Say No To No

During a time of unlimited possibilities it seems that education remains stagnant. It is rare, and potentially dangerous (not physically dangerous, but lose your job dangerous), to venture outside the tried and true (more tried than true, because let’s be honest, results in education are pretty mediocre).

Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) telling Curly Bill (Powers Booth) “No” over and over again before he kills him in Tombstone.

A Tommy Boy montage of Richard (David Spade) frustratingly watching Tommy (Chris Farley) repeatedly take “No” for an answer.

Finally, Lost’s John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) getting denied his Walkabout while vehemently screaming, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”

Normally, there is a little more substance from the video clips. However, for this post’s sake, all I needed were cool scenes of people saying or hearing “No”.

Implications for Education

There are two lessons to learn: stop telling people no and when people tell you no, don’t listen to them.

Stop Telling People No

Nothing breaks my spirit faster than someone immediately shooting down an idea. It’s like “no” is in the holster and when I step around the corner, I’m already on the ground. They didn’t even listen.

Before it is shared, that idea is pondered, researched, processed, and maybe even second-guessed. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there, so an immediate dismissal is devastating.

Ask yourself, why am I closed to this new idea? Is it because I am scared to try something outside my comfort zone? Is it because it is not my idea? Is it because we have always done it this other way? These reasons center on the naysayers feelings and emotions. Decisions about new ideas should not be confronted from the lens of what is safe for me, but rather what is best for kids.

If you have concerns regarding the effectiveness of an idea, that is okay. But, your initial response should not be to dismiss the idea. You might need to ask questions. You might need to make suggestions. You might need to provide constructive feedback. Your questions, suggestions, and feedback will help drive the idea forward, not stop it dead in its tracks.

Don’t Accept No

Presenting a new idea for the first time is intimidating. However, knowing that colleagues might immediately dismiss your idea (read section above) is helpful. Remember, most people do not shoot down ideas because of their lack of merit, rather it is their own insecurities about change and being forced to self-reflect that makes them uneasy. It is important to plan how to respond to a less than warm reception for your idea.

What you do when someone says no

  1. Ask why
  2. Ask for feedback
  3. Ask for questions
  4. Ask for input
  5. Ask “What if” (if your idea worked, what would the benefits be)

If your new idea is replacing an old idea, are you saying that the old idea is bad? Ineffective? Obsolete? If this is the case (or close to the case), others are forced to reflect on their current practices. No one likes to think that the work they have been doing is not impactful, or even worse detrimental to students’ academic progress.

Change is hard for everyone. Routines and habits are hard to break. By introducing a new concept, you may be asking someone to work harder, learn a new skill, or commit more time.

When you understand the reasoning behind a no, it prevents you from being so disarmed by it. However, if you are prepared for the no, and can counter with your own questions, you will be able to drive the conversation, and your idea, forward.

Embrace student Passions

When students leave for college, they often find an increase in opportunities to find out who they are and to be with people who share their same passions. Unfortunately, grade school students do not have as many avenues to express themselves in a manner that reflects who they are.

In a truly heartbreaking scene from Dead Poets Society, an elated Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) returns from drama practice only to find his disapproving father, Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), waiting for him in his dormitory. He makes it abundantly clear that Neil is to quit the play immediately.

“But you deliberately deceived ME.” “You made a liar out of ME, Neil!” “I made a great many sacrifices to get you here, Neil.” “And you will not let ME down.” All Mr. Perry’s language is reflective of what matters most, himself. He interrupts, ignores, and dismisses Neil.

Neil did not heed his father’s warning. He went on with the show. Neil’s magnificent performance is unable to sway Mr. Perry’s perception of what his son’s future should look like. Instead, Mr. Perry plans on pulling Neil out of Welton Academy and enrolling him in military school, eventually to become a doctor.

