Student Well-Being Opinion

Coping With Confrontational Student Emails About Grades

By Starr Sackstein — March 22, 2016 2 min read
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Shifting a mindset is difficult, especially if trying to convince any person who has been set in their ways for a while.

Teaching seniors is not unlike teaching adults in that they feel like they understand the system the way it was as they’ve survived it.

Try changing something they’ve come to rely on and even defined themselves by and be ready to cope with the inevitable pushback.

This isn’t uncommon, it’s predictable.

So we work on it: We stop what we’re doing; we have a conversation and then we move on, presumably with an understanding.

Until one day later in the year, what seems like out of nowhere, an email turns up in your inbox unexpectedly taking you to task about some “grading” injustice. Of course since I don’t “grade” in the traditional sense, having a student ask me why someone in his/her group got more “E"s than he/she did on the assignment, was troubling.

First, I read the email a couple of times to make sure I didn’t misread the tone of what the student was saying. My initial impulse was to respond right away only to read what I had written and decided it was a bad idea.

So I waited.

After an hour or so, I reviewed the email again and wrote the student back saying that it doesn’t matter what the other student got as they are not being compared. It’s about the work that was submitted and it shouldn’t matter how others did, it should only matter about why.

Had the student sent me a different email that asked me to help him/her understand why the work was assessed as it was and more importantly how it can be improved, it would have elicited a different response.

When a person focuses too heavily on grades, it becomes less about learning and more about point grubbing for some external purpose. In any event, it was an opportunity to discuss the overall assignment and how he/she could improve in the future.

Students aren’t the only ones who can get emotional about perceived injustices.

So here are some helpful reminders when dealing with a potentially emotional experience:

  • Give yourself some wait time before responding in any way to the email.
  • Don’t do anything hasty in the meantime. For example, no need to delete it and pretend it never happened or approach the student in person.
  • If the student asks, “Did you receive my email?” simply answer yes and let them know you will have an answer for them soon, but now isn’t the time to talk about it. You want to give it the time it deserves and needs. You will get back to them soon.
  • Stick to the facts when you actually reply.
  • Encourage a dialogue rather than end the conversation. What is at the heart of the issue?
  • Remember that you’re talking to an adolescent or child and therefore must be aware of the tone you take.
  • Really listen to what the student is saying and act appropriately, modeling the behaviors you’d hope they’d use in the future when dealing with a similar situation.
  • If you do act emotionally, make sure to make quick apologies. You are human, it happens.

We all have our pet peeves and hot button issues that provoke emotional or passionate responses. Know what yours are and act in a manner fitting to a person in our positions. Mistakes will happen and that is okay too, but students should witness an adult taking responsibility for his/her actions and hopefully will act accordingly in the future.

The more transparent we are with students, the better off for their learning and our relationships with them.

How can we develop better communication to avoid emotional emails that can create conflict in the classroom? Please share your ideas.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.