Monday, August 25, 2008

Education Week: Is E-Mail a Teacher’s Friend or Foe?

Education Week: Is E-Mail a Teacher’s Friend or Foe?

By Aliza Libman
In Education Week's August 27, 2008 issue.

(You need to be a subscriber to see the entire piece online...)

When a technical glitch meant that I could no longer check my school email at home, I cringed at first. How would I be responsive to the needs of my students? How would I get everything done without staying at school until 8 pm? The situation seemed nightmarish at first. To my great shock, though, my inability to email around the clock actually forced me to become a better teacher.

Many of the students we teach can’t remember life before e-mail. But even for young teachers, email is a new addition to the teacher’s toolbox, and often a painful one. Many passionate teachers dream about impacting lives, but few are similarly enthused by the perceived ‘round-the-clock availability of teachers, as created by e-mail.

In my inbox, on a daily basis, about 50 messages pop up from students, parents, administrators and other teachers. Some read “hey did u get my papr i left it in ur box.” Some are epics that rival “Crime and Punishment” for length. Some are 10pm missives about tomorrow’s homework. Almost all get antsy if I don’t reply instantaneously.

There are three ways by which email can pose a problem: Volume, content and choice of media. By volume, I mean we teachers have too many emails to respond to, and by content I mean we must deal with emails that are rude, unclear, or of painful grammar. And of course, there is always a risk of trying to use email when phone or face-to-face communication would do the job better.

When I teach students about safe and appropriate use of the internet, I remind them that the internet is a tool, like a hammer, axe or saw. Wielded carefully and appropriately, it can do a job that needs doing. In the hands of an unskilled or careless person, though, it can cause great harm.

If I email a parent about his or her child, depending on the circumstance, I may be copying one guidance counselor, one or two administrators, one or two learning support staff members, the office staff and/or the school psychologist on that one email. Each has to read it, apprise him or herself of what is going on and decide whether or not to reply to or file this email. This volume of email is critical, so that we all know what is going on. The student in question will come into school the next day, expecting the adult professionals working with him or her to know all about his or her personal situation and how the school has decided to handle it.

In fact, in this email-savvy generation, being able to deal with a reasonable volume of email on a daily basis is an incredible asset that helps us connect to our students where they are and allows us to respond to them in a manner that is comfortable for them, and moderately convenient for us. (After all, your email can’t ring after midnight like your phone can.)

When the content of the email is unclear, malicious or consists entirely of acronyms, the value of email is less clear. Consider the email from the parent who told me that my differentiated instruction (a school-wide priority) made all the students feel stupid. Email has paved the way for tirades like these, because many people will say in an email what they might not feel comfortable saying to someone’s face. Regardless of the merits of her concern, this parent’s accusatory words set the tone for an entire day where her diatribe hung over me like Eeyore’s cloud of gloom.

At some level, we control whether or not we let our students and their parents get under our skin. In any given year three or four parents pick a major fight with me, but the other 100+ families of the children I teach are either happy with me or keeping it to themselves. But I can’t stop myself from walking into work, turning on my computer, logging into my email, and letting one angry parent ruin an otherwise lovely day.

My sensitivity to their emails helps me to understand one universal truth about teaching – anything I say may be misinterpreted. After all, if I am irked by the emails of my students, then I must choose my words carefully when emailing them. A misplaced comma or adjective not chosen carefully can cause major harm to the parent-teacher and student-teacher relationships I labor endlessly to cultivate.

The last area of challenge applies more to younger generations of teachers than to older ones: we who like email the best are most likely to use it in cases where it is not the ideal medium. Just as every teen magazine my students read preaches: “don’t break up with someone via email”, so too we must remember that sensitive issues call for face-to-face discussions.

Every teacher is acquainted with some form of these problems. And like many things in education, the answers may be clear, but that doesn’t mean they will be easy to implement. Teacher best practices apply to email as well as the classroom: Make your expectations and limitations clear from the outset. Many schools, like mine, have policies that give teachers a certain time frame in which to respond to emails. Just like I tell my students 50+ times that they must bring a notebook and a pen to class, knowing full well that eventually, most will remember, but some will always forget, so too we all must clarify clear expectations to our students and their parents, knowing some will always disregard them.

I found without email at home, I had to be quick and efficient or I’d end up staying hour hours after school ended. I taught myself how to prioritize and weed out the emails that didn’t require immediate attention or didn’t require responses at all. I found that with restricted email ability, I would think seriously before emailing if there were a better way to communicate with a family or solve a problem. I didn’t dash off emails quickly, but rather, when I emailed, I did so carefully and with attention paid to every word. Perhaps email is like ice-cream – too much makes me sick, but life without it would be inconceivable.


At 7:14 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

So far we haven't given our emails to students and their families or if I have done it it was my own choice. For instance this summer I gave it to 2 students who were supposed to send me homework to improve their writing skills.
This should change this coming year and I must say that I am not looking forward to it, especially those asking for delays in homework or coming from angry parents.

At 3:00 p.m., Blogger Don Martelli said...

Aliza...good post about teachers and emails. I worked in a school as the PR/marcomm director and often felt that teachers saw email as the enemy at times. It was always looked at as "work" to them. As someone who blogs and is in tune with online interactions, you know how useful technology can be for a teacher. As a parent, I welcome the idea of connecting with teachers so I can ensure my kids are doing well in class, if there's anything I need to reinforce at home, issues that need to be addressed, etc. I see the teacher/parent thing has a partnership can only help in that process ONLY if there's no abuse, i.e. emails at 2am in the morning expecting a reply is a bit much.

On another note, Juggling Frogs mentioned I contact you about a story I'm discussing with fellow bloggers about YALDAH magazine and the young girl behind it. You can reach me at donald.martelli[@] or on twitter at if you want to discuss it further.


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