We love it and we hate it. Email. With the appearance of a red flag or the sound of a friendly ping, it instantly makes communication easier and more complicated. Recent years have taught us some tough lessons about our cyber-conversations:
1. You can't take back what you've written.
2. Our first impression most often comes through what and how we write.
3. Our haste can cause us to suggest a tone or meaning we didn't intend. Educators aren't immune to these oversights, especially as our inboxes are more and more crowded.
Knowing that communication is a two-way street, it's productive, then, to also think practically about how teachers can respond to tough emails. I've been on both sides of these conversations: as a teacher and as a parent. Together, they've taught me a lot about the way I want to approach these exchanges.
Here's what I've learned from being on the teacher's end of the inbox.
1. Don't get defensive. It never fails that we'll get the toughest emails on the days that we're the most exhausted or have exercised the greatest patience. It can be so easy to get defensive when our practice, our grading, or our attention to students is questioned. But these are the moments that we have to be the most empathetic. A hastened response with a defensive cloud can quickly stifle a conversation and send a parent straight for a CC to the principal. Instead we have to take a breath and put the email into context.
2. We're teaching all the time. Yep. All the time. We're even teaching parents when we respond to their emails or questions. We're teaching them about the culture of our classroom, about the way we've seen their child learn, about the way we make deliberate instructional decisions.
3. No one is perfect. In the same way that we teachers are fully aware of our imperfections, parents will make mistakes, too. Approaching a parent with curiosity or empathy can go a long way in creating a strong partnership. This means that instead of leading with accusation, a start of thanks (I appreciate the way you've been following up at home), empathy (I know how important your child's success is to you), or curiosity (I've been curious about how the homework process is going with "Zoe" and am anxious to hear more about it), will open lines of communication.
4. Turn these communications into opportunities. Whether you're responding to a parent or initiating the conversation, our email communications can be incredibly powerful. Seeing even the most difficult messages as an opportunity can help us all work towards the same goal: creating a better opportunity for students to learn.
5. Use the phone, too. Sometimes the email's tone will tell you just how frustrated the sender is, and in such cases a phone call can be much more productive. Don't hesitate to use it as an opportunity to listen and put the concern in context.
Knowing these traits of productive conversations is one thing, but remembering to use them when a tough email comes in, can be another. Nevertheless, our responses are an extension of our professionalism, and I thought this exercise in thinking really practically about sample responses could be helpful to all of us trying to find the right words.
The response about social or behavior concerns
- It's important to talk about just the student and not other students in the classroom. In this example, I've used phrases that may be part of the classroom like "classroom friends" (which is probably more common in primary vs. secondary classrooms).
- Don't place or displace blame. That only takes you further away from the issue: helping the student have an optimal learning environment.
- Create a context for the parent. Help her to understand the entire situation.
The response about grades
- Even though it's incredibly easy to get pulled into a debate about "getting more points," or a grading policy, this has to be a conversation about learning. Knowing what you want students to have learned for a given assignment will be imperative going into these conversations.
- In these conversations, I try to address any specific questions about an assignment by providing a clearer context about grading policies, how points are distributed, or the purpose of an assignment.
The response about a classroom practice
- One of the toughest responses to craft can be the ones where our decisions about the classroom and how or what we teach are being questioned. I’ve fielded questions ranging all the way from why I grouped students in a particular way, to why I gave homework over a break, to why our department had chosen to teach Maya Angelou. Curiosity is the key here. Sometimes the real question underlies the complaint, and we can make a lot of progress by understanding the difference.
- We have to know when our instructional decisions are sound and shouldn’t be changed, versus when we may have overlooked something and we have room to revise.
As the school year gets into full swing, undoubtedly parents and teachers alike will find themselves needing ways to engage in problem-solving conversations. Hopefully these examples can help us keep learning, and that cooperation comes through as the heart of our messages. And don’t forget – sending positive emails home are fun to do, too!
Here's another great resource by Vicki Davis, 8 Great Email Etiquette Tips.
Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.