

The third step is another “Yes.” Say yes to offering ideas or direction. You’re rejecting the request, but not the person. You can open up a discussion about how you can contribute to a solution without committing to give up all of your time.

You might, for example, offer materials or resources the person can use to complete the project. Or you might suggest others available to teach that additional class. There are many smaller opportunities to help this person in some way. This second “Yes” is like the branches of a tree. They offer many options and smaller ways to help without overcommitting.

To put it all together, your positive “No” might sound something like this:

  • “The quality of my current teaching is really important to me. And because of that, I’ll be unable to take on another project right now. What resources or ideas can I offer that might help you out?”

And here is another example:

  • “My family time in the evenings is my top priority. And because of that, I’ll be unable to teach an additional class that would take away from that time. I can offer you a few recommendations of other teachers who might be available, would that help?”

Taking a Positive “No” to the Next Level

After we have set priorities and determined realistically when we can take on additional projects or service opportunities, and when we need to say “No,” over time we take that to the next level of setting boundaries.

Some of my colleagues have said things like, “I have a hard stop at 5:00 p.m.” In choosing that kind of boundary, they are maintaining their personal and family time without letting work spill over into that time. Whether your boundaries are about the number of classes you can teach, projects you can commit to, or time you will spend, setting boundaries can add to your ability to make decisions about your online teaching and other parts of your life.

Our students need us, and we have much that we each contribute as educators. No one is a carbon copy of another person. If you think about your experience, your education, and your strengths, you bring what no one else would ever bring to teaching your classes. And your students will have a unique experience with you, just because of who you are.

To make the most of your time with students, I hope this small strategy of the positive “No” gives you a clear way to communicate what you need to say when you’re tempted to take on too much and headed into overwhelm.

If you have found this podcast helpful, please subscribe, and join us each week for tips to help you in your online teaching and work-life balance.

And, of course, share the podcast with a friend. Online teaching doesn’t have to be overwhelming. We can all use another strategy or idea to help us be our best when teaching online.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is the Associate Dean (Interim) in the School of Arts, Humanities and Education. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is also an ICF Professional Certified Coach (PCC). She is a Professor, coach, and teaching excellence strategist with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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