The band has packed up the instruments. Leftover cake is boxed, ready to take back and share at school. Happy graduates and their proud families are on their way home. The auditorium, which just an hour ago was bustling with noise, energy, and the endless clicks of cameras, is now quiet. I am sitting with a member of our student services team, enjoying a few delicious dinner mints and catching my breath.

There is a reflective electricity in the air, and my colleague capitalizes on it. She asks me about my first year in the principalship. After a few reflective musings, she pauses and then says, “Could I share something with you?” This particular person often brings me new perspectives about how our staff and students are feeling. “Of course,” I say. 

“We’ve all noticed that you say ‘yes’ a whole lot more than the last principal,” my colleague says. “I wonder if that is something you want to address?” 

I smile, my eyes crinkling at her observation. “Yes!” We laugh.

What “Yes” Means to Students, Teachers

What does “yes” really mean? The short answer (as my staff has noticed) comes down to saying “yes” a lot more often than you say “no.” Here are some things I’ve said “yes” to recently. 

Teacher: Could I bring my son to our faculty meeting?

Student: Can my class project be about a real problem in my community?

Teacher: Can I start a new club?

Student: Could I write a poem instead?

Teacher: Could I change the direction of this assignment based on some feedback from my students?

Student: May I please try this again?

Teacher: Do you have five minutes?

There is a deeper philosophy underpinning saying “yes.” My colleague reminded me that this philosophy sometimes gets lost in the simplicity of seeming agreeable. The philosophy of saying “yes” puts trust in people, acknowledges that all experiences are valid, gives the benefit of the doubt, and suggests that sometimes the best way to find something out is to try a new approach. 

Examine how it works: Do I trust this student/teacher? Do I believe that their experiences are valid? Can I give them the benefit of the doubt? Am I willing to try this new idea? The answer to all of the above is usually “yes.”

Clear-Cut Benefits

There are many benefits to saying “yes.” First, saying “yes” in these contexts aligns with my leadership values. Saying “yes” often results in new strategies, solutions, or approaches, which are far better than our (or my) original ideas. Saying “yes” leads to people receiving what they need to more effectively learn or teach. Finally, people like hearing “yes,” and happy people are more invested, engaged, and successful. A mark of a great school district is happy, invested, engaged, and successful students and teachers.

There are a few times when policy, budget, or other circumstances mean I have to say “no,” but it’s not an answer I give lightly. On my best days, when I say “no,” I go back to the philosophy of yes questions (listed previously) and look for other ways to affirm our people. There is a bigger message I want to send by saying “yes.”

The underpinning of many questions we ask our leaders is really this: Am I valued? Using different words, teachers and students ask me this every day, and on that question I am committed to a resounding “yes!” 

Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, PhD, is a faculty member in the University of Missouri’s College of Education, where she serves as the director of academic affairs for Mizzou K–12. She is also the principal of the University of Missouri High School and University of Missouri Middle School.