Improving E-mail in Schools

Alby
Alby
Jul 22 · 15 min read

Dealing with e-mail takes up a lot of teachers’ time and energy. Below are some suggestions for improving the use of e-mail in schools. The first part is specifically for school leaders, and the second part is more general.


Have a Good Policy

You need to have a written policy around the use of e-mail. Yes, it will take time to write, and yes, it will take time to read, but we’re making a delicious productivity and work-life balance omelette, and some eggs are going to need to get broken. (I am working on a white-label policy, let me know if you’re interested.)

DO acknowledge that the workload created by e-mail is significant, and that teachers don’t get enough time to deal with it.

DO make it clear when and how often you expect staff to check and action their e-mail. At the start of the day, during break/lunch and in PPAs, and at the end of the day is reasonable. During the weekend and during the holidays is not. The phrase “Did you see my e-mail?” should disappear from your vocabulary, and should never have been there in the first place. Think of e-mail like actual mail: it is not designed for time-sensitive communication. Make it clear to staff that they’re allowed to push back against colleagues who demand e-mail immediacy, and be willing to Have A Word with those colleagues.

DON’T prevent staff from accessing e-mail at certain times or mandate “no e-mails to be sent after X/during Y”. This is the sort of idea that sounds great on paper, but which doesn’t work in practice. Whether we like it or not, sending e-mails is part of a teacher’s job, and preventing teachers from doing their job when they want to do their job is not helpful. If you tell staff they can’t send e-mails during the weekend this just leads to Monday morning emailageddon, as everyone simultaneously pushes ‘Send’ on the e-mails that have been sitting in their ‘Drafts’ folder.

DO recognise the difference between meetings and e-mails. Yes, “that meeting could have been an e-mail”, but also, that series of e-mails could have been a meeting. As a general rule, the more people are involved the more likely it is that a meeting is going to work better. Recognise the difference between Broadcasts and Conversations; e-mails sent to lots of people should only ever be Broadcasts, never Conversations.

DON’T expect staff to reply straight away to parents’ e-mails: 24- or 48-hour response times are perfectly acceptable during term time. Mandating ultra-quick replies leads to ill-considered responses and ultimately ends up making things worse. Very occasionally a parent will bully staff over e-mail, and they will need to be told to correspond only with a named member of SMT who will then forward e-mails on as appropriate.

DO encourage staff to be ruder. There is really no need for one-word “Thanks!” replies. Encourage staff to use phrases like “For information only” and “No reply required”. Be willing, as managers, to manage the people that don’t follow the policy and to discipline them for Sending Bad E-mails.

DON’T e-mail out a Weekly (or Daily) Bulletin. Have a living document that is updated as and when required. Make it clear in this document when information is changed.

DO make it easy for pupils to get their school e-mail outside of school and on their own devices, and do mandate that pupils check their school e-mail regularly, once a day at minimum. Recognise that “My e-mail must have got lost” hasn’t been an acceptable excuse since 2009.

DON’T use “getting the whole picture” as a reason to force teachers to e-mail everyone associated with a given pupil about every little thing they do. On the whole, Heads of Department and Heads of Year do not need to hear about missed homework until we’re on at least the third or fourth incident.

DO encourage (force!) staff to use “Out-of-Office” automatic replies. Not just during holidays, but when they’re away on a CPD course, off on a trip, or when they’re ill. I have my Out-of-Office set on a schedule in Outlook so I don’t have to worry about turning it on when the next holiday or half-term starts; the same is possible in both Gmail and G Suite.

DON’T force staff to use Outlook, and don’t force them to use a PC. Using Google Inbox on my phone for my school e-mail revolutionised my approach and improved my work-life balance enormously. (I’m still adjusting to life without Inbox.) Allow staff to use whichever software/hardware stack works for them. Staff are more and more tech-savvy and they have distinct preferences now — don’t slow them down by forcing them to use unfamiliar systems/interfaces.

DO have lots of noticeboard space in the Staff Room. You’d be amazed how many e-mails can be replaced by a noticeboard. Have a section that is “emptied” daily, one that is emptied weekly and one that is emptied half-termly.

DON’T force staff to change e-mail passwords frequently. This isn’t really about e-mail, but whilst I’ve got your attention I want to point out that the National Cyber Security Centre, the National Institute for Science and Technology and Microsoft all agree that forcing staff to change their passwords every 60 (or whatever) days is a Very Bad Idea.

DO teach your staff about Inbox Zero. Have me to come in and talk to them about this document you’re reading right now, your e-mail policy, and the concept of Inbox Zero. You will create more productive and happier staff.


