Focus

E-mail Can Be Your Friend or Foe

COMMUNICATIONS by ROBERT ERVIN


Every morning at 7:15 I turn on my computer and find a cluster of little red flags waiting to be answered. There was a time over the past four years when I welcomed these symbols as a good morning greeting and an opportunity to dispense with much of the daily telephone tag. I could resolve many issues by 8 o’clock.

However, experience has taught me that while electronic mail can make my life easier, it also can create serious operational problems that require twice the energy to correct. Consider the following incident.

One of my principals recently sent me an e-mail message to suggest we set up an e-mail conference center on our interschool network. His proposal was sincere: Allow full, ongoing participation of all 375 teachers in the school system in his curriculum improvement project.

He had watched my use of a limited-access conference site in our reading assessment project and figured widespread input could only enhance the deliberations on his project. He reasoned that his team would meet to work through their issues, devise solutions and post their actions via e-mail for comment.

My colleague had yet to learn and appreciate that a fine line exists between perfect democracy and anarchy, but he was about to. Being a rather firm individual, he figured that any unacceptable thought, criticism or, unthinkably, a challenge to his committee’s work or existing school policy could simply be deleted. I told him that was possible but not without consequences that might include his inability to reach a satisfying conclusion to his project conclusion. Fortunately, he dropped the idea.


Respect and Restraint
I derive great benefit from our local e-mail system. As assistant superintendent with primary responsibility for curriculum development, I have authorized a conference forum on our district’s Web site for our curriculum teams that provides instantaneous access to meeting times and places, agenda items and information requests, as well as an opportunity to efficiently barter ideas. These electronic sites are accessible only by those who are part of the project.

Undoubtedly, an e-mail network in a school district can free you from the restrictions of direct contact and facilitate decision-making. Yet the appeal of this new technology also can be an administrator’s nightmare. The medium must be treated with great respect and restraint. District employees from the superintendent on down should consider the following ramifications of an electronic mail system to ensure its successful use. With e-mail:

  • You are accessible to everyone.

    Staff members must realize that if you are part of an e-mail network, you can be reached. (While it is possible to be unlisted, why be on it at all if you don’t want people to contact you?) While you may not be available by telephone, you are available by e-mail. Suddenly, everyone has access to the boss. Chain of command disappears. Why not go straight to the top?

    But here’s the downside: On many e-mail programs, the sender can determine easily whether you read his or her message. With a simple click of an icon, the sender can confirm how little you care about an opinion or complaint from a staff member or parent. And worse, it is not that you did not reply, but that you are on record as having been informed of a problem, such as the R-rated movie shown by a teacher in American history.

  • You flirt with a false sense of privacy.

    The computer creates a dangerous sense of comfort. You are alone with a personal message on the computer screen. You can say anything. After all, it is just your friendly computer. Why not shoot off a response! Tell it like it is. My experience is that in the privacy of their office or home individuals compose the most dangerous responses. Do they believe this medium somehow insulates them? Why do they say things they would never say in any other context?

  • You can unintentionally hurt people.

    I enjoy the dialogue with my curriculum leaders and principals especially when the exchange is contributing to our collective growth and moving the project ahead. Because of my face-to-face meetings with these same people, I have a certain trust that we are on the same page.

    However, in the electronic give-and-take, I cannot see their facial expressions, interpret their body language, appreciate the inflection in their voice or correct a momentary misconception. The wrong choice of words or suggestions by either e-mail correspondent without amplification can be devastating. Well-intended comments become rebukes. Apologies must be made. Time is wasted.

  • You open up your writing ability to scrutiny.

    In school systems, people should be using e-mail for professional purposes. If one cannot write effectively, stay away from e-mail. The system demands accuracy and is not forgiving. Rarely does one store an e-mail note for reflection. One push of the button and your imperfect message is gone.

    Misspellings and poorly phrased half thoughts fly out to another address. As e-mail messages evolve into e-mail position statements, writing must gain precision and clarity.

  • Everyone has a right to comment.

    Poorly managed e-mail can give everyone a chance to comment, whether they have a right to or not. If a discussion is opened, for instance through a conference site, others feel a certain liberty to respond. It makes no difference whether they have been in development meetings over the past six months or whether they have done any background readings.

    Access is license to comment, critique and even undermine. What would never be said in person suddenly appears on the screen.

