Diary of a headteacher: Drowning in emails?

Written by: Headteacher diarist | Published:
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How many emails a day do you receive from colleagues in your school? Our headteacher diarist is trying to bring back the face-to-face conversation...

Communication in schools is a highly complex aspect of school leadership. The way in which messages are delivered can influence whether something is going to be successful or not and school leaders often have to think strategically about how and when to deliver key pieces of information to staff.

I have sat in countless interviews where a prospective member of staff has indicated that “communication is key”, but then they find it difficult to explain exactly what they mean by this. I have learned the hard way over the past 18 months in my first headship role. I’ve made mistakes, schoolboy errors and dropped some absolute clangers in terms of the “how” and “when” of delivering certain important messages to my staff.

However, I’ve learned from these errors and reflected long and hard about the way in which I communicate with different stake-holders within the school.

In my opinion, the teaching profession has become far too dependent on email and sometimes we rely on this too heavily as our primary communication tool. I have worked in schools where the use of email is too frequent throughout the day and the impact of it has become lost. The merits of email are obvious. It is instant, it provides an evidence record of key messages, it enables clear information to be delivered to large audiences and it provides a consistent and (hopefully) private and secure platform for staff to communicate.

However, if the use of email is abused in school then it can compromise all of the aforementioned benefits. When I started my headship 18 months ago I was overwhelmed by the volume of email communication throughout the course of a school day. The number of emails I received was ridiculous and would consistently reach three figures on a daily basis.

Members of teaching and support staff would commonly send out “all-staff” emails about trivial topics such as lost property or personal messages that were not relevant to the whole staff and certainly not an appropriate use of the email system.

Within two weeks I made the decision to put a block on “all-staff” emails and only my PA had the permissions through our IT system to send these. This meant that even my senior leadership team, including me, had to go through her to send out a whole-school email. This instantly reduced the number of emails I received by a quarter which was a good start.

As part of this focus on communication, I also spoke with the whole staff about the purpose of emails. I asked people to try and have more face-to-face conversations rather than sending an email. Sometimes an email can look harsh or abrupt due to the nature or tone of the language used and often this is not the writer’s intention. Stark language in an email can lead to the purpose of the email being misinterpreted and I have seen this escalate to the point where relationships between members of staff are compromised.

I advised my staff to stop and think before they clicked “send”. Is this email essential? Would it be more effective if I have the conversation in person? Is it going to be interpreted in the manner which I intend? These key questions made people reflect and it made our email communications more meaningful and more valued. It also stopped people asking each other the ridiculous question “did you get my email?”

I’ve also advised my staff on how to respond, or not respond, to an email which has upset or angered them. It is all too easy to fire back a swift and curt response, but this does nobody any good. My advice to my staff, especially those in leadership positions, has been to always sleep on it before responding.

If you still feel the same way about the language and tone you want to include in your response following a bit of reflection time and a good night’s sleep, then this is fine, at least you have given it some thought and consideration. Even better still, go and talk to them in person about it; people tend to be far less confrontational in a face-to-face conversation then when they can hide behind a keyboard and a screen!

  • SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his second year of headship at a comprehensive school in the Midlands.


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