Its 10.30pm on Sunday. I’m in pyjamas, ready for bed. I’ve got my cocoa and hot-water bottle, and I’m relishing a few hours’ rest before another busy week of teaching.
But then my phone buzzes with an email alert. And there I see it, like an unexploded bomb: another email from “that parent”. Subject: “Urgent!”
We’ve all met “that parent”. The one who bombards you with questions in the supermarket about their child’s progress, or monopolises you at parents’ evening, or always excuses their child’s misdemeanours.
The question is whether or not to read the email now. If you read it, you’ll start thinking about how to reply; don’t read it, and perhaps you’ll miss a serious complaint. What if they ambush you at the gate tomorrow and you aren’t prepared?
Of course, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether you read the email or not. Just seeing it will be enough to raise your stress levels, perhaps costing you sleep.
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And it isn’t just evenings that can fall foul of the curse of emails. While you’re teaching a class of 30 children, busy ensuring that they are making progress, you can also find yourself trying to field emails from colleagues, parents, SLT and school admin.
It’s not easy for teachers to balance the stress of their scheduled responsibilities – planning and delivering lessons, marking work, doing break duties, giving pastoral support, offering extracurricular activities – with the ad-hoc weight of unscheduled responsibility, which often arrives by email.
Too many emails?
Every school and every teacher should consider how they’ll manage this. A recent study by William Becker at the Pamplin College of Business found that, even when not bringing work home, the “mere expectation of availability increases strain for employees and their significant others”.
We spend a lot of time in schools enjoying technology or weighing its impact on students. But do we consider enough the impact that technology can have on teachers? I don’t think we do.
So, what can schools do to support teachers? In my current school, we have implemented a centralised contact point between home and school – the school office – to better track communication, reduce teacher workload and ensure that emails from parents are dealt with promptly and consistently. All parents email the office, who first seek to deal with the enquiry themselves (dates of upcoming trips, uniform queries, sickness etc). If the message requires more specific support, it can be sent to the form tutor or subject teacher as appropriate.
However, this requires office staff to have an intimate knowledge of what teachers can do during the school day for it to be effective.
Three years ago, I was a Year 9 form tutor. One grumble from all form tutors was the amount of email about lost belongings: “Johnny’s PE kit is in reception, his parent asks him to pick it up”. The form tutor would only see their tutees briefly, in registrations. They’d usually need to identify where their student was when the email arrived, forward it to the teacher who was teaching them, then check that the message had got through. Around 10 such emails per teacher would come in on a normal day, which was maddening.
Now, as head of key stage 3, I’m sent many emails daily, forwarded from parents by the office. But I’ve made it part of my role to ensure that the form tutors I work with don’t become bogged down by them and are instead free to interact with their students. Each day I filter these emails, judging which can be passed to tutors, which I can handle and which should be passed to SLT.
It’s taken time to make this happen. When I took the role, emails would often be sent by the office to every teacher with a passing interest in the child, plus all of SLT. Because teachers are generally caring people who want to ensure that their students are supported and happy, this frequently led to several people dealing with the same simple request. Time spent explaining to frontline office staff how teaching works, and how the school day is structured, has greatly reduced wasted time.
But the system also needs constant maintenance. When a new office assistant starts, the process begins again.
It’s further complicated in an international school, where a fair number of teachers, office staff and parents are not communicating in their mother tongue. Patience is required by all to avoid misunderstandings.
We need to work with parents to ensure realistic expectations of what teachers are doing during the school day, and of teachers’ ability to respond. We’ve asked our office staff to send “holding emails”, reassuring parents that non-urgent queries will be dealt with shortly. Teachers are encouraged to send similar emails, using out-of-office responses if they wish. In more complicated situations, I’ll email the parent personally to tell them when I’ll deal with their query and when they can expect a response. As parents are invested in their child’s education, gently reminding them that you’re teaching is often enough to secure some breathing space.
Teachers can also take some responsibility for managing email stress themselves. I strongly advise my team not to sync emails to their phone and that they learn to “triage” messages. I have systems set up where automatic alerts and circulars go into one folder in my inbox and I feed the rest into three other folders: “urgent, to be dealt with today”; “important, to be dealt with this week”; “information, no reply needed”. This system helps me to feel on top of the emails I receive and reduce stress.
One final point. It’s also worth considering the example you set as a leader. If you’re a middle or senior leader and happen to be working very late, don’t send emails to your staff at this time. Type them up by all means, but don’t hit "send" until tomorrow. This reduces the possibility of error, when a tired teacher makes a mistake, while also setting a positive example for organisational culture.
Similarly, if you have sent an email in the evening, don’t expect your colleagues to have read it the next morning. They cannot stay “plugged in” at all times.
The advice often given to teachers in the classroom is to have good routines, clear expectations and boundaries. This advice should apply to emails and be adopted by all of us in schools.
Natasha Skinner is head of key stage 3 at the British School of Bucharest