We’ve all been there. After form time and tough, back to back Year 9 lessons where your patience was stretched to the limit, you manage a bathroom break, grab a cup of tea, open Outlook and – boom – 36 emails have arrived since you checked just two-and-a-half hours ago…
- “Can you check your classroom, Darius has lost his planner again. Also don’t give him a uniform detention for his trainers as he has outgrown his shoes and Mum is buying new ones at the weekend, thanks”
- “A reminder about next week’s parents evening, as per my previous email, don’t forget to order a sandwich and tell staff about the new uniform policy, pupil progress data, options available in Y10 and remind behaviour standards – these are non-negotiables.”
- “There is a new vacancy for a High Level Teaching Assistant…”
- “Celebrating sports success: Year 9 boys football team beat Saint Bart’s 3-1 in the semi last night, if you see Tyrone congratulate him on his hat-trick!”
- “Jodi’s PE kit is missing, and it’s got her new Nikes in, mother is frantic, please look in your departments, cheers”
- “Has anyone seen Rylan, he walked out of Geography twenty minutes ago to go to the toilet but hasn’t returned?”
- “PLEASE READ! Jude has a new reasonable adjustment, please see the SEND spreadsheet asap”
- “READ ONLY IF YOU TEACH Y10: Don’t seat Pasha and Ruby together they’ve had a fallout”
- “You have been placed on cover for period 5: 8C Drama in DS1”
- “Can someone do my duty second half of lunch, Lara’s been sick at school and I need to pick her up asap sorry”
- “Reminder: as stated in today’s briefing email, send all Y7s to the Sports Hall period 4 today for their photos”
- “Your cover has been cancelled period 5: 8C Drama in DS1”
- “IMPORTANT: Has anyone seen Libby’s Rubik’s Cube, it’s her fidget device and helps her concentrate, she thinks she left it in Science yesterday”
- “Hi Alan, this is an action from the Heads of Faculty meeting, Ann-Marie says ‘Can everyone update their Curriculum Intent, Impact and Implementation documents asap, we might be getting an Ofsted soon as there is a lot of website traffic – this is urgent and non-negotiable so please do it before close of play tomorrow.’ – so, Alan, as you’re the expert for Computing can you get this updated before lunchtime tomorrow so I can check before the deadline please?”
- “Dear Alan, thanks for your interest in the <middle leader role>, your application was welcome but we won’t be selecting you for interview. “
- “Last chance to send me your world book day pics! The more unusual setting in which you’re reading a book the better: up a tree, in the bath (keep it clean folks!), anything goes. Email pics to me by the end of the day thanks.”
- “Hi Alan I see you gave Rylan a 4 on his behaviour report, can you elaborate on that because he says he’s never had a C1 from you? Was it homework not behaviour?”
- “URGENT: Can all staff show this slide to their class this afternoon about next week’s charity bake sale, thanks”
- “Hello all. As you know, everyone needs to contribute to the school’s Enrichment programme, so can you reply before the end of the week with the enrichment activity you want to run? There are some suggestions on the staff drive in the Enrichment folder.”
- “As a literacy champion, can you please attend a meeting this Thursday at lunchtime, RSVP asap please so I can get this sorted, also I’ll need your Tier 3 vocabulary asap thanks!”
- “URGENT: You have not done your mandatory training on FGM, the deadline was last Friday. This has now been escalated to your Line Manager. Please do this today”
- “Exam access arrangements: I have updated these after recent assessments, see this spreadsheet for details”
- “If anyone in school owns a red Audi MK55 IJK please move it, you’re blocking a resident, thanks.”
- “I’ll be popping round today with the ‘This is what an Ally looks like’ rainbow picture frame for our PRIDE day presentation, so please pose for a pic to show our pupils you are an LGBTQ ally, thanks!”
- “Re: URGENT: that slide about the bake sale is only for Key Stage 3 please, sorry for the confusion. KS4 are not invited to the bake sale as they are focusing on exams so don’t show to them, thanks”
- “Hello Sir, can you send me some past papers please?”
- “Geography field trip: updated pupil list – these pupils will be on the trip on Friday…”
- “FW: from <exams officer> Here is the draft timetable for the summer exams from AQA let me know any potential issues.”
- “Ramadan Mubarak to all our Muslim staff and students!”
- “Sorry to email everyone again but Libby’s really upset about her Rubik’s cube, please check everywhere, thanks!”
- “Jodi’s PE kit turned up, thanks everyone for looking. Florence had taken it home by mistake again!”
- “Re: URGENT mandatory training email. Sorry this was sent to some of you in error, please ignore if you believe you have done the FGM training, with my apologies.”
- “It’s me again, Lara’s Dad is picking her up, thanks to everyone who offered to cover my duty but I’m OK now, and you’re all stars mwah!”
- “Hello Mr Harrison, this is the parent of Aisha in your Y11 class, she says she got a detention for missed homework but she says she did it, can I have a call today asap as she is very upset.”
