Overstretch: how and why to say no


Every September I’ve taught in schools, I have to admit I’ve felt a bit frazzled!

School staff are beset by a dizzying dazzle of pressing decisions, concerns, dilemmas, and requests; cudgelled with urgent demands, requirements, conflicts, pressures and pickles. 

Even the essential core alone is vast.

Quite a lot! and that’s not even all of what’s essential, certainly not what’s exhaustive. Even just reading it is exhausting, let alone making it all happen!

Somehow we are supposed to coordinate improvements of these into a coherent School Improvement Plan, to communicate on them and give staff clarity – and others, like governors. 

Time in schools, as Doug Lemov says, is like water in a desert. 

At the same time, we tend to come up with lots and lots of potential ideas and intriguing initiatives as teachers and educators. 

The Education Endowment Foundation tries to compute and quantify some of these and calculates that some of them add quite a few months of supposed additional pupil progress. Metacognition, +7? Collaborative learning, +5? Outdoor adventure learning, +4? Learning styles, +2? The mind boggles…

Beyond schools, headlines scream: ‘why aren’t schools doing more to teach X?’, ‘schools should teach the dangers of Y’, ‘[Celebrity] slams schools for failing to teach simple skills about Z’. In 2018 and 2019, Parents and Teachers for Excellence tracked the number of public calls for schools to teach extra content. They counted 337 calls in two years. 

You can see why the report called it ‘Clogging up the Classroom: the jostle for curriculum content.’ 

No wonder we feel frizzled to a frazzle!

How can we deal with all the overload?

Time is limited. Opportunity cost is high. 

Constraints on attention and working memory are severe.

Beyond the already-and-always-extensive core, we must focus only on what is high impact and high sustainability.

Priorities are crucial. If everything’s a priority, nothing is.

We must jettison initiatives that are low impact and high effort. 

We must stop our staff getting stung by hornets.

Maxims from great educators like Viviane Robinson, Mary Myatt and Kat Howard are beginning to circulate in the teaching profession, helping us to deal with our overstretch, overload, change fatigue and initiativitus. 

Less change, more improvement.

Fewer things, greater depth.

Do less, better. 

In brief, say no. I can’t tell you the number of times in my career that I wish I’d had Viviane, Mary or Kat alongside to shout at me: ‘JOE! Do less better, don’t forget! Fewer things, greater depth!’ when I was hideously overcomplicating something and overstretching myself.   

We must find ways to gently, kindly and reasonably say no to many of the ideas generated by well-meaning colleagues and outsiders. We should only choose the one very best idea in a thousand, clarifying why – to prevent overload, overcomplexity and overwhelm, and to enable greater focus, clarity and impact. First things first.

We must stop doing what works well, and focus only on what works best.

We must get better at saying no.

Even to very good things. 

Our kids have one shot at school.

Tricky distractions and temptations for kids at home and school proliferate.

We owe it to them to be super-selective in what we choose to do.

And super-decisive in what we choose NOT to do.

So, in sum – why say no to good ideas?

Three main reasons. 

(1) to improve focus and free up time and headspace for what matters most. 

(2) to improve thinking and decision-making.

(3) to improve follow-through by reviewing fewer initiatives, better. 

Not saying yes to so much, might even boost staff energy, morale, wellbeing and retention. Though it’s not a silver bullet for any of those.

I have to keep reminding myself of these reasons to say no. So often, I bite off far more than I can chew.

James Clear puts it well: 

When you say no, you are only saying no to one option. 

When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option.

No is a decision. Yes is a responsibility.

Let’s have a look at an example of a school leader, Adam Boxer, decisively and deftly saying no. 

Every day in school leadership is a new battle to say no to what works well (and what does not!) and yes only to what works best. Every day is a new battle to shield teachers’ precious time, effort and thinking space, so we can make kids’ lives better. 

How, once we’ve decided to say no to someone, can we best communicate that to them?

Here are 15 suggestions for us to try out and experiment with, some from the subject discipline of behavioural economics.

