Addressing Uncomfortable E-Mail Communications

By Merle Horowitz

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Horowitz

Digital technology has become ubiquitous in educational institutions in the 21st century. Zucker (2008) posits that “the nature of technology use in schools has changed dramatically in the past decade. By using computers, the Internet, and other digital technology in smart ways, schools are beginning to transform themselves into the more modern, effective, responsive institutions that our society needs” (p. ix). He continues by sharing several important characteristics of digital technology that have the potential to transform schools.

The technology is inexpensive and pervasive, scalable, flexible – all purpose, interactive, customizable and able to keep records, democratizing, immediate, dynamic, insensitive to distance, community-friendly, less sensitive to time than other communication technologies, service-oriented, evolving, complementary, and extensible (Zucker, p. 21).

These impressive characteristics explain why many educators have gravitated toward technology: it has transformed the way they perform their jobs.

Most school districts provide every administrator and professional staff member with a computer, e-mail account, voice mail and access to online, internal network resources. Many districts now utilize teacher web pages or parent portals to provide parents and students 24-7 access to information and personnel. Consequently, the volume of e-mail that educators receive has increased incrementally, as parents and students take advantage of the communication opportunities fostered by the Internet.

Communicating via e-mail can become overwhelming. E-mail communication has no time boundaries; it is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Consequently, regular use of e-mail has created a wide range of dilemmas for educators.

For example, e-mail communication is now discoverable in court. Consequently, special education due process cases are on the rise and defense attorneys are using e-mail communication as evidence against school districts and state service agencies.

In addition, educators must contend with e-mails from parents, colleagues, and students that make them uneasy or that elicit uncomfortable feelings. Defining what is uncomfortable is not easy, but my recent study sought to take an initial step into this growing area of research by surveying educators across socioeconomically diverse school districts. In my study, uncomfortable e-mail was determined by the presence of ten characteristics:

  1. Annoying
  2. Embarrassing
  3. Including offensive language
  4. Insulting
  5. Threatening
  6. Harmful
  7. Untrue or cruel
  8. Defaming or denigrating one’s reputation
  9. Sexually explicit, sexually suggestive
  10. Posted on the Internet

In my research, I learned that the uncomfortability of an e-mail depends on the source. A greater percentage of females report receiving more uncomfortable e-mails from parents than do males, but the severity of reaction was greater for males.

Educators who work across two or more levels in a school district or intermediate unit report higher mean levels of offensive and overall uncomfortable e-mail reactions and elementary educators report significantly lower reactions to threatening e-mails than educators at the other school levels. The 50 and older group of educators report higher mean differences than the 29 and younger group for both offensive and overall uncomfortable e-mail reactions.

Among the sample, 45% of participants consider uncomfortable e-mail from parents to be a form of harassment; 43% report that uncomfortable e-mail from students is a form of harassment; and 42% report that uncomfortable e-mail from colleagues is a form of harassment. In summary, close to half of the educators who responded to the survey believe uncomfortable e-mail is a form of harassment.

The online survey initially requested that subjects report how frequently they communicate via e-mail with different constituents. The findings reveal that an overwhelming percentage of educators communicate with administrators and colleagues via e-mail, a relatively high percentage communicate with parents via e-mail and fewer than half use e-mail to communicate with students.

The findings suggest a lack of knowledge about the best way to respond to uncomfortable e-mail from any constituent. The data reveals a sense of helplessness amongst administrators and professional staff members as to how and if to respond to what they perceive to be uncomfortable e-mails. Educators’ responses to e-mails are quite varied and also depend upon the source of the e-mail: parents, students or colleagues. Educators who report receiving uncomfortable e-mails from colleagues rarely share them or seek advice about them from administrators. One can infer that these educators wish to keep the communication confidential, yet may experience anxiety or discomfort.

Half of the respondents state their educational institution has not provided staff development on the topic of online harassment, with a quarter of the respondents reporting they are not sure. These findings demonstrate a timely and compelling need for school districts to address appropriate e-mail propriety to support their administrators and professional staff members.

Codes of conduct and policies are the responsibility of school boards and superintendents. The usual course of action is for a superintendent to recommend policy to the school board for approval. The findings suggest that neither codes of conduct nor policies for communication with parents and students exist for fewer than half the school districts from which educators responded. In addition, half of the educators who responded are not sure the codes of conduct or policies even exist in their educational institution. The findings suggest a lack of communication among educators regarding the use, potential harassment and vehicles for response to e-mail.

Recommendations

Results of this study suggest several strategies superintendents might consider relative to e-mail communication in their districts:

  1. Develop school board policies or codes of conduct regarding e-mail communication with parents, students and colleagues must be developed.
  2. Facilitate professional development sessions on the topic of e-mail communication for school board members, administrators and staff members.
  3. Examine First Amendment issues and legal cases regarding online communication for e-mail, wikis, blogs and online postings such as My Space and Facebook.

The RUDE Scale (Reactions to Uncomfortable and Distracting E-mails) from this research study may be examined to further explore issues regarding e-mail harassment, such as why different levels of affluence of school districts generated different types of responses.

Reference

Zucker, A. (2008) Transforming schools with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

About the Author
Dr. Merle Horowitz is superintendent of the Marple Newtown School District in Newtown Square, Pa. Her recent dissertation is entitled “Educational Experiences with and Reactions to Uncomfortable and Distracting E-mails.” She may be contacted at mhorowitz@mnsd.org.