    Thin-skinned administrators may find their decisions or actions questioned on line. The administrator may cry insubordination when the real issue is First Amendment rights, especially in matters of ideology or conscience.

  • You may fail to slow down before responding.

    In the days before electronic mail, you may have created a rough draft of an important letter so that somewhere between your first take, your secretary and the office mailbox, good sense set in. Retrieval was possible. Rewriting or a face-to-face meeting was perhaps judicious.

    With e-mail, the send button propels your wisdom or your incredible stupidity into cyberspace. E-mail is seductively fast, but the temptation to handle matters quickly cannot substitute for actions or responses that call for measured input, especially when the subject may fall into the contractual arena. For instance, any writing that might be interpreted as disciplinary should remain in hard copy. Obviously, grievance matters are best left to formal channels.
  • Staff members must realize that if you are part of an e-mail network, you can be reached. (While it is possible to be unlisted, why be on it at all if you don’t want people to contact you?) While you may not be available by telephone, you are available by e-mail. Suddenly, everyone has access to the boss. Chain of command disappears. Why not go straight to the top?But here’s the downside: On many e-mail programs, the sender can determine easily whether you read his or her message. With a simple click of an icon, the sender can confirm how little you care about an opinion or complaint from a staff member or parent. And worse, it is not that you did not reply, but that you are on record as having been informed of a problem, such as the R-rated movie shown by a teacher in American history.The computer creates a dangerous sense of comfort. You are alone with a personal message on the computer screen. You can say anything. After all, it is just your friendly computer. Why not shoot off a response! Tell it like it is. My experience is that in the privacy of their office or home individuals compose the most dangerous responses. Do they believe this medium somehow insulates them? Why do they say things they would never say in any other context?I enjoy the dialogue with my curriculum leaders and principals especially when the exchange is contributing to our collective growth and moving the project ahead. Because of my face-to-face meetings with these same people, I have a certain trust that we are on the same page.However, in the electronic give-and-take, I cannot see their facial expressions, interpret their body language, appreciate the inflection in their voice or correct a momentary misconception. The wrong choice of words or suggestions by either e-mail correspondent without amplification can be devastating. Well-intended comments become rebukes. Apologies must be made. Time is wasted.In school systems, people should be using e-mail for professional purposes. If one cannot write effectively, stay away from e-mail. The system demands accuracy and is not forgiving. Rarely does one store an e-mail note for reflection. One push of the button and your imperfect message is gone.Misspellings and poorly phrased half thoughts fly out to another address. As e-mail messages evolve into e-mail position statements, writing must gain precision and clarity.Poorly managed e-mail can give everyone a chance to comment, whether they have a right to or not. If a discussion is opened, for instance through a conference site, others feel a certain liberty to respond. It makes no difference whether they have been in development meetings over the past six months or whether they have done any background readings.Access is license to comment, critique and even undermine. What would never be said in person suddenly appears on the screen.Thin-skinned administrators may find their decisions or actions questioned on line. The administrator may cry insubordination when the real issue is First Amendment rights, especially in matters of ideology or conscience.In the days before electronic mail, you may have created a rough draft of an important letter so that somewhere between your first take, your secretary and the office mailbox, good sense set in. Retrieval was possible. Rewriting or a face-to-face meeting was perhaps judicious.With e-mail, the send button propels your wisdom or your incredible stupidity into cyberspace. E-mail is seductively fast, but the temptation to handle matters quickly cannot substitute for actions or responses that call for measured input, especially when the subject may fall into the contractual arena. For instance, any writing that might be interpreted as disciplinary should remain in hard copy. Obviously, grievance matters are best left to formal channels.

    Caution First
    Every point of caution I have offered has its counterpoint. Accessibility puts you in touch with folks in a way that cuts through bureaucratic layers. Privacy affords a personal response. Sensitivity can change a distant superintendent into a caring collaborator. And what’s wrong with an open exchange of ideas on a project even when those commenting on it haven’t been involved previously?

    E-mail can be a valuable enhancement to your professional life as long as you remember the caution of the auctioneer: caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

    Robert "Sandy" Ervin is assistant superintendent, Bangor School Department, 73 Harlow St., Bangor, Maine 04401. E-mail: robert_ervin@k12bangor.maine.com