Thinking About Appropriate Use of Email...
This blog is about practical practice, right?!
I get an enormous number of emails. Most principals and teachers get a large number of emails. I suspect we find email glut everywhere, in every profession. Email is so easy to use. But, just at a casual glance, this tool has at least two significant issues.
• The Sender/Receiver Imbalance
A parent can fire off a short email (I have a dear principal colleague who calls some of them "email drive-bys") that requires very little of his or her time but a great deal of time for a thoughtful response. For example: "I was very displeased with Sally's grade on this project. Explain this to me." Two short sentences requiring only a matter of seconds for the sender to type and click "send." However, this email will require the teacher spend several minutes going into some detail to provide a comprehensive explanation, hence creating an imbalance in time commitment.
And, of course, some parents invest a significant amount of time composing lengthy, detailed emails that require a significant amount of time to read, process, and then reply. But even these almost always require more time to reply to than to compose and send or the parent may feel their concern did not get the attention it deserved: hence the imbalance. When the teacher receives many emails each day, this time commitment can add up quickly.
To further exacerbate the problem, teachers typically want to think through their response, provide a detailed and comprehensive answer, and really pay adequate attention to the needs being expressed. This desire for appropriateness requires an investment of valuable time.
• Tonal Concerns
Because we process so much email, we are all but forced to give our replies less attention. In our efforts to economize time spent, we may attempt to use fewer words, leave out entire thoughts and processes or procedures and jump to conclusions.
My email replies often sound all but terse. Such attempts to reduce the time imbalance so as to afford us the time to attend to all of the email in our inbox may be (all too frequently are?) misunderstood as negative emotional tone.
I suspect we have all had instances where our reply was misunderstood because the reader misread the emotional tone of our response. Email is such an effective tool for quick communications between people who know each other well enough to cut the person on the other end of the "digital line" some slack.
I suppose an example would be those short, quick emails you send and receive from your friends that don't even use proper mechanics or complete sentences but communicate effectively and quickly because of the personal relationship already established. But professional emails do not enjoy this personal emotive space, and probably should not.
I personally think that email is not the best tool to use in many instances in which it is used. A quick phone call might do a much better job of communicating the needed attention and emotional tone required to address questions or concerns in a manner that earns support and understanding.
But, perhaps because the original communication was initiated through email, we may feel an email reply is expected. I would encourage educators to rethink this supposition. Perhaps the phone call begins with, "I got your email and wanted to take just a moment to communicate with you personally..." I think often parents feel that they are being less time-invasive by sending the busy teacher the email and avoiding the phone call. If that's the case, then certainly, click reply.
Another very interesting approach I have recently encountered is provided by these websites: two.sentenc.es, three.sentenc.es, four.sentenc.es, or five.sentenc.es. Check out one of the links just listed. This could be the signature the email might use:
All the best,
Q: Why was this reply just 5 sentences or less?
Education is a profession all about attending to the needs of people. If I were designing one of these website responses for educators, it would look a bit different than those sited above. At the very least I would also include a statement that might read: "If this short email reply has not adequately addressed your question or concern, feel free to contact me by phone. I would be glad to discuss this in more detail through a phone call."
I am not advocating teachers start using these sites without first having a conversation with your building administration to see if this is in keeping with a larger vision for effective communication with stakeholders. At the very least, the conversations that could unfold among the stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, and administration) might help everyone better understand the most effective communication strategies available to a community of learners.