I have just spent two days sorting out my school e-mail inbox reducing its contents from over 10,000 to nearly 0!
Questions I am asking myself:
- How did my inbox get this high?
- Why didn’t I clear this every day?
- Why are so many e-mails sent in schools?
Having thought about this, I considered how e-mail is used in schools (in general). Its benefits, drawbacks and some ideas about possible solutions.
The benefits of e-mail at school:
- An easy way to disseminate information, meeting requests, reminders of deadlines etc.
- A record of the communication is kept.
- Printing is kept to a minimum compared to memos.
- You don’t have to rely on students and office staff to carry messages to others.
- You don’t have to run to your pigeon hole three times a day, which may be a long walk if you work in a large school!
The drawbacks of e-mail at school:
- E-mail overload from necessary but sometimes unnecessary e-mails that are being sent to large groups of people that clog up teachers’ inboxes and add to our workload.
- Having to sort e-mails from an inbox into folders or delete! Just like the paper in-tray, where does it go to, filed (and if so why are you filing it?) or the recycling bin? I find sometimes that I have too many folders, sub-folders and even (I hate to admit) sub-sub-folders! When trying to decide where an e-mail should go, sometimes I think – ‘it should go in this folder but also this one too.’ This adds to the time taken to sort e-mails.
- The instantaneous nature of e-mail means that people often expect an instant response (reminds me of the MSN Messenger days!), even though you shouldn’t really reply to e-mails whilst teaching. This adds to pressure during the working day.
- Conflict can arise from e-mails fired off too quickly, especially in the heat of the moment. It can be hard to read others’ emotions in an e-mail.
- E-mails sent late at night, in the holidays or at the weekend pressurise teachers to check them.
- If parents have easy access to your e-mail address it can be pressurised for teachers to have to respond in a timely manner, especially if there are lots of requests from parents.
- How do you know if the recipient has understood your e-mail and actioned on what you have asked?
Ideas for solutions!
- Set the culture and send fewer e-mails yourself and (hopefully) you will receive less in return. However, if you work in a large school and e-mails are fired off to all staff continuously then a few teachers may wish to approach the HR Department or their union representative for a quiet word and see if anything can be done about it. Don’t send another all-staff e-mail back moaning about the number of irrelevant e-mails you’re receiving as this can add to the problem!
- Minimise the folder system. Whilst you may want to be precise about where to put each e-mail, the whole point of having that filing system is that you can retrieve what you need to easily. So for me, having just a folder for KS3 Science is sufficient, as will be one for Deputy Head of Year 11 (rather than individual sub-folders for each of the 200 students inside this folder!). When sorting e-mails you can easily sweep them to that one folder.
- Check your e-mail when you get into school, again at ‘break time,’ at the end of the school day and before you go home. That is four times a day and more frequent compared to employees in some other professions. If someone needs you urgently, they will come and find you. Have a standard reply when you see that e-mail from a member of staff asking to pass a message onto one of your students who you were teaching at the time and missed their e-mail. ‘Sorry I was teaching.’ Similarly, if someone approaches you and asks why you haven’t responded yet.
- If you are upset after reading an e-mail. Do not send an e-mail back! Go and take a walk away from your computer. Speak to a colleague (a friend really) you trust that isn’t going to go running to SLT with what you say at that time of distress. Keep calm and decide your next points of action. Meet with the person(s) and try to diffuse the conflict and/or discuss with your line manager etc.
- If you really need to sort through your e-mails at home at night or at the weekend, save an e-mail as a draft and click send first thing in the morning. Remember some people have e-mail notifications on their smartphones. You shouldn’t need to do this if you keep on top of this daily though at work.
- Schools shouldn’t have e-mail addresses that make them predictable for parents. Put numbers or other things in them so that parents are forced to e-mail the school office. Parents will know that the school office won’t be open after 5pm so they won’t expect a response that evening! It also allows the office to filter and forward anything concerning or offensive sent to the SLT rather than to an NQT trying to meet their teacher standards that don’t need to read it.
- E-mails should be more for information rather than communication. For directives, face to face is still good. E-mails can be used to back this up but ensure that the person face to face understands what you are expecting of them. You don’t want surprises later down the line due to misinterpretation!
My personal target for next term
Before I log off the computer to leave school each day, I need to spend 2-3 minutes putting e-mails in my inbox into the relevant folders (minimal filing system remember!) and only leaving really important e-mails that require action within the next few days in the inbox. If the e-mail needs to wait a few days, I will set an Outlook reminder and file the e-mail. Watch this space!
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Robert Brooks and published with kind permission. The article first appeared in 2015 and updated in 2020 by the UKEd Editorial team in accordance with website and policy updates.
The original post can be found here.