I am not going to let you waste…” Mr. Perry returns to the same language from the first clip, but Neil interrupts him, “I’ve got to tell you what I feel.” As Neil prepares to express himself for the first time to his father, he looks over at his mother and then back to his father. He comes to the realization that it does not matter how he feels or what he wants. His father will never accept him for who he is.

Neil retreats to his chair.

Tragically, Neil kills himself that night.

Implications for Education

I spent a lot of my formal schooling trying to fit in. Don’t get me wrong, I think I had a great education, and one that opened a lot of doors. However, I never felt like I could completely be myself. There was a consistent fear of being different, which could lead to teasing, bullying, or harassment.

I think my teachers liked uniformity too. It was easier for them to have a clear picture of what a model student was and then try to mold everyone else into that image.

I hate to admit it, but I associated different with weird. Different interests and passions from my own confused me, so I dismissed them, and assigned labels to those who owned them.

It was not until I got to college when I started to realize the many paths that people walk to get to the same destination. I found myself intrigued by those with a different story than my own.

When I began teaching, I asked the most questions to students who were involved with activities, hobbies, interests, and passions that were foreign to me. I was so impressed that they could do/be something so unique and not care (or appear to care) what their classmates felt/thought.

I know it takes an incredible amount of courage for a middle school student to put themselves out there. Too often, they do so without the support of those tasked to provide it, educators.

What can you do?
  1. Provide opportunities for students to express themselves
    • Create learning experiences that allow students to showcase their gifts and talents
    • Support students when they try to establish new clubs and extracurricular programs
    • Consistently incorporate different points of view in your instruction
  2. Ask questions
    • Learn more about the different activities your students partake in
    • Attend performances/shows/events
  3. Promote positivity
    • Model inclusiveness, respect, appreciation, and admiration
    • Address and eliminate negativity
    • Celebrate students

Those who ignore school norms to stay true to who they are and what they love make education a wonderful space to work in. Educators have the power to inspire, embrace, and support the individuality of their students. The world would be a very dull place if everyone conformed to traditional expectations.

It is your fault

If everyone is giving you a break and providing excuses for your students’ lack of growth, it is time to address those failures head on. Hold yourself accountable if you want to make a difference.

*This video contains graphic language*

Back to back Good Will Hunting videos. However, the message being pulled for this post is the opposite of the movie’s intention.

At the start of the scene Will (Matt Damon) shares that he recently broke-up with with his girlfriend, Skylar (Minnie Driver). The failed relationship is just one more setback for Will. From being an orphan to physical abuse to imprisonment, every aspect of Will’s life has been challenging.

As the disappointments and setbacks continue to plague Will, it is easy to see how he blames himself. It could not be a coincidence that all these bad things happen to one person, unless the person is at fault.

Sean (Robin Williams), recognizing Will’s guilt, attempts to remove that burden by assuring Will, “It’s not your fault.” Needing to hear those four words, Will breaks down and embraces Sean.

Will needed permission to separate himself from the circumstances that have plagued his life. And, Sean was able to do that.

Implications for Education

When students fail, who is to blame? The parents? teachers? administration? society? Everyone points at each other. When this happens, the child loses.

“It is your fault.” Taking ownership of failure focuses you. If you know the burden will fall on your shoulders, you are more likely to do something about it. If the buck stops with you, you are willing to exhaust all avenues to grow students.

Take money as an example. If your come from money and your family finances your poor spending habits or lifestyle decisions, you are more likely to be laissez-faire with your cash. But, if you are on your own, every money decision you make is critical because there is no one to bail you out. You plan, prioritize, and review your finances to ensure that your money habits are putting you in the best position to be successful.

When students fail, if your first instinct is to blame parents, you are expecting them to bail you out. Reflect on what happened: What did you do? What could you do differently? What resources do you need to do it differently?

Removing parents as a safety net puts the pressure on you to be the best educator you can be. It takes a village to raise a child. But, there are aspects of the village that we do not control, so it does no good to focus on them.

Back against the wall with no one to blame but you, what are you going to do to ensure that all your students achieve?

