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Families & the Community

E-Mail Opens Lines of Communication for Teachers

By Linda Jacobson — April 05, 2005 6 min read
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E-mail, that modern-day convenience that allows instantaneous communication with someone across the room or around the globe, has helped Gay Holub—an 8th grade math teacher—work more efficiently and stay in frequent touch with parents.

Her weekly e-mail home includes upcoming test dates and information about material that is being covered in class. She can respond to messages while students are taking exams instead of waiting until her planning period. And if she’s home sick, she can still check the messages sent to her school account.

Teachers Regularly Use E-mail To:

• Send electronic newsletters home to parents.

• Inform parents of any problems that their child might be having at school.

• Submit lesson plans or reports to administrators.

• Chat with colleagues in the same school or elsewhere in the district.

• Learn about school events, programs, awards, and the like.

But as with most technological advances, electronic mail carries the risk of overuse and abuse.

“Some [parents]—very few, but enough to make it a headache—e-mail you several times a week about every little thing,” said Ms. Holub, who teaches at Park Crest Middle School in Pflugerville, Texas. “ ‘What’s his average? Why does he have a zero on Page 79? Did he come in for tutoring this morning?’ ”

While they want parents to know that they can’t always respond immediately, many teachers consider e-mail a time-saving tool that cuts down on playing telephone tag. And for many, checking and responding to e-mail has become as much a part of the school day as taking attendance.

Keeping Parents Informed

Peggy E. Wilkins, a media resource teacher at the 600-pupil Rossmoor Elementary School in Los Alamitos, Calif., finds that she now uses e-mail much more than the telephone to communicate with colleagues and parents.

“It really is best for teachers because we can respond when we want, and our teaching is not disrupted by the ring of a phone in the middle of a lesson,” she said.

Teachers say they use e-mail much as they would a photocopied newsletter—to inform parents of classroom activities or special events.

“It saves money on copies, and I know that it won’t get lost in a backpack on the way home,” said Kelsey Whalen, a 1st grade teacher at Rossmoor.

But some say they also use it for more private matters—to share both the good and not-so-good news about students. E-mail can be especially useful for communicating with parents who travel for work, live in another city, or “share custody but may not have an amicable relationship,” noted Maribeth Sellers, who teaches 3rd grade at the 350-pupil North Elementary School in Noblesville, Ind.

Theresa Ekstrom, a special education teacher at the 1,030-student Merritt Brown Middle School in Panama City, Fla., uses e-mail to keep parents informed of their children’s progress, as well as any troubling behavior.

Laura Telfer, the principal at Rossmoor Elementary, even requires teachers who have special education students in class to check their messages more often because of the need for more frequent communication with parents.

Other administrators, though, maintain that e-mail is not the appropriate forum in which to discuss confidential information about a student.

Only information “that everyone would be privy to, such as the day of the field trip or what to wear to the musical, can be sent via e-mail,” said Teresa Tulipana, the principal at the 380-student Hawthorn Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo.

Sounding ‘Abrupt’

That rule can help discourage parents from using e-mail to vent their frustrations—something that Ms. Holub has experienced.

“Parents,” she said, “are often quick to type while they are upset and may say things they would not say on voice mail or in person.”

At the 700-student St. Andrew Catholic School in Fort Worth, Texas, Principal Clarice Peninger likes teachers to think twice before responding to emotionally charged messages from parents.

“I want them to cool off and probably delete the first two or three they write before they send it,” said Ms. Peninger, who often likes to review messages before they are sent because e-mails can “sound abrupt.”

In general, principals say they want their staff members to treat electronic messages the way they would a phone message.

“I ask that teachers respond to parent e-mails within 24 to 36 hours,” said Constance T. Shotts, the principal at Matthews Elementary, a 1,000-pupil school in Charlotte, N.C. “Sometimes they can’t, if they are away from campus for some reason. So it isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it is essentially the same expectation that we have for responding to a phone call.”

Of course, logging on and retrieving messages is a lot easier for teachers when they have online computers at their desks—a convenience that is not yet available for the entire faculty at Rossmoor Elementary.

That’s why 3rd grade teacher Debby Segal describes herself as “anti-e-mail.”

“We’ve been told that we have to [check e-mail], but we have to do it on our personal time,” she lamented. For her, that means walking to the media center to use the Internet, and “that could take my whole recess and a big chunk of my lunch.”

Ms. Segal said administrators seem to assume that teachers are also connected to the Internet at home, but she prefers to be Web-free there because it “takes time away from my children.”


Computer and Internet equity is also an issue for parents. Joyce Epstein, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore—and an expert on school-family partnerships and communication—said e-mail is helping to inform parents who are unlikely to attend a meeting about school issues, but that it should never replace written forms of communication.

“Even in an affluent county, there are still parents who don’t have access,” she said.

Surveys on teachers’ use of e-mail are scarce. But a 2000 study by the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics found that in schools where computers were accessible and hooked up to the Internet, 7 percent of the teachers who responded said they used those computers to communicate with parents or students. Teachers with four to nine years of experience were slightly more likely to use the Internet for that purpose than those with fewer or more years in the classroom.

A much higher percentage of teachers—23 percent—said they used e-mail to communicate with their colleagues.

The use of e-mail between teachers and parents also raises questions about whether parents are just staying informed about their children’s schoolwork or in fact are interfering.

“Home-school communication is really critical during the early years, because young children are not good at expressing what’s going on,” said Margaret Reil, a visiting education professor at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles and an expert on educational technology.

By the time students are in high school, though, they need to take more responsibility for their own learning, she said, and frequent e-mails between parents and teachers might hinder that process.

“We have to be careful when we increase what could be seen as surveillance,” she said.

Conducting Business

E-mail, however, is not just being used to communicate with parents, co-workers, or students. It has also generated a new format for conducting routine school business.

Jerry Vaughn, the principal of Central Elementary School in Cabot, Ark., conducts weekly electronic staff meetings, by sending out a “week at a glance” memo on Fridays. He uses the message—which cuts down on the number of actual staff meetings—to prepare faculty and staff members for the week ahead and to recognize teachers’ special accomplishments.

Teachers at the 340-student school also have the option of submitting lesson plans or reports by e-mail.

Many school systems have districtwide policies that advise staff members against writing anything in an e-mail that they would not want read by someone else.

In the 17,400-student Waterbury, Conn., schools, for instance, e-mail is to be the primary means of communication between school administrators and the central office. And in the 121,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina, district employees are expected to routinely delete old messages, limit stored messages, and avoid sending large e-mail attachments.

Some principals say they are just now drafting policies about the use of e-mail by teachers.

Still, others caution against an overdependence on e-mail.

“If we allow it,” said Keith D. Elsberry, the principal at the 360-student Manitou Springs Middle School in Colorado, “technology can be an excuse to not communicate in the most effective manner known to mankind, the human voice.”

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