Can hear me now? How about now? Did my stream cut out? Or, more embarrassingly, did I forget to unmute myself? Today’s educators have taken on a task no other industry has accomplished. We completely changed our methods, our platforms, and our engagement from in-person to online in record time.

Here is the deal—educators became educators because of the sense of service to our students. Now we have to learn how to serve our students while balancing the role of devices in our daily engagements. Below are a few tips to consider as you look to intentionally interact with technology in meaningful and balanced ways.


Inbox Zero

When leading and learning in a distance/digital format, it is important to prevent your inbox from becoming a black hole of to-dos and time sucks.

On this #PrincipalPLN podcast episode, Curt Rees (@CurtRees) shares practical ways to support the transition to not being tethered to your email. I have included a few examples of emails and etiquette from my middle level school at the bottom of this post. Here are a few rules for my own consumption and communication using email.

  1. Don’t browse it:  Set specific times to read/respond to email. I tend to set times like 7:30 a.m., 10:00 a.m., and then again at 3:00 p.m.  Otherwise, I leave it alone, don’t look at it, and focus on being present in assignments, interactions, or other activities. If you are brave enough, take email off your phone.  This step has helped me greatly in not “grazing” email throughout the day and evening.
  2. Try not to touch it twice.  Once you open an email, you have three choices:
    1. Do something with it. Either reply to the person or, better yet, give them a call or walk down the hall to talk with them about it.
    2. Delegate it to someone else. Is this something only you can do? Or is this something where someone else may have a better skill set or a better understanding of the situation? Just because you could do it, doesn’t mean you should—you have my permission to take a pass and share it with someone else.
    3. Delete it. Forwarded emails, promotional flyers, legal updates from colleagues. Read as necessary, delete when done, repeat as needed.
  3. Email is not your task list.  Deadlines, timelines down the road? Emails that require a little more time and information before you can respond? Sometimes you can’t respond or do something with an email when you are sitting down during the scheduled times in your day for Inbox zero. Creating systems or using email apps for efficiency can help keep you organized and your inbox free of clutter.

Surfing Social Media

Have you ever gone onto Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, or another app to check just one thing, and then realized thirty minutes have gone by? Now without the routine of facing kids in the classroom, we may unintentionally make more time for surfing and grazing but not intentionally engaging. The internet and social media can be a great source of information, ideas, and collaboration when used intentionally.

  1. Set a timer, remove distractions. When I have a project to do (or an article to write), I set a timer on my phone for 90 minutes and then put my phone on the other end of the room. All alerts and notifications are off my computer (and my WiFi is turned off), and I get to work. Knowing I can get lost in a project, I need a timer to help me keep track of time and take brain breaks (and screen-free time).
  2. Keep the apps on a short leash. Do you have a hard time not looking at Facebook when you have some free time? Try taking it off your phone so if you really need to check someone’s status, you have to do it from a computer.
  3. Convenient or critical. Just because everyone else is reading, sharing, or clicking on it doesn’t mean you have to as well. When you do log in to check in on your family and friends, don’t click on pop-ups, articles, or posts that are detracting from your original intention for social media use. Stop surfing and skimming. Start scrutinizing and scouring for specific purposes.

Get Bored

Mindfulness, meditation, reading, reflection, connecting—these activities are being discussed more often in more spaces. And when we start to slow down from the pace of planning and prepping to teach during pandemic, these self-care activities could prove to be lifesaving.

Practicing boredom is counterintuitive to the culture of consumption we are in. When binging, lurking, liking, pinning, and grazing on our devices are common practices, putting them down and walking away seems less productive and helpful for our professional careers.

  1. Walk it out. Stepping away from tech, even for 10 minutes, gives your eyes a break and your brain time to think through things all on its own.
  2. Meditate. Oh yes, there is an app for that! Calm is an app that walks you through guided meditation. I use my Peleton app for mediation and restorative yoga (aka “napping yoga”). Taking even five minutes out of your day to slow down, calm your emotional state, and slow your brain down will increase productivity and happiness in your daily activities.
  3. Go old school. Working through an idea? Setting a big goal at home or at school? Trying working it out with pen and paper. There is research to support that writing ideas down helps them to stick and is less distracting than typing them.