Muddying the accountability waters may provide more job security or help you sleep at night, but it will not help our students. If “It is our fault” we can spend more time addressing the problem and less time pointing fingers.

Surround Yourself with the Right People

Teachers spend an exorbitant amount of time at school. The relationships created within the school walls last a lifetime. Engage with the people that are going to support, challenge, and grow you as an educator.

*This video contains graphic language*

Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is making the psychiatrist rounds. In this session, he meets Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) for the first time. While Sean tries to make small talk, Will circulates the room taking inventory of his new surroundings.

Will hones in on the many novels around the room. Like he has done with previous therapists, Will tries to goad Sean. But, Sean is not taking the bait. Unable to insult Sean, Will questions Sean’s taste in books, “You want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.” Unwilling to back down, Sean counters with, “Better than Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent?”

Refusing to answer any of Sean’s questions, Will closes by telling Sean, “You fuckin’ people baffle me. You spend all your money on these fuckin’ fancy books. You surround yourselves with them, and they’re the wrong fuckin’ books.” Without missing a beat Sean responds, “What are the right fuckin’ books, Will?”

Sean’s question extends far beyond books. He is talking about Will. What friends is Will surrounding himself with? What opportunities? What jobs? The answer to these questions, and more importantly why Will makes these life choices, is what the movie sets to discover.

Implications for Education

The saying goes, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Since most educators live in their schools and classrooms, there is a good chance that a few of those five people are fellow educators.

The question is, “Who are you choosing to surround yourself with?”

Growth Groups

HONESTY – Students are not going to get better if people do not provide honest feedback. You want to know when lessons go well, but you should also want to know when they go poorly. Constructive feedback helps us as we fine-tune our instruction.

OPTIMISM – It is going to be okay. No matter what the situation, positivity helps pick people up and move them forward. An optimistic group will look for the silver lining in every situation. They will use setbacks and obstacles to improve their instruction.

COMPETITION – It feels good to be pushed. When you hear about that amazing lesson that was delivered by a grade level peer it sparks a little bit of jealousy, and that is a good thing. When teachers challenge each other, they better themselves as educators. And, the best part is that individual successes are shared with the group, so everyone wins.

REPRIEVE – It does not always have to be about education. Sometimes you need a group that is going to make you laugh. Sometimes you need a group that is going to give you show or movie recommendations. As mentioned earlier, you are living at school, so it is beneficial to take a break from it every once and a while.

Toxic Teams

UNACCOUNTABLE – “It’s not your fault.” “He did nothing for me last year” “Have you seen his mother?” It is never good to be around others that will make excuses for you. Especially, when those excuses place the blame solely on students and their families. If student outcomes are predetermined, then why teach in the first place?

CYNICAL – Everything is a bad idea. Things will never get better. The glory days are long gone. When these types of comments are heard repeatedly, they get internalized. This type of negativity impacts the demeanor and disposition we bring to our students. Students will never respond to a teacher who wears negativity on their sleeve.

CONTENT – The mountain peak is continuously rising. You will never get there. Because, what worked for students last year, won’t necessarily work for students today. That is what makes education so wonderful. It is student centered. You have to develop relationships with your students to understand how to best reach them. Relying on what you have always done implies that every student is the same. This mindset will lead to stagnation or even deterioration in your instruction.

DISHEARTENING – If you leave a conversation with educators feeling worse than when you arrived, it is probably not a group you want to be hanging around with. Misery loves company. Educators who choose to be unaccountable, cynical, and content need others to mirror these toxic attitudes. Otherwise, they would stick out like the sore thumb that they are.

Teaching is a very solitary profession. However, it is amazing how much we take from our peer interactions into the classroom. Reflect on the adults in the school who you spend the most time with. Do those relationships make you a better teacher? If not, start surrounding yourself with “the right people.”

Attitude Reflects Leadership

In a time of uncertainty, it is more important than ever for principals to model the characteristics they wish to see in teachers. Educators will mirror a positive attitude, calm demeanor, and solution minded outlook when that is what they see from the building leader.

Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst) and Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) are unable to co-exist as defensive standouts on the T.C. Williams High School football team in Remember the Titans. This conversation starts with Gerry half-heartedly trying to learn details about Julius’ life so that he can placate Coach Boone (Denzel Washington), who will ask him to talk about his teammate. The topic quickly shifts to Julius and Gerry critiquing each other for their play on the field.

During the back and forth, Julius is criticized for playing selfish football, leaving his teammates “out to dry.” To counter, Julius condemns Gerry for not getting on the white offensive lineman for failing to block for Rev (Craig Kirkwood), the black quarterback. Gerry’s silence equals his acknowledgement. Julius explains that he will continue to lookout only for himself.

Not wanting Julius to “win” the conversation, Gerry states, “That’s the worst attitude I ever heard.” Julius poetically finishes with, “Attitude reflects leadership, captain.”

Gerry has no rebuttal, because Julius is right. Even though Julius is not listening to his coaches or making plays in the best interest of his teammates, Gerry has no grounds to chastise him, because Gerry is not portraying the leadership qualities necessary to bring together a racially divided team.

Implication for Education

As student return to schools, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Teachers are playing out worst case scenarios. There is a pervasive glass half empty mentality sweeping the nation. The worry and concern are justifiable. But, the fact of the matter is kids are coming back, and we need to be ready for them.

What do our students need?

They need teachers to make them feel safe. When the classroom door closes, the outside noise needs to be turned down. The emphasis has to be on teaching and learning and not the uncertainty of the future.

What do our teachers need?

They need principals to make them feel safe. When the building door closes, the outside noise needs to be turned down. The emphasis has to be on teacher and learning and not the uncertainty of the future.

The best way for a principal to support educators is to model the traits they hope teachers will model for their students.


There is light at the end of the tunnel. It may be difficult for others to see, but it is the principal’s responsibility to bring it into view for the staff. Approach the day with optimism and the mindset that things will continue to get better.

Students are the energy that makes a building run. A school is transformed from a sterile workplace to a warm environment when kids return. Focus on the joy, curiosity, and love of learning that they will inevitably bring back to schools.

Always share what you are grateful for. Even during a pandemic, there is a lot to celebrate. The amount of ingenuity, creativity, patience, grace, and understanding from teachers is at an all-time high. Take a moment to acknowledge all the wonderful things teachers are doing.


Teachers will look to the principal when problems occur. What you want to hear them saying is, “If they’re not worried, than neither am I.”

Things are going to go wrong. Things go wrong when there is not a global pandemic. It is the response to the problem that makes all the difference.

In preparing for the return of students, a lot of time and energy is being put into process, procedures, structures, and systems. Some of that time will have been wasted, because there are factors that cannot be known until students return to the building. When things do not go as planned there is a natural inclination to stress. But, if you accept the reality that plans will need to be reworked beforehand, you are less likely to lose your cool when issues arise.

Solution Minded

Now that you are remaining calm when all your plans fall apart, it is time to start taking action. Staff will fixate on the problem when no one is working on a solution. Move quickly to brainstorming ideas, because that shifts the energy from negative to productive.

Utilize as many staff members as possible when searching for solutions. This helps in a number of ways. Most importantly, teachers and instructional assistants have a boots on the ground perspective, which enables them to flush out potential problems and address unique details. Second, it helps minimize anxiety. People fear the unknown. But, with everyone collaborating on a plan, no one is nervously waiting to be told what to do. They have a say in what “we” do. Finally, what ultimately gets a staff through a pandemic is the culture of the building. When everyone works together the family atmosphere of a building is strengthened


As a principal, it is important to know that teachers will look to see how you react to challenges over the next six months. It is imperative that principals model calmness, positivity, and attack problems with a solution mindset, because that is what we hope teachers demonstrate for their students. After all, “Attitude reflects leadership, principal.”

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