You need a quick answer from your child’s teacher. Given the constraints on all other forms of communication in the classroom, from phone conversations to in-person meetings, email would seem to be the solution. So why is it still problematic?
In part, the same constraints apply equally to email. Many teachers don’t have much emailing time. And some simply don’t like email, even now. As an English professor for 27 years at a community college, I can tell you that between class time, hundreds of school-wide emails, and stacks of papers littering coffee tables, dining room tables and even the bed, sometimes teachers can’t get back to students right away.
Anne, a community college instructor says, “It takes me up to 24 hours to answer email just because of the sheer volume. If we were always on email, we would never get anything else done since such a large part of our job is off the computer.” Rhianna, a middle-school teacher, says she sometimes receives 20-30 emails from parents per day with requests.
A 24-hour delay might be workable in some cases, but if a college student needs an urgent financial aid form ASAP, or a parent needs to talk right away about a more serious issue like bullying, time could be critical. Parents and students need to check with teachers to find out their communication preferences and make a plan for urgent needs that might include calling the principal or administrator.
Even teachers who welcome email can have an uneasy relationship with it. Tone can easily be misinterpreted, and parents can become understandably paranoid. Cynthia, mother of ten-year-old twins, received an email from a teacher that said, “Please set up a conference.” She immediately thought something was terribly wrong. It wasn’t. The teacher was just reaching out and getting to know parents before the scheduled parent-teacher conferences.
Email can also fall short in the area of “nuance.” You can’t see a raised and arched eyebrow, concern in the eyes, a wide smile, finger-tapping impatience, or pride. When my daughters were in elementary school, I taught poetry through Poets-in-the-Schools in their classes and was also fortunate to have time to go on some field trips. I could see my children in action, and sometimes I would have a quick chat with the teacher: “Do you think Sarah is making friends?” I could see their facial expressions — those “blink” moments of intuition when I could really tell what was going on.
It may be that when it comes to the parent-teacher relationship, nothing beats in-person interactions, however brief. My friend Leah, mother of seven-year-old twins, uses the moments at drop-off and pick-up for mini-chats with the teacher if she’s concerned about something. Phone calls also have more nuance than emails, and provide opportunities for bonding that help a teacher remember you and your child.
Quick chats on the phone can have a similar effect. My friend who is head of the PTA at a San Francisco school says it’s important to remember that conferences can be set up at any time. Parents don’t need to wait for conference week to voice concerns about their sons or daughters.
While email is now a part of our DNA and is often essential as the first round of communication, phone calls and face-to-face meetings add the depth of the human voice and the human face to what may be one of the last arenas where email can’t cover all bases.
When does emailing teachers work? For missed homework assignments, clarification of a detail for a field trip, or to set up a conference—yes. But it’s important to clarify your teacher’s relationship with email and not to overwhelm a teacher with multiple emails about an issue that might be better discussed over the phone or in person. Texting is next and is already happening in some schools.
“Dog ate homework.”
Louise Nayer is a community college professor and the author of Burned: A Memoir.