Teachers, Principals Need To Exercise Caution When Using E-mail To Communicate With Parents

Email Mistakes Made By Teachers, PrincipalsGeorgina, Principal of Northwest High School meant well. She had several face to face conversations with Ms. Smith about a few behavioral problems that, while not major, had to be dealt with. Georgina found that one of the best ways to follow up on conversations was to use e-mail, because of its immediacy and convenience.

So, Georgina sent the following e-mail to Ms. Smith:


Dear Martha:

If you recall, we've had a few meetings to discuss Aaron's occasionally difficulties in getting along with other children, and I'm very glad to have met you and had those discussion, and thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do so.

When you get a chance, I'd like to connect with you to see how your conversations with Aaron have gone about playing with his peers more cooperatively. I'd appreciate it if you'd get in touch, so we can have a short conversation about that.


Georgina Maddox


A few hours after sending the e-mail Georgina received a phone call from a very irate Martha Smith, the gist of it was that she was fed up with being hassled by the school for every little thing, and that she didn't have time to discuss yet another minor infraction. It was clear that Martha was simply furious, and Georgina was completely baffled by the tone and that it appeared that despite writing what she thought was a clear e-mail, the parent seemed not to have read it, or at least got from the message what Georgina intended.

What Happened?

If you look at the e-mail, it's hard to imagine how it could have been any clearer. it wasn't negative. It was thankful for the parent's previous help. So, what in the world happened?

While e-mail is an amazing communication tool, and one that is now almost completely accepted as an appropriate form for communication, it's not quite that simple. In truth, people don't read and respond to e-mail the way you might think, or at least not always.

Lacking the cues from face to face and telephone contacts, recipients tend to more often impose their own previous perceptions onto the e-mail, often completely getting the wrong end of the stick. In this example, Martha believed this was yet one more "attempt by the school" to interfere with her parenting, and one more obligation the school was imposing that she felt was "too much".

But none of that was in the e-mail Her reactions were in effect, because of her interpretation of yet another demand from the school.

And it's all because e-mail just isn't capable of providing enough "emotional" information to convey the true meaning of many contacts.

Caution Is Needed So Keep In Mind These Points About E-mail:

If there is anything that needs to be communicated that may cause emotional responses in the parent, it's better to phone, or do a face-2-face. Yes, it's less convenient for everyone, and yes, it takes more time, but it allows real time interaction to clarify meanings that isn't available with e-mail

  1. E-mail is a lot less reliable than you might think. Sending an e-mail doesn't mean the person got it, or read it. Spam filters, volume of mail, and a raft of other factors can cause your e-mail not be be received, or if received, actually read.
  2. People SCAN e-mails rather than read them. There's a difference in how people read things on a screen compared to on paper, and it's the rule, rather than the exception that much is missed when messages are scanned, rather than read carefully. This contributes to parents "going off" half-cocked, and in this case, Martha didn't read the e-mail for meaning. She say some key words -- difficulties, discussion, meetings, and drew conclusions based on her own negative expectations.
  3. E-mails don't always go to the parent and only that parent. Kids are pretty good at accessing anything on a computer or tablet, even if they aren't "supposed to" and parents are probably lax at ensuring their e-mail boxes are absolutely inaccessible by their kids. Remember that whatever you send in an e-mail should be considered "public", and could be read by the kids, or even released to others intentionally by the parent.

Conclusion On E-mailing Parents

It's convenient. Fast. We even take e-mail for granted, since almost everyone uses it, but it IS an ineffective way for communicating certain things, particularly where emotions are involved, and you have less control to ensure that what you MEANT for the parent to get from the message is actually what the parent GETS. Meaning is funny that way, and e-mail doesn't allow the immediacy to correct "misunderstandings" before they create anger.

There's more on the topic of communicating with parents via technology based methods in Chapter 16 of Building Bridges Between Home And School: The Educator's/Teacher's Guide To Dealing With Emotional And Upset Parents