And if you’re not a policymaker …

Write Better Subject Lines

An e-mail subject line should be descriptive. It is not a title, and it should explain what the content of the e-mail is. Generally speaking, subject lines should be longer than you think. When everyone writes better subject lines recipients are better able to triage their inbox.

BAD: Last Day of Term
BETTER: Timings for the last day of term
BEST: Changes to timings of arrangements for the last day of term

Notice how the final subject line gives me new information. Had I just read the middle one I wouldn’t know whether or not the timings had changed.

BAD: Invoices
BETTER: Invoices are due
BEST: Please submit remaining invoices before the end of term

If you can put almost the entire e-mail in the subject line, do so.

Never include a pupil’s name in the subject line, use initials only. The reason to tell people to do this is to prevent it popping up on an interactive whiteboard when someone has left their e-mail open in the background.

BAD: Albert Einstein
BETTER: AE’s homework
BEST: AE hasn’t done his physics homework for the second week running

If you are replying to someone you have previously e-mailed, but about a different subject, don’t “reuse” the previous e-mail chain. Starting a new conversation, with a new subject line, makes it easier to manage e-mail and to find a conversation later on.

If the subject of an e-mail conversation changes during the conversation but is still related, then add the new subject to the front of the subject line and keep the old (dinosaurs like me sometimes change “Re:” to “Was:”). For example, I know that “Equipment & techniques (Was: Practical glossary)” is a conversation I am having about equipment and techniques, but that it refers to a previous conversation about a practical glossary I’m working on. The two conversations are treated separately by my e-mail software.

Other bad subject lines include those that begin “Please ignore if …” (Stop being so lazy and so rude to your colleagues), “Tomorrow” (What is happening tomorrow?), “Duty swap” (What duty do you want to swap for what?), “Notice for form time” (What is the notice about?), and “Lost bag” (Nobody cares).

Do not begin an e-mail subject line with “URGENT” unless something is actually time-sensitive. (It seems that many staff do not know the difference between urgency and importance.) Even if an e-mail is time-sensitive, you shouldn’t need to include “URGENT”, because that should be obvious from the rest of the subject line.

BAD: URGENT! Registration
BETTER: URGENT! Pupil missing from registration.
BEST: AE missing from afternoon registration

If you leave the subject line blank or WRITE IT ALL IN CAPS then please consider whether you belong in a school or an asylum. (Shoutout to my ex-colleague who used “email” as the subject line of every e-mail he sent.)

Prevent Just Anyone Sending All-Staff E-mails

Access to the All-Staff distribution list should be heavily restricted. The only people allowed to send an e-mail that goes to everyone in the school should be nominated “gatekeepers”. These gatekeepers are responsible for vetting All-Staff e-mails and either rejecting them or forwarding them on. Rejection should be the default.

For reference, e-mails about missing bags and lost keys aren’t important enough to justify All-Staff e-mails. The same goes for e-mails about that charity fun run you’re doing or that chest of drawers you’re trying to get rid of. Nobody cares. Put it on the noticeboard in the Staff Room.

Teach Staff How BCC Works

It is my experience that teachers are trigger-happy on the old ‘CC’ and ‘Reply All’ buttons, and this creates problems. The most common problem of course is the Accidental Reply All, which — whilst occasionally hilarious — fills inboxes with irrelevant e-mails. BCC is the answer to the accidental Reply All, and to growing concerns about privacy.

BCC stands for “Blind Carbon Copy” which means that a copy of the e-mail goes “in the blind” (i.e. invisibly) to those people. Compare the two examples below.

From: Alby
To: Staff1, Staff2
CC:
BCC:
Subject: CERN flight now leaves from Terminal 3

The two members of staff know that the other has received the e-mail, and they can see each other’s e-mail addresses. If any of the three of us hits “Reply All” it will go to all three.

From: Alby
To: Alby
CC: Staff1, Staff2
BCC: Parent01, Parent02, … Parent29, Parent30
Subject: Update to flight details for CERN trip — Change of Terminal

For the members of staff, the situation is the same as above and they won’t see the parents’ e-mail addresses. (I’ve sent it To myself and CC’d the staff rather than including the staff in the To field so that it’s clearer to the BCC’d parents that they are the intended primary recipients.)

For the parents, they can see my e-mail address, and the e-mail addresses of the two members of staff, but they can’t see other parents’ e-mail addresses. This means that they don’t know to which other parents the e-mail has been sent. If anyone hits ‘Reply All’ it will go to all the staff going on the trip; it won’t go to any other parents.