(1) Be direct: commit in advance to being honest and forthright. Remember the many reasons (such as the three above) to say no to what works ok. 

(2) Explain why it’s a no: it’s about focus, thinking and follow-through.

(3) Set a sky-high bar: decline 999 out of 1,000 opportunities. If it’s not a hell yeah, it’s a no! Remember options blindness – even better options are out there, perhaps as yet invisible or unthought of.

Remember opportunity cost: every big choice you make costs you the time and chance to choose a better alternative.

(4) Go evergreen: invest more time in the highest-impact, highest-sustainability ideas and less in others. 

(5) Share the 80:20 rule: set the vital few tasks apart from the trivial many. 20% of tasks tend to bring 80% of the impact; 80% tend to bring just 20% of the impact. 

(6) Set limits: reduce overloading meetings, briefings, homework checking, data entry, display and slide design. 

(7) Find hornets: eliminate gimmicks, bureaucracy, lesson plans, monitoring scrunities, written marking, written reports, evidencing, learning objectives, display board updates.

(8) Find butterflies: low-effort, high-impact practices. Ask: will it improve learning while saving time? how much? what’s the evidence base for learning return on time invested? 

(9) Share mantras – ‘first things first!’ ‘let’s do less, better!’ Turn them into shared mental models by reminding each other of them as a team in moments when flashy, jazzy, whizzy, shiny or vespine new initiatives are suggested. 

(10) Prime time: help every team member to spend the vast majority of their time on the highest value uses of their time: teaching, learning and contributing to others’ learning. 

(11) Focus: keep focusing the team on the very few – 3 at most – top shared priorities, and ask if each suggested new initiative dovetails with them. 

(12) Prioritise: help every team member retain crystal clarity on their three own top priorities – the top 3 things they’re pouring thinking time into every day without exception. Perhaps even include them in their email signature.

(13) Stick to ‘the bouncer rule’: none out, none in. Keep a wishlist of suggested initiatives to consider for next year. One in, one out – a.k.a. the nightclub rule. 

(14) Bureaucracy busters: asks others for low-value tasks and bureaucratic frustrations; share the input, or a summary of it, and act decisively on it to encourage future feedback. 

(15) Hofstader’s law: anything we do takes way longer than we think – even using this law! Make it a shared mental model among staff.  Remember future fallacy – just like at self-service buffets, our eyes tend to be bigger than our stomachs. We bite off more than we can chew.

How can we best, gently but resolutely, turn people’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ideas down? What can we actually say when saying no to someone, when given a kind offer, invitation or opportunity that we’ve decided to decline? 

  • Thank them and appreciate them. 

‘Thank you for thinking of me!’

  • Decline gently with a genuine reason. 

‘I tend to say no rather than overcommitting- there’s so much already on!’

  • Suggest another option.

‘How about this as a way of perhaps having even more impact in less time…?’ 

  • Invite other similar suggestions.

‘What do you reckon: what are some alternatives…?’

Are these 15 tips and 4 ways to say no, in any way adequate to deal with the amount of overstretch that we see in schools? 

No. Not at all.

Given that we still have 800,000 children in schools in England that are not yet good, given that there are over 200 secondary schools where the pass rate in two GCSEs is 20% or below, given that some 30,000 teachers leave the profession every year (for reasons other than retirement) – addressing the overstretch, workload, burnout and retention crises is of crucial importance for us.

No set of tips will do. Choosing what to prioritise in schools – and what not to – are crucial and difficult choices. How can we know and decide what to best say yes or no to?

What might knowledge of the 2,500-year old discipline of strategy have to offer us?

Let’s have a look at that next. 

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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7 Responses to Overstretch: how and why to say no

  1. Pingback: Strategy: a 2,500 year-old history | Joe Kirby

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  5. tracey obrien says:

    All so true, but some leaders just won’t take no for an answer.

  6. Pingback: Implementation as learning: 24 questions to ask | Joe Kirby

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