TIME MANAGEMENT: Is E-mail Overrunning School Life?

by Zach Kelehear

One distinction between wealthy and poor school districts is the level of technology, particularly computers and Internet access. In fact, many districts seem to measure their status by having Internet and e-mail connections in each classroom.

Unquestionably, technology has become an integral part of the educational environment. But is this always a good thing? Perhaps school leaders would be well served to rethink this technological omnipresence.

Consider some realities about electronic communication during the school day. E-mails fly within and across school district lines. Instead of sending written notes or runners within a school, principals now communicate their needs by e-mail. Central-office personnel who once relied on telephone or district couriers can fire off information to individual teachers, groups of teachers and school administrators with little effort. And superintendents have become more accessible than ever. One assistant superintendent told me she rarely has a day when she receives fewer than 350 e-mail messages.

Growing Distraction
Several problems can stem from this reality:

Central-office personnel can find staying “downtown” rather than visiting schools too convenient. This practice exacerbates a sometimes-testy relationship between school-based personnel and central administrators. While electronic communication might once have been toasted as a sign of a new connectedness between instructional and administrative staffs, the same phenomenon now widens the disconnection in many systems.

Superintendents may get trapped more often in their offices responding to e-mails rather than meeting face-to-face at instructional sites or in the community. Connecting to school leadership is an important responsibility for superintendents. Confinement to the central office, however, does not support the role of an informed, connected leader.

E-mails can interrupt instructional time. Principals and teachers feel compelled to respond to messages from central-office personnel, colleagues and parents. Wandering down a school hallway, you can hear the unmistakable signals in classrooms when a desktop unit declares, “You’ve got mail.” Responding whenever a computer barks is simply too enticing to ignore. The hand-carried notes from the office and the intercom were yesterday’s culprits of interrupted instruction. Today a major distraction is e-mail.

Coping Mechanisms
My computer was programmed to automatically check every three minutes for new e-mail and then announce its arrival. How could I expect to build any continuity in my work when I let e-mail interrupt me this frequently? Fortunately, some simple and immediate ways exist to regain control over one’s electronic inbox.

One solution is to disable the e-mail function during the school day. At the beginning and end of each workday, I set aside 30 minutes to manage e-mails. This means some responses might simply say, “I will be at your school today so I will see you then.” Other responses say: “Yes, I received your message. Thank you.” This was my way to manage my e-mails and not the converse.

Another solution is to insert an e-mail response in the subject line rather than compose a new message. This practice encourages brevity and clarity. Remember, the promptness of a response can be as important as its content.

Other time-saving possibilities:

Reply only if you have something to say;

* Recognize when a phone call is a better option;

Answer as soon as an item has been read, delete it or move it to a project-specific folder;

Set up folders that delete content automatically after five weeks;

Empty outbox and trash daily; and

Use a meaningful subject line.

Board Policy
A school board policy about the use of e-mail during instructional time is an important beginning for managing e-mail across the district. The policy might read, “The school board recognizes the value of technology in today’s classroom and that the Internet can be an important instructional resource.”

The specific rules related to the use of e-mail would appear in the administrative regulation of that policy. The regulation might define acceptable use on the part of the teacher and students, teacher supervision of student access of the Internet, network etiquette and the like.

A formal regulation protects the sanctity of instructional time in the school day. When school leaders know that teachers cannot respond to e-mails during class periods and when teachers know they are not expected to do so, then teaching and learning will not be interrupted by the sound of an e-mail alert.

Zach Kelehear, a former school district personnel director, is an associate professor of educational leadership at University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1530 3rd Ave., South, Birmingham, AL 35294. E-mail: