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.