If you are sending an e-mail to a large number of people, or to people who you want to keep separate and prevent from e-mailing each other, these people’s addresses should be in the BCC field. BCC can also be used strategically, to give the impression that an e-mail has gone to a lot of people, when actually it has only gone to a few (or vice versa).

A useful way to enforce a policy of using BCC correctly is to make vague threats about the GDPR.

Ease Up On The CCs

Every time you add a CC the question you should be asking yourself is “Does this extra person want to receive this e-mail?” If a pupil has failed to hand in their homework, do you really need to include your Head of Department, their Form Tutor, and their Head of Year on your e-mail about that? Do you even need to send an e-mail at all? Your school should have a policy about this: e.g. first offence it’s the Form Tutor, second offence it’s the Form Tutor and the HoD, only on the third offence do you add in the Head of Year, etc. If your school doesn’t have a policy on this, ask them to create one.

There is an extent to which teachers use the CC field to cover their arses: “Oh, I did CC in [pupil’s form tutor/year head/head of department].” If this is you, then reconsider whether this approach is healthy and how you feel when it’s your name in the CC field. Take some responsibility.

And when it’s not about a pupil, and you’re CCing in that colleagues’s Head of Department, Line Manager and a couple of Deputy Heads because they haven’t gotten back to you yet, pause for a moment. Is it actually necessary, or are you being a passive aggressive arsehole?

Create More Distribution Lists

One of the main ways we are going to make e-mail better is to make sure that every e-mail a teacher receives is relevant to them. We need to do away with “ONLY READ IF YOU TEACH YEAR 9” or “PLEASE DELETE IF YOU DON’T TEACH …” subject lines.

At the very least your school should have the following distribution lists:

  • All staff Staff
    (But see above re: restrictions on who can use this.)
  • All pupils Pupils
  • All teaching staff and TAs TeachingStaff
  • All support staff SupportStaff
  • SLT and SMT SLT, SMT
  • DSL(s) and deputy DSL(s) Safeguarding
    Sometimes time is of the essence and it’s important to be able to contact them all at once.
  • Heads of Department HoD
  • Heads of Departments and 2ICs DHoD
  • Heads of Year HoY
  • Heads of Section (if they exist) HoS
  • Heads of House (if they exist) HoH
  • Heads of each Key Stage within departments: HoKS3, HoKS4, HoKS5
    In a lot of schools this will just be HoDs/2ICs. This list is useful e.g. when things like exam entries become due.
  • One per class: 7SCI-A, 9HIS-C, 12PHY-2, etc.
    If a class is shared between two teachers, both teachers should be included on the distribution list. If a TA, ELSA or other member of support staff is usually in the room, or is assigned to work with one of the pupils in the class, they should also be included.
  • One per tutor group, including the tutor: 7ABC, 13XYZ, etc.
  • One per year group, which includes all the pupils in that year group, and their form tutors: Year7, Lower6, etc.
    Sixth Form groups are quite often taught together (e.g. for “Life Skills” or SRE) but it’s not too taxing to add both Year12 and Year13 to an e-mail.
  • One per year group tutors: Y7Tutors, L6Tutors, etc.
  • One per year group teachers: Y7Teachers, L6Teachers, etc.
    This would cover anyone who teaches a given year group any subject at any time. Sometimes it’s necessary to tell everyone who teaches a given year group that they’re going to be out on a trip next Friday or that an assembly is going to overrun into Period 1.
  • One per teaching subject that includes everyone teaching that subject (e.g. physics, French) and one per teaching faculty (e.g. science, MFL). PE should be both one group (PE) and separated out by sport (football, netball). For subjects like the sciences and MFL people like lab technicians and language assistants should also be included.
  • One per A Level subject that includes everyone who teaches that subject, and everyone that studies it (e.g. a-level-physics, a-level-french, etc).
  • One per group of non-teaching support staff, if that group exists and/or is big enough. For example, library, reprographics, maintenance, etc.

The vast majority (probably all) of these distribution lists should reject external e-mails. Parents are bad enough already at passive aggressively CCing in members of staff without access to HoDs or SLT.

It should be emphasised that as a general rule, if you’re using a distribution list with a large number of members it should only ever be placed in the BCC field.

