Proper email etiquette can ensure you tell people what they need to know while saving important things for face-to-face conversations.
Tips for School & District Administrators

Email Etiquette: Don't Let Slip-ups Derail Your Teaching Career

By Brian Gatens

Success lies in the small things and the big things, especially when you’re using email to communicate with students, parents and colleagues.

Proper email etiquette can ensure you tell people what they need to know while saving important things for face-to-face conversations.I’ve seen many a colleague make the error of misusing their email — sometimes with disastrous results. Here’s how to keep that from happening to you:

Observe the three-times rule

One of my hard-and-fast guidelines is the “three-times email rule.” It’s pretty simple: Once an email conversation passes three exchanges back and forth, it’s time to pick up the phone or schedule a face-to-face meeting to discuss the issue. Email exchanges longer than three exchanges tend to quickly devolve into bloated and unwieldy examples of poorly worded misunderstandings.

As with most rules, there are exceptions. For example, if an issue is highly charged (e.g., a staff member gets accused of something they didn’t do), it’s essential to have an email exchange that clearly lays out the facts and sets a clear pattern of expectations and behavior. Aside from situations like this, however, pick up the phone and make a call. The issue is resolved much quicker that way.

Don’t forget the lack of context

Email does not allow much room for context, and it’s tough to convey emotion accurately. I’ve seen too many emails taken the wrong way, and too many times I’ve seen people read emotions into emails when no emotion was present (or intended).

To avoid this, always make sure you’re stating your points clearly and succinctly. Expecting the other person to know what you’re thinking or to get a full context as a result of your words often just leads to deepening misunderstanding. If it’s important enough that you need to write an email, it’s important enough to make your meaning plain and clear.

Stick to the situation at hand

Email works best when you simply state information relevant to a situation. Let’s say you want to reach out to a family to share your concern about a student’s grades. That means your email has two purposes: telling the family about the grades and offering your assessment of what’s leading to those grades. Stick to what you’ve seen and the facts you know. Don’t go off on a tangent and make assumptions about the factors leading to the grades. It’s hard to convey complex thoughts and ideas in an email, and those are best reserved for a phone conference or face-to-face meeting.

An added benefit to the simple, direct approach is that it gives the family a chance to process the facts about the grades and to spend time thinking about why the student is not succeeding. As a result, they’ll come to you with some fully formed thoughts that they can share during your meeting.

Loop people in carefully

The dreaded “reply to all” can test people’s patience and waste their time, so deciding whom to include is a delicate balancing act. I suggest limiting who gets the email to those who are directly affected by the situation. CC’ing the superintendent of schools on a basic student academic matter brings too much attention to something best handled at the school level.

Another side effect of having too large of a CC list is that you dilute the attention to the situation by including people who might ignore the email. Keep the circle as small as it needs to be, and take people’s time and other responsibilities into account.

State your expectations clearly

If you do have a large CC list on an email, it’s worthwhile to tell each recipient what you expect them to do. This could be as detailed as a specific action you need them to take, or as simple as letting them know you’re simply keeping them up-to-date and they don’t need to do anything.

One thing I’ve noticed is that most people will not take action on an email if it does not specifically assign a task to them.

Ask whether a conversation is better

Ultimately, an email should be sent only if it is more effective than a face-to-face or phone conversation. There is no replacement for hearing the tone of people’s voices or seeing their facial expressions. If email seems like the better choice, by all means use it. Just make sure to keep your email exchanges short, sweet and to the point.

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