Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Email Dos and Don’ts for Educators


Facebook and Twitter may be the newest tools for communicating with families, and good old-fashioned phone calls may still be in order when problems arise. But surveys and other evidence show that email has become the preferred method of communication between educators and parents. And, when done right, email can be manageable as well as effective. 

According to a 2011 survey by the National School Public Relations Association, email was parents’ preferred method of communication from schools, beating out phone messaging systems, text messaging, and social networking. And a 2012 survey found that 77 percent of parents and 58 percent of teachers agreed with the statement that email is a “very valuable” tool to help teachers effectively and consistently communicate with parents. The national survey was sponsored by the Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission, which is supported by the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Education, in part to support the latter’s National Education Technology Plan. 

Email is valuable because it is quick, efficient, and asynchronous, according to principals and teachers who use it regularly. It can also overcome long-standing barriers to family-school communication (like work schedule conflicts) and can be translated for families who don’t speak English, these educators say. For many schools, one of email’s biggest attractions is its ability to reach many families at once, while avoiding the problem of the black-hole backpack. Elementary school teacher Patricia Seidler says, “Parent communication is a critical part of my ability to help my students, and email is a vehicle for communication that often makes things easier for everyone involved.” 

But the asynchronous nature of email can also be a challenge, educators report. Emails are often misconstrued due to ambiguous tone or lack of facial cues. Such misunderstandings have big implications for educator-family relationships, which according to research are sometimes already tense due to differing expectations, lack of trust, and real and perceived discrimination. And despite evidence that the “digital divide” across socioeconomic and racial groups is closing, lack of access remains a concern. 

The challenges of email are certainly not new, but they can be difficult to navigate for even the most seasoned educator. Few schools have guidelines for staff, and the laws governing electronic communications are murky. How can educators avoid these pitfalls and get the most out of email? 

DO establish relationships with families through other methods first. There’s nothing like face-to-face contact for building the foundation of a relationship, and many educators find that email is most effective when it follows an initial in-person contact. Because it’s not always easy or comfortable for families to attend school events, some educators go into the community to establish relationships. Strategies include home visits, attendance at community events, and partnerships with institutions like libraries, community centers, and hair salons. Once these in-person contacts are established, some educators find that email can actually increase parent attendance at school meetings and events.

DO create an email policy. Policies should be shared with families at the beginning of the year. They should explain how quickly staff will respond and specify what kinds of information are and are not appropriate for email. School-wide policies can facilitate consistency, but experts say that few schools have them. Teacher-level policies appear to be more common, though they are rarely formalized. Seidler, who has taught in both Virginia and Massachusetts, encourages parents to email, but sets a guideline that they should call or set up an appointment if an email becomes longer than 2–3 paragraphs. “I set this guideline because I found that parents would sit and spend an hour writing an email at night when we could have had a 20–30 minute conversation the next day and solve the issue at hand.”

DO have a plan for managing email communication. In a small but intriguing study, Blair Thompson of Western Kentucky University found that teachers reported a surprisingly small amount of time spent on emailing with families (30–60 minutes per week). This was true even though parents preferred email to other methods of communication. Thompson believes that the reason email hasn’t become unmanageable is because teachers are skilled at adapting and being efficient. But it’s easy to see how time spent on email could spiral and become unmanageable, especially for teachers with a large number of students. Some teachers decide when and how long they will spend emailing. Eighth-grade science teacher Donna Peruzzi, who teaches in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says it’s important to “respond in a timely manner, but set boundaries (e.g., I don’t respond to work email on weekends).” At the Bowling Green Junior High School in Kentucky, Principal Cynthia Jones West includes in her email signature how quickly parents can expect to receive a response.

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