Is email your tool, or are you its?

21st century skills
Over the next few months, Robert Ahdoot, a high-school math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, will be sharing singular, bite-sized morsels of inspired education strategies. These aim to be juicy, yet easily digestible pieces of teaching wisdom. Enjoy.

To: myemailpractices@anyschoolusa.com
CC: myproductivity@, mywork-life-balance@
BCC: myinnerpeace@
Subject: Some ideas to improve both of us – urgent

Dear email,

I hope it’s OK that I reach out to you about this; it’s been on my mind for a while now. I would do it in person, but well, you know… you’re email.

I’ll say this once, and then we can move forward and figure this out together. I love you. You just need to back off a little.

Sigh. What am I saying? You’re EMAIL. You’re going to do your thing, regardless of what I do. Nevertheless, I’m going to let you know of several high-priority shifts I intend to make within our relationship.

For everyone’s sake, I’m not going to feel obligated to reply to emails I receive late at night. Perhaps it’s a colleague taking care of business within their schedule. Or it’s a parent with a question. Both may email whenever they wish, but I’m mustn’t feel compelled to reply immediately. If it is truly time sensitive, e.g. urgent forms for a next-day field trip or athletic updates due to weather, they can call or text me. Anyone who abuses the privilege to have my phone number I will address individually.

Sometimes, it’s a student panicking the night before a test: “Can we use calculators?... Will the test cover blah?... I heard that the other class didn’t have enough time; will I get more time if I don’t finish?” Any students’ choice to wait until the 11th hour is theirs to make, yet I respectfully decline to get sucked into that energy vortex. Plus, not replying and following up in person during class with the following general announcement creates a teaching moment: “Class, late last night on email, some students understandably reached out with last minute questions. I appreciate how you care about your performance and seek more information to improve in that regard. It turns out though that I’m an actual person. I put my finger on my wrist to verify, and yes I’m surprised too, I have a pulse… I’m a living, breathing, eating, loving, and sometimes sleeping human being. I will not be replying to emails past X:00pm. Therefore, please plan to reach out way sooner, or perhaps contact your friends, check the online class page, or even simply take a deep breath and ask yourself if your message is truly necessary. If you’re just having a moment of panic, you may be sending your email in that temporary frenzied state, which won’t be productive.”

I’ll return to student emails, but first let’s come to an agreement about messages from colleagues, and then we’ll cover parental emails. To my fellow faculty emails: Here’s the deal: If I receive allfaculty@ messages, such as updates on clubs, news articles, or info on upcoming events, know that I’m reading for content and not style. I plan to batch my email checking/sending for efficiency and to accomplish other work/life goals. If replies are necessary, I’ll slide into “business mode,” i.e. forgoing niceties to get only the ideas across. For example, (Reply) “Sounds good, I’m avail Tues and Wed lunch” (Send). If you misinterpret my tone as anything negative, either you don’t know me, or we’re not close enough for you to approach and talk to me about it. Final note to colleagues: if you send nonsense all the time, then you’ve earned a spot on my unofficial nonsense-sender list, and I won’t pay much attention to your tomfoolery.

My next realignment shall address parent emails. Mostly, they are legitimate check-ins about their children. I totally get that, and I will open-heartedly give them the info they desire. Considering how grades are posted online, I’ll focus my replies on classroom demeanor and anecdotes during our time together. I’ll offer a couple ways the student can improve, remind the parent about major deadlines approaching (a hugely beneficial way to give them the next “thing” to focus on), and invite them to reach out in the future. That way, I’m not obligated to remember each person to follow up with. If I do, great, otherwise I’ve put the ball in their court.

If, however, a parent email crosses the boundary of inappropriate, either in tone, accusations, or policy undermining, I will wait at least a few hours so as to let them cool down if necessary. This cannot be glossed over – a simple cool-off period for them (and me?) will potentially save us both a mountain of stress. At that point, I may choose to call, and either on voicemail or directly, explain the story and stick to the facts. That’s what pros do – they remain factual, they don’t fall into the emotional drama, and best of all, they are proficient at diffusing parental TNT. Or I can address the issue on email. For all types of parents, ranging from ideal to not, some go-to words and phrases are: concerned, transparent, on the same team, using the student’s name, I understand your frustration and wish to resolve it with you, care (e.g. “I care about Sarah’s success”), reasonable, expectations, accountable, here’s why we… (e.g. “here’s why we ask students to turn in a draft one week beforehand…”), and this is what (name) can do to improve. More than anything, such phrases set the tone for the exchange, which is vital. Appropriate supervisors will be openly cc’d for top-cover, and the email will include the original parent message. If my supervisor is not the top-cover type, then sadly I must carry the torch myself.

And finally, let’s come to a consensus about the emotional student email. These days, students have become increasingly unable to express their emotions in person. They turn to email as their primary form of deeper expression. We’ve gotten the emails about their fears or anxieties, for instance, “I’m scared that I’ll get a really bad grade in your class” or “I feel so lost in class / at home / on tests” or “I feel like I don’t get it, no matter what I do.” These types of despair and fear-laden messages are an opening to develop the teacher-student relationship. Call me old-school, but I truly believe that expressing that type of despair on email, to someone whom we see most days, bears the same problems as expressing relationship fears over email to a loved one whom we also see most days. In other words, email is an excellent transmitter of information. It does not do justice to the heart though, as much as we’ve tried desperately to bestow it such power. Thus, any student despair email shall get this type of response: “Dear Ben, thank you for reaching out and sharing your feelings with me. It takes a lot to open up like that, and I commend you for it. I have some ideas to help you figure this out; let’s talk about them on Tuesday during ___. As a final note, I just want to invite you to approach me in person for anything like this in the future. If I haven’t made that invitation clear in the past, I apologize. Your feelings are too important and real for email, so working them out face-to-face is the best way to figure it all out. Warmly, ___.”

Now, a renewed relationship is born, steeped in human connection and partnership. That’s the goal: to leverage email so that we can better connect to those whom we intend to serve. Any email that undermines that goal, or adds needless noise, shall be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly. I acknowledge that this is a one-way dialogue, being that you’re email and all. I know that you aren’t intentionally frustrating my life, so it’s on me to expand or contract your presence in it so that I can be most effective, and thus fulfilled. I really do love you, and I can’t imagine my life without you.

Yours forever… well, since you don’t own me anymore, I can’t say that… so…

You’re mine forever,
Robert

Robert Ahdoot is a high-school math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, a free online collection of math video lessons filmed live in his classroom, using costumes and characters. Robert has been teaching high-school math for 10 years, has given two TEDx talks, and travels to schools promoting his message of positive learning through human connection. He is the author of One-on-One 101, The Art of Inspired and Effective Individualized Instruction.

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