I recently attended back-to-school nights at my oldest son’s middle school and my younger boys’ elementary school. I sat in the classrooms of seven teachers, all quite different in personality and teaching style.
Yet in every classroom, I heard the same request about how the teachers wanted to communicate with parents: They all emphasized that by a long shot, they preferred to use e-mail—not the telephone—to keep us informed and answer our questions.
Their pleas make sense to me. I use e-mail extensively to communicate at work and to stay in touch with the parents whose children I coach in soccer and lacrosse. I can’t imagine having to make phone calls to accomplish what I now do with e-mail. And my wife, a community college teacher, spends hours each week reading and responding to e-mail messages from her students. The telephone would be tied up all night if she didn’t.
More and more schools are sending e-mail blasts instead of mailing out traditional paper newsletters. And a growing number have established policies requiring teachers to respond to parent or student e-mails within a certain time period. Outside Charlotte, North Carolina, for instance, Matthews Elementary School asks that teachers respond to parent e-mails within 24 to 36 hours.
At first glance, it seems as though e-mail use among teachers is becoming universal. According to a recent survey conducted by the Denver-based Quality Education Data, the percentage of teachers using e-mail to stay in touch with the parents of elementary, middle, and high school students is 51 percent, 73 percent, and 68 percent, respectively—a majority at every grade level. But those numbers are actually lower than I would have expected. And many schools have yet to draft guidelines for using the technology. Clearly, e-mail is still not the preferred mode of communication for a considerable number of teachers.
As with any technology used in education, there are always benefits and drawbacks to consider. To better understand these issues, I interviewed (via e-mail, mind you) a handful of teachers who use the technology extensively to communicate with parents. They all cited a long list of benefits: E-mail makes it easier to maintain a paper trail of conversations, is quick and efficient because it replaces long-winded telephone conversations, allows for carefully crafted responses to questions, and lets teachers send uniform messages to large groups of parents without having to contact each one individually.
Elizabeth Harp, a special education teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, told me that she also finds it easier to defuse angry parents via e-mail because she has time to think about her responses. Cossondra George, a math and technology teacher at Newberry Middle School in Michigan, concurs, writing, “When a parent is emotional, it is easier to control ... the situation” using e-mail.
But teachers are also well aware of the downsides. To begin with, George told me that some parents give her their e-mail addresses at the beginning of the school year but then rarely check their messages. She’s had to revert to sending home written messages to those parents. Others come to think that e-mail is a carte blanche connection to the teacher. “I had a parent request an e-mail every Sunday of what her child had done in class the week before, such as behavior, work turned in or not, et cetera, and the lesson plan for the upcoming week,” George writes.
Although e-mail allows time for thoughtful responses to parents, it can sometimes stunt the free flow of conversation that happens more naturally over the phone or in person, according to Mary Jackson. A gifted-program teacher at Garrison-Jones Elementary School in Pinellas County, Florida, she nonetheless considers herself a “big believer” in the value of e-mail for communicating with parents.
That leaves us with a dilemma. In most sectors of society, such as the one in which I work, e-mail is institutionalized as part of the culture of communication. You couldn’t survive as a journalist if you didn’t use it. Yet large numbers of teachers are doing just that. If the technology is at their fingertips and most parents are using it, should those educators be prodded, or even required, to use e-mail as their primary tool for staying in touch?