Efficient Emailing in a Pandemic
How to spend less time on email, for teachers
I used to live in a face-to-face world. In the school building, colleagues, administrators, and students would just swing by when they wanted to chat. Obviously, that’s impossible now. In-person communication has been replaced by email. During the pandemic, I went from receiving 5–10 emails a day to (literally) hundreds. And I’m not alone. Millions of American teachers are now finding a new way to communicate.
As a public school teacher and workshop facilitator, I’ve been deeply focused lately on the things that matter: outreach and tech support for families, honing our culturally responsive teaching practices, and building students’ socio-emotional capacities. But what I’ve also seen is that teachers can’t focus on these things without tools to manage the crazy. I spent nearly a decade in the private sector before becoming a teacher, and I used to get hundreds of emails a day. Now I’m using those email skills again, and I thought it’d be helpful to share what I’ve learned.
1. De-clutter your inbox
With inbox management, the best defense is a good offense. When you have a good system in place, each new email will take less time to handle.
First, minimize the amount of email you get in the first place. Think about where you get the highest volume of emails you don’t need — and cut them off. For example, I turned off all notifications from Google Classroom. If a student submits an assignment, I’ll see it when I log into my Classroom. I don’t need it in my inbox the instant they submit.
Second, reply right away or use labels to track emails that can’t be handled immediately. I used to have too many folders, and I was always falling behind on organization. Now, when an email comes in, I do one of two things: (a) read (and reply if necessary) right away or (b) label it “To Do” for later. That’s it. At the end of each day, I review all of my “To Do” email. I also have a “Waiting” tag, which I use for emails I’ve sent, so I don’t rely on my (faulty) memory about things for which I await a response. And if I ever need to find an old email, the search bar is great — no need for folders.
Third, don’t use email as a repository to store information for later. Email is not designed to be a calendar, curriculum map, or rolodex. When I receive a Zoom link, I copy-paste it into a calendar invite, so the link will be handy when I need it. When I receive lesson ideas or resources, I save them in an appropriate doc or drive location. When I’m given important contact information, I save it in contacts. And if I don’t know whether I’ll need a given email again, I leave it alone. I can search for it later if I need to. (Most of the time I don’t.)
2. Send emails that don’t “spin”
Another way to manage the email you receive is to manage the email you send. “Spin” is produced when an email prompts too many cycles of replies (it goes around and around). I used to cause spin without knowing why. Sometimes nobody responded to my emails, and sometimes people responded to the wrong thing, and sometimes there was a reply-all debacle. These days, I generally have more success.
There are three keys to reducing “spin”: (a) send your emails to all (and only!) the people who need to know, (b) put the ask in the subject line (and edit the subject when the purpose of the thread has shifted) and (c ) clarify roles within the email.
I really started writing better emails when I became aware that people hate email! After all, when you send an email, you’re assigning work to your recipient. Even helpful emails create work: the recipient must context-switch from whatever they were thinking about, to now read what you sent. I get better engagement when I write to reduce the reader’s burden. Think about it: when you see an email that’s too long or confusing, or where it’s unclear why you should care, you often decide to “read it later.” Despite your good intentions, “later” often becomes “never.” To avoid this, make sure your email directly addresses these three things: (a) why you’re writing, (b) why they should care, and (c ) what you want them to do (or know). A good 3-sentence email that focuses on these elements may take as much as 30 minutes to write. But it saves hours by reducing consequent “spin.”
An exercise for the reader: Here’s an email I sent a few days ago. What’s good about it? What would you improve?
And, on this topic: sometimes email is not the answer. To convey something subtle, complicated, or urgent: pick up the phone.
3. Teach your students how to email effectively
Have you ever read an email from one of your students and sighed because it lacked the information you needed to offer a helpful reply? At the start of this year, our school held a workshop for students on how to write emails (developed by Kathleen Kantz-Durand, whom I thank for ongoing productive collaboration). We covered the basics: writing clear, short subject lines; being explicit about the purpose of the email; and providing context that the teacher might not have. Students must be taught that in order to help them, their teachers need context and a clear request. Just like I think about who my students are when I design lessons for them, I encourage my students to think about who their audience is when they communicate online.
We should teach the subtleties, too: students may even need to write different types of emails to different teachers! I am the sort of person who will reply to any email, no matter how it’s written. Other teachers in our school will only reply when the message follows certain conventions, or when they can tell what the student is asking. When my students complain that other teachers aren’t answering their emails, the first thing I do is to build empathy. I ask them, “If you received hundreds of emails each day, what kind of message would you respond to first? Well, then that’s the message you need to send.”
I have an idea for a student exercise, which I may assign at some point. I would ask my students to write a particular type of email (for example, expressing confusion about a particular assignment) to each of 3 different teachers. Using what they already know about what their teachers are like, how might those emails be different?
Continue the conversation
Before the pandemic, teachers and students interacted face-to-face. Email was rare. Now, the computer screen intermediates every interaction. We are overwhelmed with email. As educators, we want to focus on the big things: meaningful engagement, reaching all students, building skills. But we can only do those things if we can stay on top of the email barrage. I’m always learning how to manage my email better. I actually take the time to re-read emails I’ve sent, to think about how they could have been more effective. I iterate and improve, and I save more time as a result.
If you have thoughts or feedback, I’d love to continue the conversation. You can reply on Medium, or you can email me (email@example.com). I promise not to judge your email. We all strive every day to communicate ever better, and sometimes you need to just hit “Send.”