Managing E-mail: Thoughts and Observation

When I made the move from classroom teacher to school administration, I really was not prepared in some ways for all of the phone calls, voice mails, and emails that suddenly started coming across my desk. When I became principal of a middle school, the volume of that communication increased even more, especially the email load. One of my earliest struggles was how to manage the email overload, and maintain my sanity. It seemed that everyone wanted a response and they wanted it now.

Today, I finished reading John Freeman’s new book The Tyranny of E-mail. In this book, Freeman takes his readers back to look at how communication has evolved generally, and how email has evolved specifically to become the communication device of choice for many people. All of the disadvantages of email he describes I have come to know as an administrator. First of all, sometimes educators forget the asynchronous nature of email. For example, a teacher will send me an email in the morning, and if I have not responded by lunch time, they will send another one thinking that I did not receive the first one. The truth is, this teacher is mistaken in his/her belief about the fundamental nature of email. It is not for conversation, and it was not designed for that. People who expect synchronous responses to email should use the phone instead. A second problem regarding email I have encountered as an administrator is another problem Freeman describes is called “flaming.” For example, on several occasions I have received a volatile email from a parent or teacher that says things that few would rarely say in person, much less in writing. My own personal tendency in these instances is to pound out a response to this email and send. The problem is, most of the time it is best if I wait before sending a response. I need to think more carefully about what needs to be said. It is impossible to recall an email once the “send” button has been pushed. A third problem with email described by Freeman is that email does not allow for face-to-face interaction. This is true. When meeting with someone physically, we can read facial expressions, we can see hand gestures, and we can hear vocal inflections. All of these add meaning to what is being said. Email messages do not allow for this kind of communication. In the end, a recipient of an email can only rely on the words, which often can be unclear by themselves.

Thinking about Freeman’s book, my own experiences, and some other things I have read, I have developed some of my own “Email Rules.” The goal for these rules is to simply manage the email without the email managing me.

  1. Check email at predetermined times of the day. It is important to schedule daily email sessions each day. Freeman says that two of these are enough. Personally, I use three to four sessions each day. During these sessions, I read emails and respond to those that only require a quick response.
  2. Use the subject line to indicate the nature of each email. For example, an informational email will have “FYI” or FYR (For Your Review) in the subject line. This immediately tells the recipient that the message does not require action on his or her part. If the message requires a response,. I place “REQ” (Request) in the subject line. The point here is to come up with a common symbol system that clearly points to the purpose of email. This makes email management on both ends easier.
  3. Another idea Freeman describes I implemented over a year ago. When I receive an email that asks me to do something, if I can respond quickly, I do so. Most often these emails that make a request involve completing it at a later time. In these instances, I put the email in a To Do List folder, and I add the item to my Task List. By doing this, I tie my email to my to do list.
  4. Finally, I have decided that sometimes responding by email just isn’t the right thing to do. For example, when a teacher sends me an email requesting some instructional materials, and there just is not any budget for them, I will either call the teacher on the phone, or I will speak to them in person. Just sending an email response is often cold and impersonal, and to be honest, even when I have to say no to teachers, I still want to be supporting, and the best way to do that is often face-to-face.

While my list above is certainly not complete, I think I have to agree with the whole point of Freeman’s book The Tyranny of E-mail. As we move into the 21st Century, we must continually be on guard so that the technologies and tools we use do not take away our humanity and rule our lives.

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