Beyond this bare minimum of lists, I’d also include:

  • A series of lists including only people who are not timetabled for a given period, mainly for use in case of emergencies: FreeMon3, FreeFri5, etc.
  • Working groups: workload, commonroom, etc. This helps ensure that nobody gets accidentally left out of a conversation.
  • Pupil sports teams: U12ARugby, U16Netball. This should also include the teacher with responsibility for that team.
  • When pupils have a good idea of what they want to read at university a list such as UCASphysics or UCASpsychology that I can e-mail if I spot a podcast or some extra reading or a talk that might be relevant to them and their UCAS forms. Pupils should be allowed to be a member of more than one of these lists.
  • A list covering all the male pupils, and a list covering all the female pupils. I don’t quite know why yet, I just feel like it might come in handy for something. Maybe if a particular toilet is out of order or something like that?

It’s not realistic to have a per-pupil distribution list that allows staff to e-mail all of a pupil’s teachers, so you need to have your SIMS/iSAMS set up to make this information very easy to find.

And use sensible e-mail addresses

Please, please, stop using teachers’ actual initials as their e-mail addresses. How is a pupil who has Mr Darwin for biology supposed to know that his e-mail address is crd@school.sch.uk? Wouldn’t drw@school.sch.uk or cdarwin@school.sch.uk make more sense?

Make pupil e-mail addresses look very clearly different from staff e-mail addresses. I’m not a fan of including teachers’ full first and last names in e-mail directories, so a good way of doing this, and one which gives extra info, is to include the “Class of” year. Your e-mail directory should then look something like:

Mr C Darwin cdarwin@school.sch.uk
Alfred Wallace aw2021@school.sch.uk

Make sure you get the honorific Mr, Miss, Mrs, Ms, Mx, etc. correct. If someone has a PhD then ask them whether they’d like to use Dr or not. MFL teachers quite often use the appropriate language-specific honorifics: M., Mme, Mlle; Sr, Sra, Srta; Hr, Fr., Frl., etc. Again, ask them what they’d like to use.

If a pupil has the same or similar name as a teacher, your e-mail directory should make it very clear who’s who:

Mr N Bohr nbohr@school.sch.uk
Niels Bohr (Pupil) nb2022@school.sch.uk

Attach, Don’t Share

How often has someone e-mailed you a link to a shared file, and the link doesn’t work for some reason? Now think about how often that has happened with an attachment. I don’t think I have ever had an attachment not work.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a role for Shared documents to play: when people are working collaboratively on something, or when something is being constantly updated (i.e. a living document).

But most of the time? Most of the time the file you’re sending isn’t going to change. And in that case it should be sent as an attachment. Aside from not having to worry about “permissions” and whether the link will actually work, it has the added bonus of making the same file easily found next year and the year after and the year after. If you’re worried about security, ZIP and password protect the file before you send it.

(Don’t give me arguments about storage space and bandwidth: G Suite starts at 30 GB and Outlook at 50 GB, and if your school’s network can’t handle a couple of 5 MB PowerPoint files then you’ve got bigger problems.)

Don’t Use Proprietary Headers

Not everyone uses Outlook, so a lot of people aren’t going to see those “Importance” and “Sensitivity” tags. Even if they do, their view of what is important isn’t necessarily going to be the same as yours. (Weird how nobody ever uses the “low importance” option, isn’t it?) If staff are living by the Inbox Zero credo — and they should be — the hypothetical importance of an e-mail has no real effect on inbox triage/processing anyway.

If an e-mail is confidential or personal, then you must put that in the subject line rather than just setting a flag. (Also, as an organisation you need to agree on what “confidential” and “personal” actually mean. We have classification schemes for a reason.)

Don’t Use Read Receipts

If you’re a teacher and you use Read Receipts, please go jump in the sea. That goes double for you, parents.

Miscellaneous

  • Learn your e-mail software keyboard shortcuts (Gmail, Outlook).
  • Don’t be afraid to reply with “Sorry, not sure why you e-mailed this to me?” or “Did you mean to CC me on this?” when you’re CC’d on yet another pointless e-mail (especially if it’s a “Please ignore unless you teach …” e-mail). If everyone does this then people get the message quite quickly.
  • Stop wasting time organising your e-mail into folders. Search is really good now, you don’t need to put e-mails into folders in order to make finding them later easier.
  • Remember that ‘Reply’ doesn’t include attachments, but that ‘Forward’ does. Don’t send attachments back and forward unnecessarily.
  • Get rid of all the images in your automatically-appended e-mail footers, and ensure that footers aren’t appended to e-mails from one member of staff to another.
  • Have people’s photos in the staff e-mail directory. If I’ve sent Steve in Finance six e-mails about an invoice it helps if I know what Steve looks like when I bump into him in the corridor.

Alby

Written by

Alby

Physicist and teacher.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade