Not long ago a frustrated colleague approached me and declared, “You know, you really need to give an in-service on saying no!” I laughed off the suggestion knowing my fellow faculty member was being both serious and humorous at the same time. Serious, because the culture of SBCCD seems to increasingly promote the idea that anyone who says no to a request for extra time and effort is simply not a team player and should feel guilty for refusing to help when asked; and, humorous, because this misguided cultural norm of ‘give it your all or be considered a less-than-caring employee’ is so ingrained in our organizational mindset that the act of saying no actually invokes guilt in many of us…which is silly. As comedian Jim Jeffries is fond of saying, “What’s all that about?”

Though that brief exchange occurred several months ago, and ended almost as quickly as it started, for some reason, the energy behind her suggestion has lingered with me ever since. As I pondered the rhetoric behind my colleague’s request, I began to think seriously about actually developing such an in-service. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried to envision and design the event, it simply didn’t feel viable because it would likely be perceived as too negative, or too obtrusive. Even so, I couldn’t shake the many memories of conversations I had with experienced peers when I first arrived at CHC who told me, again and again, that it would be necessary for me to learn the skill of saying no. At that time, and in almost unanimous agreement, my veteran colleagues had reinforced the notion that if I didn’t learn this skill the culture would chew me up and spit me out.

As a new employee at CHC, it wasn’t long before the prophesies of those veteran colleagues quickly came true as I found out just how fast trying to be a conscientious, team player turned into an impossible conglomeration of participation on committees, task forces, and other ‘special’ projects that consumed not only my time, but my ability to function well at anything I was trying to do. The shear volume of things that people “needed” me to participate in, “hoped” I would consider, and “knew” I was an important voice to be heard on some topic, was overwhelming. Now, 14 years later, as one of those more experienced veterans, I am of the opinion that virtually every employee in the District understands this concept of cultural over-participation, has been overwhelmed by it at one time or another, has pushed back against it, and can feel trapped trying to find ways to cope with the (seemingly) never-ending requests for our time and effort. Unfortunately, and over time, these requests no longer seem like compliments, nor a sign of respect, but an entitlement that others believe they have to our time…an entitlement that doesn’t exist, and, frankly, it’s time to rebalance this out-of-balance cultural norm. This is especially true in a district that seems to value the limited and often out-of-touch perceptions of management over both faculty and classified employees…but I digress.

In order to rebalance this perceived need for our time, a return to normalcy in terms of what should be expected of a conscientious, caring SBCCD employee is in order. Obviously, management and others who feel entitled to our time will not help us find the answer in regard to how to reclaim it, so we need to do it ourselves. Having reflected on this for some time now, I think, interestingly enough, the answer to reclaiming our time does not lie in saying, no, but in saying yes. Unlike in the past, though, we need to have very specific and grounded criteria for saying yes to giving up the two most precious commodities we have as instructors, our expertise and our time. Individually developing such criteria provides a rational and conscientious way to determine just how, where, and when each of us will give of ourselves, and forces those asking for our time to remember that they are not entitled to it. Having developed criteria for myself, saying yes to doing something extra means I’ve carefully considered the request, I’m truly committed to doing it, and I plan to participate fully. In my case, in order to say, “yes” to a request for my time all (or most) of the following criteria must be met:

  1. I must believe that the activity will have a positive impact on students or the organization;
  2. I must believe that the person or group asking for my time wants to produce a quality result – NOT to simply fill a gap within a report, NOT to further a managerial or other political interest, and NOT to produce some other nefarious end;
  3. I must believe that my expertise and experience are valued by the group and that my unique skill set will help move the activity forward;
  4. I must believe that the group’s activities are respected by the decision making body they report out to, or that the group actually makes decisions for the organization in regard to the group’s charge;

Looking at my criteria for participating in extra activities, it’s not hard to see how often I probably say no to requests from others for some of my extra time. The interesting thing about this, though, is that I’ve found I’m not saying no these days because of some desire to be difficult, but because so many of the activities that seem to come my way don’t satisfy the simple criteria I’ve set up for accepting requests for my time and experience. This is not because I’m so ‘special’, but because, in my estimation, there are a whole lot of disingenuous, wasteful requests for my time, which gets to the very heart of what my colleague’s frustration indicated several months ago. Respecting myself, my profession, and my expertise, I am simply no longer willing to keep giving my time and effort to things that waste my time, are inconsequential, or are supporting an agenda I’m against and unwilling to support…and I’m guessing that’s true for a lot of faculty in this District.

Indeed, I’m betting that a vast majority of faculty in this District have served on more than one committee that they thought was sincerely being asked to be makes decisions about some item of importance only to find out later that the work they did was only a “recommendation” for management to consider, or “only to provide input” to management, who ended up doing exactly what they had planned long before the committee was ever charged with a task. Proof of the lack of respect district managers have for our expertise is easy to find. For example, the district’s that surround us pay their faculty, on average, about $10,000 a year more than SBCCD pays us…and that’s consistent all across the salary schedule columns (Salary Comparison). Certainly, the increasingly common practice of management coming to some faculty body at the last minute, requesting a quick passage, or OK, to move forward on something suggests managers do not really respect our opinions, they simply need a record of assent to satisfy requirements for collaboration they don’t believe in, nor want to truly take part in. Saying yes to these kinds of things, or participating in groups that systematically do little more than rubber stamp management requests, isn’t doing anyone any favors (except management) and is exhausting too many of us. We’re too good for that, and we should stop saying yes to things that support the dysfunctional culture management has cultivated in this District. Further, we should not support the idea that people overextending themselves are making things better for us, or students….that, somehow, being overextended and busy is admirable, it’s not.

It’s time for each of us to individually reclaim our time in a manner that makes sense to us as professionals, promotes quality in those things we do, and serves our students before anything else. Indeed, it’s time to demand that when our time is asked for, especially by management, that it’s serious, ethical, and truly collaborative. Anything short of that is selling each and every one of us (and our students) short. And, anyone who feels guilty about saying no to nonsense and dysfunction needs to stop because saying yes to only the right things means saying no to a lot of wrong things.