By John Williams and Mel Riddile

A teacher in your building alerts you that a parent is upset about a decision the teacher made regarding her daughter. The teacher informed the parent of a situation through an e-mail message that included an explanation of his decision and the rationale behind it. The parent was not satisfied, and numerous e-mail messages were exchanged. The parent's long and sometimes rambling messages are not overtly threatening, but include aggressive language.

In his frustration, the teacher prints all of the e-mails messages and brings them to you. He explains that he is frustrated and tired of spending a significant amount of time answering these e-mails. He is also concerned about the aggressive tone of the messages.

After reading the messages, you realize that satisfying this parent will be difficult. The school is committed to building partnerships with parents and you understand the importance of communication in accomplishing that goal. You want to enlist this parent's positive involvement in the school community. You also want the school staff to be seen as responsive to parents' communications regardless of how they arrive, and are sensitive to criticism about staff members not responding to phone calls or e-mails.

What guidance might you provide the teacher in handling this situation and avoiding similar situations in the future?

First, you should talk to the teacher—indeed to the entire staff—about how to choose the most appropriate vehicle for communicating with parents and stakeholders. The following guidelines may help clarify when to use e-mail and when to choose face-to-face conversations.

Communication Guidelines

  1. Write only what you want published. Be aware that anyone with an e-mail account has what amounts to an electronic printing press and can publish any correspondence to hundreds and even thousands of people instantaneously.
  2. Write for the record. School e-mails are considered public records and are subject to FOIA requests. Anything that a teacher writes from a school e-mail account may accessed by the public.
  3. Use e-mail for positives not negatives. Send thank-you messages and congratulations via e-mail. The recipient can save the message and forward the message to friends and colleagues. You want that to happen. Negative messages can also be saved and forwarded to friends, colleagues, newspapers, and attorneys. You don't want that to happen.
  4. Conduct important business in person. Nothing takes the place of face-to-face communication. In this situation, back and forth e-mail messages served only to add fuel to an already burning fire. The teacher should invite the upset parent to the school for a conference with an administrator present.

Do the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons, even if the right way is not always the most convenient way. Communicating by e-mail is efficient but not necessarily effective. For routine matters such as providing homework or class assignments, e-mail is appropriate. When the situation is less than routine, nothing takes the place of face-to-face.

AP Insight, Vol. 2, Issue 6