We love it and we hate it. Email. With the appearance of a red flag or the sound of a friendly ping, it instantly makes communication both easier and more complicated. Recent years have taught us some tough lessons about our digital conversations. Whenever I'm writing an email, I always try to remember that:
- You can't take back what you've written.
- Our first impression most often comes through what and how we write.
- Our haste can cause us to suggest a tone or meaning we didn't intend. Educators aren't immune to these oversights, especially as our inboxes become more and more crowded.
Knowing that communication is a two-way street, it's productive to also think practically about how teachers can respond to tough emails from families. I've been on both sides of these conversations: as a teacher and as a parent. Together, they've taught me a lot about the way I want to approach these exchanges.
Here's what I've learned from being on the teacher's end of the inbox.
- Don't get defensive. It never fails that we'll get the toughest emails on the days that we're the most exhausted or have exercised the greatest patience. It can be so easy to get defensive when our practice, our grading, or our attention to students is questioned. But these are the moments that we have to be the most empathetic. A hastened response with a defensive cloud can quickly stifle a conversation and send a family member straight for a CC to the principal. Instead, we have to take a breath and put the email into context.
- We're teaching all the time. Yep. All the time. We're even teaching family members when we respond to their emails or questions. We're teaching them about the culture of our classroom, about the way we've seen their child learn, and about the way we make deliberate instructional decisions.
- No one is perfect. In the same way that we teachers are fully aware of our imperfections, family members will make mistakes, too. Approaching a family member with curiosity or empathy can go a long way in creating a strong partnership. This means that instead of leading with accusation, a start of thanks (I appreciate the way you've been following up at home), empathy (I know how important your child's success is to you), or curiosity (I've been curious about how the homework process is going with Zoe and am anxious to hear more about it), will open lines of communication.
- Turn these communications into opportunities. Whether you're responding to a family member or initiating the conversation, our email communications can be incredibly powerful. Seeing even the most difficult messages as an opportunity can help us all work towards the same goal: creating a better opportunity for students to learn.
- Use the phone, too. Sometimes the email's tone will tell you just how frustrated the sender is, and in such cases, a phone call can be much more productive. Don't hesitate to use it as an opportunity to listen and put the concern in context.
Knowing these traits of productive conversations is one thing, but remembering to use them when a tough email comes in, can be another. Nevertheless, our responses are an extension of our professionalism, and I thought this exercise in thinking really practically about sample responses could be helpful to all of us trying to find the right words.
How to Email Family Members About Social or Behavior Concerns
- It's important to talk about just the student and not other students in the classroom. In this example, I've used phrases that may be part of the classroom like "classroom friends" (which is probably more common in primary vs. secondary classrooms).
- Don't place or displace blame. That only takes you further away from the issue: helping the student have an optimal learning environment.
- Create a context for the family member. Help them to understand the entire situation.
Social or Behavior Concerns Example Email
Dear [Family Member Name],
Thank you for taking the time to share these concerns with me. I always want to know when social issues like this may be getting in the way of learning. I know that Holden can get frustrated easily and this can cause him to act out in ways that he usually wouldn't. I've been thinking about some strategies that we might be able to work on together to help him feel more in control as he's learning to talk to his classroom friends. I want Holden to love coming to school and I think we can work together to help that happen. Is there a good time for us to talk by phone or in-person?
Thank you again for starting this conversation,
How to Email Family Members About Grades
- Even though it's incredibly easy to get pulled into a debate about "getting more points," or a grading policy, this has to be a conversation about learning. Knowing what you want students to have learned for a given assignment will be imperative going into these conversations.
- In these conversations, I try to address any specific questions about an assignment by providing a clearer context about grading policies, how points are distributed, or the purpose of an assignment.
Email Family Members About Grades Example Email
Dear [Family Member Name],
I appreciate how vigilant you are in checking Nikki's grades. I know that you really care about her success and this will be a great chance for us to talk not just about what she's doing but also about how she's learning. The assignment that you are specifically referring to is important because it gave Nikki a chance to practice her compare/contrast skills. I put these kinds of assignments in a grading category that carries a small percentage so that students can "practice without penalty". I know that the low grade may seem shocking because she's such a hard worker, but this is my chance to give her some honest feedback before the same skill gets assessed on bigger assignments that have a far greater impact.
You asked about extra credit and although I don't give extra credit, I'm happy to talk with Nikki about revising some of her work. What's most important to me is that Nikki is learning, so if you're hearing at home that she's still frustrated or confused, I want to be sure to spend some extra time with her before or after school.
Thank you for being so proactive and in helping us focus on Nikki's learning together.
How to Email Family Members About a Classroom Practice
- One of the toughest responses to craft can be the ones where our decisions about the classroom and how or what we teach are being questioned. I’ve fielded questions ranging all the way from why I grouped students in a particular way, to why I gave homework over a break, to why our department had chosen to teach Maya Angelou. Curiosity is the key here. Sometimes the real question underlies the complaint, and we can make a lot of progress by understanding the difference.
- We have to know when our instructional decisions are sound and shouldn’t be changed, versus when we may have overlooked something and we have room to revise.
Emailing Family Members About a Classroom Practice Example Email
Dear [Family Member Name],
Thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention- as a parent, I know it can be hard to ask these kinds of questions. I understand your concern about the degree of work involved in this project as well as your request for a deadline extension. We've been working hard on this incrementally over the course of the last month in order to spread out the work. In case you didn't see it, I'm enclosing a copy of our class calendar as a helpful reference.
Given the way we've been working up to this deadline, and because of the ongoing feedback I've provided to the students as they've worked, I feel confident this is a fair timeline. However, if there are extenuating circumstances for Amra, I would be happy to talk with you about it over the phone.
Thank you for sharing your concerns,
As the school year gets into full swing, undoubtedly parents and teachers alike will find themselves needing ways to engage in problem-solving conversations. Hopefully, these examples can help us keep learning, and that cooperation comes through as the heart of our messages. And don’t forget – sending positive emails home are fun to do, too!
Here's another great resource by Vicki Davis, 8 Great Email Etiquette Tips.
This blog was originally published on September 20th, 2012. It has been updated with new information and links.