Learning to say no

A couple of months ago, I had to make a very difficult decision. I was honored to be invited to be one of the plenary speakers at the BRAZ-TESOL Curitiba event, a special one celebrating their 20th anniversary. Of course, my first reaction was to say, “YES, YES, YES!”.

But then I started thinking: I was already going to be one Saturday away from home for the BRAZ-TESOL Brasília – Goiânia joint event, then I was going to be away for two weekends on vacation, and, right after that, two more weekends for IATEFL. The event in Curitiba would be my 6th Saturday away from home. You see, Saturday is the day I have lunch at my parents’ (whom I don’t have time to see during the week) and run errands that I don’t have time for during the week. It is also one of my exercise routine days. Yes, I am addicted to exercising and this is what helps keep me calm and focused.

After mulling over this for about two days, I decided to decline the invitation. It was a very tough decision because I just love going to events, and I know that being invited to be a plenary speaker is quite an accomplishment. But I did say no.  It hurt, but I did.

Not many days afterwards, I was interacting with my colleagues in the BRAZ-TESOL Board and Academic Committee what’s app group about some tasks that needed to be done. I volunteered to help, but then I realized that the tasks they needed volunteers for were of a more commercial nature, not really what I am good at. Considering my busy professional life these days, as you can see above, I realized I was not going to be able to carry them out. I had to say no. I offered to do other things that I could easily fit into my timetable, though.

I also had to write a post for this blog last March 29. I was overwhelmed with work, preparing for my IATEFL talk, and tired after the arduous work involved in planning our local BRAZ-TESOL event. I knew I wasn’t going to do a respectable job and was probably going to write something just for the sake of it. I decided not to do it. Again, it was a hard decision to make.

It has always been challenging to me to say no to opportunities that knock at my door. I am the kind of person who is always open to new ideas and experiences. I am the “why not?” kind of person. I am restless and feel guilty if I am not preparing a talk or writing a blog post, an article, or a book. I also feel guilty if I am not actively involved with a teachers’ association. If you are reading this, you are probably like me. We are avid seekers of professional development and networking opportunities. And we do all this in our free time –  in my case on top of my 40+ weekly work hours.

However, to reach a relatively good work-life balance, we also need to slow down sometimes and say no. We need to take care of ourselves and of those around us – spend time with family and friends and make sure our hearts are in the right place, too. We cannot do or have it all. It’s no use diving deeply into all kinds of PD activities, not eating or exercising properly because we are too busy for that, and then getting sick or burned out and not being able to do anything for many days or even months. It is better and healthier to move steadily but slowly. It is also no use committing to things that we will not be able to accomplish and, thus, disappoint those who depend on us.

We also need to focus on what is most important first, and only do everything else if we really have time for it. It’s no use going to conferences, reading, writing, and networking if the next day we teach a lousy class because we didn’t have time to plan properly, for example. After all, everything we do professionally should be for the sake of our students. If we’re not doing it for them, we are doing it wrongly or we are doing the wrong thing.

Also, it is essential to choose what to focus on and what professional development activities will lead to the growth we are seeking right now. This helps us decide what we will read, the conferences we will attend, and the talks we will go to. It helps us stay focused and decide what to say no to. When I was working on my doctoral thesis on second language writing, this is what I read and attended talks about. Were there other things I needed to learn? Yes, of course! But if we want to learn everything, we end up not learning anything at all.

I recently participated in a professional assessment interview and was asked how self-demanding I was, on a scale of 1 to 10. I was happy to say, “I used to be a 10. Now I’m an 8!”  I don’t want to be a ten anymore. I want to be able to say, “Stop!” and “No!” when I feel that it is just too much for me! A long time ago, my Dad said to me, “Isabela, you need to be a little irresponsible sometimes. You demand too much of yourself!” Well, it took me many years to understand what he meant by this. Now I think I do!

Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 31 years, where she is currently the Academic Superintendent. Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She also supervises MA dissertations for the University of Birmingham. She has recently published the book “Teaching EFL Writing - A Practical Approach for Skills-Integrated Contexts.

12 Comments
  • Marjorie Rosenberg
    Posted at 06:32h, 30 abril Responder

    I agree 100%. I was just asked to give a 5 – 10 minute talk in a German city a day after I come home from another German city. As flattering as it was to be asked, I had to say no. As we have no direct flights to this particular one, it would have meant arriving home at midnight on Saturday, having some time Sunday to recover and getting on an early flight to connect to another flight on Monday, probably coming home again on Tuesday. This also meant cancelling an hour lesson at home. There are times when these invitations just don’t work out and we need to know when we have to make the decision to say ‘Sorry, that just doesn’t work for me.’

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 22:33h, 02 maio Responder

      Dear Marjorie, thank-your for sharing your feelings on the topic and your personal experience. We need to say not to invitations that don`t work out. Otherwise, we will end up suffering from burnout.

  • Lucas Gontijo
    Posted at 17:58h, 30 abril Responder

    I love your post, Isabela. We do need balance. I find it hard to say no as well, but I’ve been gradually learning to do it. Thanks for sharing such precious ideas. 🙂

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 22:32h, 02 maio Responder

      Dear Lucas, I am glad to know you liked my post and my ideas. We have to learn from these types of experiences and become better people and professionals.

  • Elaine Carvalho Chaves Hodgson
    Elaine Carvalho Chaves Hodgson
    Posted at 07:13h, 01 maio Responder

    I loved reading your post, I’m sure lots of ELT professionals identify with your feelings and thoughts. Learning to say no, not only in our professional life but also in our personal life, is usually hard.

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 22:31h, 02 maio Responder

      Dear Elaine, I am so glad you liked my post and sharing your feelings about the topic, too.

  • Clarissa Bezerra
    Posted at 10:32h, 03 maio Responder

    Reading your words, I see a woman treading the vulnerability waters of her soul. As much as we may love our jobs, we are NOT our jobs. I think that you will have gone the whole mile of transformation once you get rid of the guilt when you do choose to say no. Thank you for sharing your reflections on this. As the leader you are, it sends a clear message to people you lead in our school community that maybe it’s time we stopped wearing the perfectionism and superhero performance as a badge of honor. It’s time we accepted our vulnerability and began relying more on each other for support and understanding. All that makes for a more humane workplace and ultimately a more humane world.

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 18:51h, 29 junho Responder

      Dear Clarissa,
      You are absolutely right. But I sometimes think this “superhero” idea may come more from other people than from ourselves, for they only see what we choose to do, and not what we choose not to do. I just tried to make it more transparent. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I truly appreciate your feedback!

  • Gilmar Mattos
    Posted at 14:33h, 03 maio Responder

    Wow! I felt relieved reading such a post from You! So, it is OK to say “NO” and “Stop it” at times because even Isabela Villas Boas does so. Just kidding… But it’s true I agree with each and every word. Still very difficult for me to say “no” athough my therapist said this is really not true because (according to her) I am an expert in saying “no” to myself so I can please everybody else. Well..this might be intersting for another post. Thanks, dear.

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 18:44h, 29 junho Responder

      Hi, Gilmar
      I decided to write this post exactly because many people think that I can’t say no, that I am a workaholic. This is not true, and I wanted to express this. Thank you for your kind words!

  • Silvania Capua
    Posted at 21:06h, 04 maio Responder

    Dear Isabella , I totally agree with your post, This year I decided to say no to my professional activities in order to empower me allowing my personal life let it go, I am so happy to read the posts above , We have the right to say no and give a chance to meditate about our goals from now on, after working without stops we deserve a break.

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 18:43h, 29 junho Responder

      Dear Silvania,
      I’m glad you like the fact that I touched upon this subject and that you, too, have learned to say no.

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