- “Sorry I didn’t send this earlier but Rylan turned up just after I sent that email, I’ve spoken to him about internal truanting. Thanks to all that went out looking for him in their frees, sorry for the wild goose chase!”
- “You have been placed on cover for period 5: 9D Maths in M4”.
It’s good to talk (or email, or chat…)
There’s no denying that many of the above messages are important. Most are desirable in some way: who doesn’t want to hear about the school’s successes, or have a chance to curry favour with the pupils by taking a hilarious “extreme reading” picture? Some are extremely important (but perhaps not the ones that say they are important). Some are definitely urgent, but again perhaps not those marked as such. Some are time-bounded, having an importance that is fleeting, so reading them even 30 minutes too late renders them completely without value (sorry Rylan) and therefore a waste of the recipients’ time.
And we should not underestimate the wasted time. A single email sent to all staff in a big school could cost 2 man-hours altogether just to read and discard it. Consider how much staff time is lost dealing with the list above, every day, 195 days per year?
The problem with email in schools is that it is often the only communication channel everyone uses, it’s quick and easy to use, and therefore it gets used for everything. Untamed, email use spirals out of control and the truly important messages get drowned out by the “lost kit” and “bake sale” emails. The signal is drowned out by the noise. We need to tackle the flood of emails above, but how?
Too often, organisations impose a top-down approach to email noise, blaming the medium and the messengers, rather than recognising a systems problem. All of the above emails have some intrinsic value, but email treats them all the same, presenting them to the recipients in chronological order, the “importance” flag largely unused and the senders employing ALL CAPS exhortations to encourage you to read theirs first. The receiver has little chance of knowing which ones are really important to them, so they have no choice but to read them all, or risk being out of the loop. In a toxic organisation, the latter can be a real issue, “I sent you this last week, didn’t you read it?” is a conversation nobody needs.
We need to start asking where emails are coming from, if we are really to tackle the issue at source. And we need to start using other channels of communication where appropriate. Only then will we solve the systems problem of email overload.
Each email above should be considered as a process within a bigger process, the workflow that gives rise to the need for communication. For example, “lost bag” emails belong to a lost-property workflow, which might originate with a child or parent reporting a lost item. If you implement a robust lost property process wherein staff are encouraged to take found items promptly to the lost property officer, maybe assign a student ambassador to look in the likely places if really necessary, but ask staff never to chase lost property by email again and firmly deal with transgressors, explaining the cost to everyone of “all staff” emails.
Some workflows should use the school’s software designed specially for the task. Your school’s MIS (SIMS, Arbor, Bromcom etc.) is designed for collecting and presenting pupil data. If your behaviour workflow includes any emails, e.g. “Hi there, you’ve given pupil A a score of 4 for behaviour, can you explain why, was it classroom behaviour or lack of homework or something else?” then your data collection sheet wasn’t fit for purpose: either split that “4” into two or more values, one that means homework and one that means classroom behaviour, or better still, use the MIS’s points system to allow staff to record behaviour and merit points throughout the year and get rid of behaviour data drops altogether!
Microsoft 365 and Google Suite both provide productivity tools such as chat (instant messaging), internal websites, shared documents and the ability to collaborate on documents. All of these can be considered communication channels that have advantages over email. Train your staff to be confident with these tools and explain how they might be used to improve communications (and reduce email).
Take a sample of emails (like the list above) and categorise them into workflows, then redesign the workflows to remove as much use of email as possible. I share some ideas how to do this on my Sway here.
On “Schedule Send” and timed bans…
I’m not a fan of the idea we should prevent staff from sending emails outside of work hours. Many parents and carers choose to front-load their days and work from 5am, or work in the evening after their children have gone to bed, so an email ban “out of hours” takes this agency away from adults who really should be trusted with their own time management. We should instead consider the reasons why staff don’t like receiving emails out of hours. Often the email is a source of stress because it requires urgent action that was not planned in. If that’s the case, the issue is with the workflow that generated that urgent action, and I urge you to re-assess your processes and prevent such unexpected workload spikes.
And take the advice in my Sway above on right audience, right channel and right content, and your communications will disturb fewer people and feel less threatening. Embed a culture of “I send when convenient to me, you reply when convenient to you” and model it as leaders, and the “dread” of email will subside.
Finally, it’s vital that staff know how to turn off notifications and use Do Not Disturb on their devices, so they are not pinging out of hours. Do this anyway on all school devices, except for the Oncall channel, your staff will thank you!
Internal communications are the lifeblood of an organisation but can also stifle it’s effectiveness, submerging people in information overload and causing anxiety and overwork. With systems thinking: dealing with workflows to move communications to the right channel or getting rid of them altogether, you can give your staff more agency over their jobs and reduce distractions so they can be more effective. And you might just improve morale and teamwork in the process.
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[…] Twitter’s @MrAHarrisonCS blog listing 36 incoming messages from a typical day in school https://httcs.online/2023/03/25/email-menace/ (last visited: 18 May 2023) as well as @vanessawears #teacher5oclockclub post […]