Reflecting on … The Tyranny of Email

When I started at JMS there was a directive that every member of the teaching staff had to go to the staff room at least once a day.  Current policy states that teachers must check their emails once a day.  Ostensibly each policy has the same purpose; but what a difference in practice.  Regular visits to the staff room meant that you’d encounter most of your colleagues at some point in the week, even those remotely positioned in the furthest corners and darkest reaches of the school. Views would be exchanged, messages passed and the collegiate feeling of being part of a team reinforced.

On the other hand, email is by its nature a solitary activity.  Sat alone in their classrooms and offices, many of our team time their arrival to ensure they have time to log on or use their break and lunch times to catch up on the messages.  Responses are crafted alone and, if dialogue or discussion arises it quickly spirals into a torrential outpouring of emails, the reply all function spinning off sub-chains and new lines of thought until one break time isn’t enough to read all the relevant correspondence, let alone formulate a response.

At a seminar earlier this year Jane McNicholl discussed her research into professional development within subject departments in schools.  Her colleagues identified several factors that were key to effective professional development within subject teams particularly the leadership of the department, the physical space that departments share and the dispositions, habitus and personal histories of the individuals.   There is a virtuous cycle of professional development that can be constructed with good leadership in a shared space; teachers as we all know, tend to talk about teaching, and if gathered together in a shared faculty space will, over coffee and biscuits, almost inevitably discuss teaching and learning. This leads to the sharing of good practice, tips for dealing with difficulties whether with resources, curriculum or individual students and other useful advice and support.

Research conducted by the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University for the Strategic Schools Partnership Board in 2016 suggested that  a collegiate atmosphere of professional  collaboration helped NQTs to cope with the demands of their first years of teaching and increased staff retention.  However McNicholl’s work emphasises that a collegial professional atmosphere benefits all teachers, including the most experienced some of whom might otherwise stagnate in their teaching without exposure to new ideas and collaborative working.

So how does email come into play here?  Inevitably the discussion turned to those schools and departments who did not manage this collegiate environment, where teachers are balkanised, and rarely spend time working with their colleagues and peers.  There may be only so much a department can do about the space it has (or lacks), especially in the short term, but what are the limiting factors on sharing time together and communicating regularly.

Alas, there is a vicious cycle for every virtuous one.  And email plays its part in damaging professional collaboration and collegiate working. The more messages that come in the harder it is to find time to talk to colleagues in person, to leave the classroom at break and lunch and spend time with fellow team members.  The less people do that the more formal communication (email and meetings) are relied upon to connect team members.  The more formal communication is used the less time people have to spend talking to colleagues in person and so they click on the handy ‘new e-mail’ button and… you see where this ends up.

Of course email can be a great communication tool used well, but after McNicholl’s talk I reflected on how often I have not used it well and could have promoted a more collegial atmosphere by stepping away from the computer and talking to people instead.  Not to mention how often I’d felt the urgent need to reply to an email immediately to the point where it was a distraction from any other task or focus.  This was pattern I recognised in other team members.  But what can be done about these patterns?

A little in-house research showed how much power we actually do have over this as individuals.  For one week our head teacher announced that she would not be responding to email during the day, but wanted to use the time to talk to people in person instead.  After the first day the contents of her inbox dropped dramatically and far more time was spend talking to colleagues and students.  As a middle leader I sought to test whether I could generate a similar impact by controlling my own email output and so over a two week period reflected carefully on the emails I was about to send and tried to cut my output considerably.  I also put aside specific times to respond to email and times to turn it off, get out and speak to my colleagues in person instead.  My weekly average of sent and received emails through March was 438 received and 184 sent.   I saw an instant drop as I took control of my outflow.

I extended my trial to a third week and during this week sent ‘only’ 109 emails.  My inbox dropped to 357.  And at break and lunchtimes I was able to leave my office and speak to more colleagues and students than I had for a long time.   The impact of change from adjusting my own personal bad habits was noticeable and greatly liberating.  But 357 emails coming in is still quite a lot.  Even those that require very little action take time to read and delete and stack up in the inbox to be waded through.  Next term our middle leaders are therefore going to embark on a collective project to reduce the flow of email.  We’re going to challenge ourselves to reflect carefully on the emails we send out and to spend more time interacting in person and less through the electronic filter.  Perhaps if we work together we can cut the email traffic even further and spend a little more time away from our desks and where we belong.

Questions that helped me to reflect on the value of email:

  1. What is the best way to respond to this email? Would it be suitable to have a conversation with this person instead of communicating electronically?
  2. Does this email actually say anything new or useful? Will the recipient really feel ‘thanked’ by my two word response or might I be better off making the effort to mention my gratitude when I see them and saving them from an extra ‘ping’?
  3. How urgently do I need to respond to this? Is it an issue that desperately needs my immediate input or does it just feel that way because it popped up on my screen?  Is it more important than what I had planned to do with this time?
  4. Who needs to be copied into this email? What am I expecting them to gain from it or contribute at this point?

Further reading:   Childs, A., Burn, K. & McNicholl, J. (2013) What influences the learning cultures of subject departments in secondary schools? A study of four subject departments in England.  Teacher Development 17 (1), 35-54.)

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