And finally, give yourself a little grace. We had little to no time to make this transition. Some days you will be on your game, and others you may wonder if you lost the rulebook. Just remember, no one is perfect in a pandemic, and we can’t say we lost if we learned something in the process.

Jessica Cabeen is the principal of Ellis Middle School in Austin, MN.  She was the 2017 Minnesota Nationally Distinguished Principal and a facilitator of the Minnesota Principal Academy offered through the University of Minnesota. She is the coauthor of Balance Like a Pirate (2018) and author of Hacking Early Learning (2018), Lead with Grace (2019), and Unconventional Leadership (2019). She loves to connect with other educators on Instagram, Facebook, Voxer and Twitter (@JessicaCabeen) and her website (


Email Etiquette for Ellis Middle School

Reply to one? Reply to all?

Check out this infographic Tina created for us to use when considering email ettiquette—how to reply and when to reply to all.

Email, Phone Call, or Zoom Call?

  1. Does it impact everyone at Ellis? Or could it be sent to a team or department only?
  2. THINK before you speak (or email all). This visual provides guidance regarding how we can clearly communicate—and what messages might be better received with a phone call.
  3. Can it wait? Sometimes waiting 1, 6, 12, or 24 hours is the best option as the resolution might be found without 30 emails in the inbox.
  4. Is it a discussion or a decision? If you want to have a conversation about the topic, see if you can have it added to the next department, team, or staff meeting. Lately I have even started creating Google forms to ask questions, that gives all participants a chance to respond in one format, not 40 emails.
  5. Can you start and end with gratitude? These are challenging times, and we are all trying to navigate the role tech now has in our daily lives and how we now go from using technology to enhance and aid in instruction to it being the primary tool for leading learning. By acknowledging the elephant in the room (we are all students in this learning) and recognizing the strengths we can all bring to the table, the conversation may end in a more positive and/or productive tone (see sample email and response below).

Just because tech is on 24/7 doesn’t mean you have to be as well.

  1. Keep your office hours. Let families and students know when you are ‘online’ for daily synchronous learning, but then take an hour off and away from the computer each day. This is turning into a marathon, and the only way you are going to maintain the pace you are at is to take frequent breaks, Go for a walk, eat lunch with your ‘students’ at home, or do a few yoga poses during the last 10 minutes before the top of the hour.
  2. When it is off, keep it off. The notifications and count of emails has grown exponentially now that we are home.
    1. I have found an extension called Boomerang that ‘pauses’ my email at night and gives people who email me a note that says I am out until morning.
    2. Microsoft Office also allows you to send a reminder of when you are ‘on’ and when you are ‘off’.
  3. Set boundaries with your technology. Now that we are using this a primary communication tool, consider all the places you access it. Consider taking email off your phone or your personal computers so you only have access to it when you are ‘at work’.

Ellis, we are in a new place of learning for our students and for ourselves. If you have future topics you want Lana or I to consider in this newsletter, let us know.

Next week’s topic: Assessing in an Online World.


Sample Parent Email:


Seriously, you put out on portal and your YouTube videos that we are to be checking Schoology on a daily basis—and then it keeps breaking down. Have you EVEN USED THIS TOOL!!!! Why would you make students use something that is broke and you don’t fix it? I am expecting a response and resolution within the next 20 minutes or I am calling your boss—YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER.

Angry eighth-grade parent.


Sample Response:

Dear Angry Eighth-Grade Parent,

I am so sorry about your experiences with Schoology so far this week. We are learning that this is not just specific to our school, but all users. They are communicating with us on a daily basis and have said we should see changes later this week. Teachers are aware of the issues with the technology and making adjustments to support students.

Secondly, I wanted to thank you for advocating for your child and family. While I can’t imagine what it is like to all of sudden be the parent, the teacher, and the principal of your children at home—I want to say thank you for doing your best. Also, you have our permission to give your eighth grader a place to work, time to complete the work, and if they have questions have them call us during the office hours. Eighth graders know how to access this platform, and if you can provide the space and time, we can do the rest.

Thank you for your grace in waiting for my response—during the hours of 10:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m. I am in meetings with teachers and students, so I am not able to respond right away, but I do my best to get back to all requests within 24 hours.

Always here to help and to listen.

Mrs. Cabeen

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