Saturday, April 28, 2012

Email Blues

An open letter to BC School District 57 teachers on self-reliant communication.

Teachers in our school district have been having lively discussions about the use of our ubiquitous FirstClass 57Online email system (FC). In the wake of Bill 22 and reports that our employer was playing Big Brother with teacher email, the union local encouraged teachers to create internal bounceback messages to administration expressing concerns over the the labour and communication climate. This followed 7 months of job action that included teachers refusing all email communication with administration. As was the case with so many other topics this year, the job action highlighted problems that have existed in our district and school system for years. In some ways this has been great as the problems are being talked about (by teachers, anyways), and in some cases we see altered and adapted behaviour aimed at restoring balance to the way we communicate and collaborate online.

Our employer insists that full and regular use of their email system is an unwritten expectation, while our union's position is that our use of email is a courtesy and can be reserved for such uses as booking labs or accessing paystubs. I suspect the truth (or the resolution) is somewhere in the middle, but while this is being sorted out, the employer has threatened discipline over the use of bouncebacks. I guess they think it is really important for us to receive duplicate (if well-meaning) announcements about report card due dates, locker clean-outs, which room the meeting is in, how to book a sub, field trips, travel discounts, product recall health alerts, reminders to submit forms, and the like. Of course, our inboxes are also filled with more serious exchanges, challenges, inquiries, ultimatums, rhetoric. Then there is classic spam that slips through the filters, almost refreshing because you know right away it is spam.

Slowly, teachers are starting to remove their "political" bounceback messages, in some cases replacing them with more humorous offerings, like: 

"Your message has been received and will be queued for response."

"Please note, this user no longer has a bounceback message regarding adjusted use of the 57Online system."

"I am currently working or otherwise away from my computer. If this message is urgent please contact the office at ___."

Fun aside, it may seem cathartic in the short term to mess with our email as an post-Bill 22 aggravation to admin, but I think it's important that we eventually take a different and more productive fork in the road.

Not much of a news flash, but we have a generally dysfunctional relationship between teachers and our school/district administration. This doesn't mean we don't get along, but it means that getting along involves overcoming substantial institutional barriers. It can be seen in the email games, the micro-management of teacher time, erosion of support structures like tech plans and district committees, the end of key dialogues in the wake of the 2010 "right-sizing," rejection of 21st century learning proposals, creation of plans and programs without teacher input, and the reverberations of this year's job action and Bill 22. We have our action plan to deal with some of that last bit, but the invasive nature of email will not go away without a change in behaviour. I believe we should be the first to make that change.

The FirstClass system has become pervasive because we have allowed it, even encouraged it to be that way. Teacher "pioneers," usually the same ones that introduced networked computers and school servers, fostered FC school by school in the 1990s, provided us with training, and convinced admin to adopt it. Teachers promoted its use as a solution to the stuffing of mailboxes with memos and a way to exchange all of the interesting information that accompanied the dawn of the internet. It was a great tool for that job. Fifteen years later FC has become a time-killer and a tool for admin and other colleagues to reach into areas of our practice that used to be sane, balanced, and responsive to etiquette. The new acceptable use policy contains a variety of gag orders and minor contradictions that, if taken seriously, would make anyone nervous to use FC. Ironically, they've added a social network function visible only to employees; to even use it as one regularly uses social media would be counterintuitive and a clear violation of the acceptable use policy.

The original FC trade-off was supposed to be about giving up some face-to-face contact and paper memos for a wider and more interdependent educational network. I think the summit for that goal has been reached and the torch has been passed off to 3rd party social media. The employer-monitored social network add-on has been used by only a handful of the 1600+ employees in the district, and least of all by teachers and administrators. FC now seems more like numb dependency on administrivia with a veneer of interactivity (or is it a patina of civility?). Even in its most basic function as a school communication tool, it proved itself largely unnecessary during Phase 1 job action. As a parent communication tool it works quite well, but then so do the alternate email addressed supplied by many teachers. In its current use, FC does not seen to be able to fulfill the role of universal bulletin board and place for meaningful discussion at the same time. Our (collective) approach relies on 1990s thinking, the assumption that technology, however nifty, is just a tool; we need to get with the new century and realize that technology is an extension of identity and must be subject to the same self-reflection and discipline that one applies to identity work.  Rather than rely on cumbersome employer-built services that remove control from educators, we need our leaders to model and highlight the ever-changing use of twitter, facebook, wikis, nings, google tools, and other communication mediums. We also need our leaders to come around more often and actually engage teachers and students where they're at.  Like bodily. Like no email.

As many local teachers have shown us this year, it is time to rethink how we use email at work, to set the patterns and habits we want for ourselves with the next three or more years in mind. We need to design our FC presence, and all of our interactions with others, around an idea of what we want it to look like all the time. For me, that means cutting back on my FC time and deleting or ignoring anything with a subject line that does not appear relevant (which won't leave me with much left). Eventually, admin and colleagues will learn not to spam each other or read stuff that aggravates them. We can relearn some heritage skills like using a phone or having a conversation in the hall, and use our email-time for talking with kids or being with our families. From an HR perspective, it is insane to expect employees to wade through hundreds of emails looking for something of lasting value -- that's what twitter is for. Of course, most of our sensible teachers have never allowed FC to invade their lives, and have found a balance in its use.

Additionally, these arguments could all be made about engagement with admin over pro-d, meetings, and collaboration. If it is insidious, dull, or unproductive, stop doing it. If it is intelligent and benefits your students, and the originators are willing to demonstrate change with their own example first, that's a different story. Until our district leadership is willing to take ed reform and functional relationships seriously by actually engaging in dialogue with teachers (as they do in many other districts), we need to say "no, thanks." Collect yourselves instead around big ideas and like-minded educators and cut the school district and province out of the loop. Why shouldn't we model for them what a careful use of email looks like, what cool pro-d looks like, what real collaboration looks like. I think when we've acted with self-reliance ("personalized" the nature of our discourse), the polarity starts to disappear -- administrators will step out from behind the email (just as we need to), and come alongside our efforts and talk about how much they enjoy doing so. Just as teachers once pioneered email and ICT, we should now take the fork in the road towards more elegant communication, interdependent professional learning, authentic theory-building, and creative practice. In clearing this path, it will make it much easier for progressive administrators to know what to do next. In my mind, it is the only realistic way to get past the "us and them" mentality. I think our administrators are just as hungry for inspired leadership as we are, and that inspiration can be modeled by anyone.

Feedback welcome; I'd especially like to hear how other districts' teachers are responding to post-Bill 22 communication challenges.


Anonymous said...

I teach high school in the BC interior. Our district email system was brought in several years ago to enhance internal district communications. Of course, a few parents found my email address and began contacting me through the system, and that really started to eat into my classroom time, personal time and prep time. I also find that the constant requests from support personnel and counselors takes a lot of time to deal with. When I noticed that too many parents were starting to request regular updates, I decided that I'd had enough of intrusive email access. I configured a filter that only allows internal school district email to reach me. Everything else is deleted. This move has really reduced my stress level as I was coming into work every morning dreading 5 or 6 parent requests for this, that and everything else.
When the job action started this year, the admin made all district teacher email addresses available to the public. I watched other teachers dealing with this added layer of communication expectation. I've kept my email filter in place to keep out unwanted contact. I collect home contact emails from my students and send out a regular broadcast email to parents to let them know their students have been given printed progress reports and that they should remind their student to share these at home. This puts the communication responsibility on 110+ students, not me. I tell parents not to respond to the email as it doesn't accept external mail. I tell them to phone the school, leave a message and I will call them back ASAP if they need to talk to me. I prefer voice contact with parents because I find that back and forth email communication is far more time consuming and inconvenient for me. I teach full time English (this semester with no prep time). I started teaching in 1981, and school and parent communication was a lot easier to handle. Now, even when I'm home sick, I'm checking my school email to respond to internal requests for information so that I don't have too much piling up. I like technology and I use it a lot with my students, but this expection of 24/7 contact is really unhealthy.

Thielmann said...

Thanks for your example, and describing a balanced path. We need to earn that back in our district, the right to be offline, or at least to choose the kind of "personalized" online experience that works for our students and teaching practice.

Sarah Holland said...

As a parent working in the private sector, I must admit to being rather surprised at some of the comments about email here. I tend to take it as a management expectation that staff use email to communicate with their employer - it's not optional.

Issues around indiscriminate email use, and cc'ing people on things that they don't need to be cc'ed on are a different matter. Some organizations have dealt with them in a variety of ways:

I'm a parent of elementary school students, and haven't experienced the secondary school system as yet as a parent. However, I can tell you that all the elementary school teachers we've had (except one) have used email extensively to communicate with parents, and have asked parents to email any questions or concerns. We have been very fortunate in that regard.

While I recognize that secondary school is an area in which students are expected to take much more responsibility - and I'm ALL in favour of this - I would expect that at times, there would still be reasons for parent communication with teachers, right? To move from a system where I can email when it is convenient for me, and expect a reply back from a teacher when convenient for them, to a system where I'm expected to be able to call during school hours and be reachable by phone during school hours, seems horrifying - and one that will not work for some parents. Why limit communication in that manner?

If you're having some parents abuse the system, filter the ones causing problems, not everybody.

Thielmann said...

To be clear, the bouncebacks were usually aimed at either administration or internal emails. Some did it as a statement about how the system is invasive, some as a transition from Phase I job action (this was a union strategy), others because they are overloaded by email, and some because they just wanted off the particular email platform we use (it has many pros and cons). Most of this latter group gave parents and colleagues alternate email addresses to use. Personally, I wished parents used email more. I've had maybe 20 parent-initiated interactions this year, some of whom seem to be surprised that I have a website with lesson material for students, marks updates with a login, and daily updates of what was happening in each of their students' classes. I guess some things never change -- teenagers only let their parents know what's going on in school if everything is great, rarely if things are falling apart. In the last 16 years on email, I've never ignored a parent email, and I can only think of one parent who abused email with me, and her kid wasn't even in my class. Many of my colleagues thought this year was great, far more contact with parents (including by email), and far less administrivia.

I think part of the issue is that in the early days of email, we actually expected that if we sent an email, the recipient(s) would read it, think about it, and respond. Then came spam. Then came the idea that admin and fellow teachers could do more, say more, and expect more if they simply sent more emails. As your links suggest, it is time to move on, and use more task-specific tools and rethink etiquette. Although I see the point (and humour) of a good bounceback, my preference is to become increasingly liberal with the delete button.

Thanks for your comments. I'll share the links (via twitter, not email!). I like the one idea about sending out internal comms in one go. This would be a good idea for principals - have one or two emails each week with a predicable subject line and fill it with things that the staff express interest in knowing about. Everything after that can be personal email or a conversation in the hall. Staff folders have been set up for this on FirstClass, but these are often bypassed for our inboxes. Whatever results, we're beyond tweaking the system at this point, teachers are ready for a change in behaviour. My argument is that we have to start that change with ourselves and the way we use email, design our pro-d, meet for collaboration, and structure our online presence.