10 September 2010

Taming the Monster

When I started my teaching career, there was no email. The physical mailboxes in the main office were the main point of communication---paper notes exchanged to carry on the business of the school. After I moved to Washington (15 years ago...), email became part of my job function. This mode of information exchange has evolved a bit since then. In those early days, students often had their own email addresses---and there were no blocks in place to keep them from accessing it at school. Many teens in my classroom had pagers, but not cell phones. And certainly there was no texting. Email was the main point of contact for us outside of school hours. I sent study questions, provided tutoring, was the occasional agony aunt, and of course, stayed in touch with their parents.

Over the years, student use of email has decreased significantly. Some teachers think it is because the Internet filters of most schools block access. Others think that students have just moved on to other tools (Facebook posts, text messages, etc.). I think it's some of both, but email itself is not going away. I am seeing a fair number of young adults (and, to be fair, recalcitrant old-timers) in the workforce who don't manage their email well. You can find any number of posts on the Internet about dealing with email, but I will distill some wisdom here, too.
  • Set aside some time at least once a day to manage your messages. Some people like alerts that tell them every time a message appears...others schedule a time at the beginning and the end of the day. I'm not going to advocate for any particular schedule, other than commit to dealing with email at one point during the day. 
  • Set up folders to store messages---do not let them sit in your inbox. Also, save any and all communications that are not just "FYI" items, including the messages you send. Not only will this help keep your inbox from overflowing, it will make it simpler to find the information you need later.
  • When you read an email, make an immediate decision about its purpose and what to do with it. Is it just a note from the office about the volleyball team leaving early? Perhaps the principal is giving a reminder that there's a change in the schedule? Read and delete anything that has immediate information. Read and move to a designated folder anything that has long term information (e.g. a new form from the district or things about the payroll system). Don't read and leave these in your inbox. If it is a message that requires a response from you, respond immediately if the answer can be provided in three sentences or less. Then, either delete the message or move it to a folder. Again, don't leave it in your inbox. If your response will require a significant response, email might not be the best mode. Tell the sender you'll give them a call or set aside time to compose a reply. You can achieve inbox zero every day.
  • If you have sensitive information or a difficult situation---don't use email. Email creates a record. Contents of a phone call or in person conversation do not. Choose wisely.
  • Finally, a word about difficult email. You're going to get these once in awhile. It might be a parent who is ripping you a new one. Maybe it's a message from the district office about cuts to your favourite program. Perhaps it's a colleague who is (in your opinion) acting like an ass. Whatever the case, there will be things that land in your inbox which send your blood pressure through the roof. Here is what I recommend. (1) Hit the "reply" button. (2) Immediately erase any information in the header---the email address in the "To" box, subject line, any CC/BCC addresses. Take away any possibility that this message can be sent. (3) Write the email you really want to send. No, really---do it. Use whatever language you want. Let it all hang out. (4) Read it a few times. Smile. Breathe. Do not show it to anyone, no matter how tempting. (5) Delete this response...then delete it from your deleted items folder. (6) Now, hit the "reply" button again. (7) Write the email that is okay to send. Since you've already allowed yourself an opportunity to tell them off, there is much less of a chance that you will either be outright ugly or passive aggressive in this message. (8) Save the draft and let it sit overnight. Read it again the next day after you've had more time to cool off and reflect on things. If you're still not sure, get the opinion of a colleague or admin. Then, send the message.
You can have a healthy relationship with your inbox. Email does not have to eat up a lot of time and energy or rule your day. I expect that its use will continue to evolve as other forms of communication gain favour within the school walls. For now, just remember to let it know you're the boss.

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