Does our use of possessive adjectives in schools make us less collaborative?

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You have heard the saying before: “There is no ‘I’ in team but there is ‘M’ and ‘E’.” I often observe interactions between leaders in schools and teachers. I watch the body language and I listen to the words used and the tone in which they are spoken. The relationship between school leaders and teachers is so crucial to moving schools forward, so much so that I have often considered the impact of the language that leaders and teachers use when communicating with each other.

I am particularly interested in how we use possessive adjectives and believe that how we use these adjectives can either bring school teams together, or divide them.

I believe that the use of the possessive adjective, ‘my’, in schools, can be particularly detrimental to collaboration that is so essential to school improvement. As teachers, we can often use the terms, ‘my classroom’, ‘my class’, ‘my students’ and ‘my free periods / non-contact time’. The sense of student and class ownership can communicate to others the territory which a teacher has and may wish to protect. We may hear the following sentence: “That will not work with my class.” From this, one can get a sense that there is a barrier between that teacher and their colleagues and the leaders in the school. When we hear a teacher talk about “my free periods,” it can easily be interpreted as the non-contact time belonging solely to the teacher. In fact the non-contact teaching time does not belong to the teacher at all, it is time that should be used dedicated to the achieving the mission and the vision of the school. This can oftentimes lead to conflicts over the use of the time, especially if when a teacher is required to undertake particular tasks or attend collaborative planning meetings.

School leaders, on the other hand, can fall into the trap of using the word, ‘you’. This can lead to significant staff division in a school, as a school leader saying “you need to do this” separates the leader from the team, which is not healthy. Leaders must be an instrumental part of their team. Yes, the buck may stop with them and, at times, they may need to exert control in order to focus the team, set direction and ensure standards and expectations are met, but they are part of the team too in achieving the goals that it sets.

I am not advocating that the possessive adjectives of ‘my’ and ‘you’ should not be used whatsoever in schools. I am suggesting that we be aware of how these words can drive a wedge between leaders and teachers in a school. Instead, the possessive terms of ‘we’ and ‘our’ need to be used more frequently to build a sense of a collective and collaborative team, working together towards a common goal of improving our schools.

The power of language has the ability to create a positive and healthy school culture rather than the unhealthy, toxic culture that does not support our teachers and our students.

Originally published on the Ed Leader Blog

Connect with me @richard_bruford


  1. The author presents an interesting, and contradictory, notion of ownership. Do we not encourage students to “own” their actions, both academic, athletic, and interpersonal? Why then should a teacher hesitate to feel ownership of his or her classroom, students, or course? Certainly I feel a deep sense of responsibility to create effective learning opportunities for my students and my subject, and that responsibility includes knowing my students well, selecting course material, and arranging the furniture in the classroom (“my” classroom, that I decorate, organize and arrange so as to promote the most effective space and atmosphere. Sure it’s the school’s room, but they’ve hired me to support their mission through effective teaching, and I do that in a physical space that requires care and attention).

    It sounds as though the author simply doesn’t like it when teachers question his leadership decisions, which sound as though they involve intrusions on their time. Teachers’ “free” periods exist so that they can grade and comment on student work, plan and prepare lessons, meet with students who need help or guidance, speak with the learning specialist about strategies for struggling students, and share ideas with colleagues. All of this is mission-critical work. Obviously if my principal needs to meet with me during a planning period, I attend. But at the same time I expect that my principal would never intrude on my planning period unless it was absolutely necessary, just as I would not monopolize his time for trivial reasons.

    I expect my principal to assume that I am reflective about my teaching and consistently engaged in improving the effectiveness of learning that takes place in my classroom. E-mail, faculty meetings, and in-service time allow for collaboration and professional development. Social media allows me to collaborate with colleagues and stay current in my field and in matters of pedagogy. Evenings and weekends not spent grading and planning are spent reading in my field. My department head knows me and my methodology very well, and my principal engages with his students and faculty in countless informal ways that give him a good sense of the quality of teaching and learning that’s taking place in his school. The leadership in my school encourages innovation and excellence by trusting and supporting the faculty it has hired.

    A teacher who says “that will not work in my class” is likely speaking from experience and subject-area knowledge. Why would anyone assume that he or she is erecting a “barrier between…colleagues and leaders”? Are you listening to the teacher when he tells you *why* he thinks your proposal won’t work? Unless you have a stable of very inexperienced teachers, the author is describing a deeply condescending, and morale-crushing, attitude. If any of my administrators reacted that way to an expressed concern, I would assume an utter lack of respect, understanding, and trust that would have me polishing my resume and looking for a better school.

    January 16, 2016
    • Thank you for reading the post and taking the time to contribute your viewpoint on the first part of the article.

      January 16, 2016

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