E-mail–Hate or Love it—It is Here to Stay!

Oct 11, 2012

E-mail. . . You may have noticed its absence as a topic on our blog. This is not because  e-mail isn’t a big deal — in fact, we have an entire book chapter devoted to it.

But I know that once we open the e-mail can of worms, well, there is no going back. And for teachers, e-mail is a big, big, BIG gallon-sized can of worms.

Here goes!

I recently worked with Anita, an art teacher in New York (and an artist herself!), on some of her self-professed e-mail challenges. Anita rightfully notes that e-mail is not her top priority—working with students is! However, it’s still an essential communication tool at her school, used with her administration, colleagues, students, and families.

First, let’s start with Anita’s inbox below.  The number you can’t quite make out in the upper right hand-corner is 3,807! 3,807 e-mails were in Anita’s inbox, awaiting her to take action. She knew this was something she had to change because. . . repeat after me. . . Your inbox is not a filing cabinet. Your inbox is for action items only. But in the busy, on-your-feet-unpredictable-lives of teachers, who has the time?!

Other relevant facts:

  • Anita’s school uses Gmail.  Storage is plentiful and search functions are robust.
  • A high percentage of her students and families use e-mail as well. All the more reason to stay on top of it!

Here are five ideas we put into place to take control of Anita’s inbox: 

  • Declare bankruptcy. If you think you will have time to carefully file that backlog of thousands of emails, think again. That time is never coming, and if it does, I hope you will find more interesting things to do! Anita declared bankruptcy by selecting entire pages of messages and hitting the “Archive” button. These e-mails are still available to her if she wants to search for them later, but they are not “filed” or “labeled” under specific topics. If you are a Gmail user, we suggest liberal use of the “Archive” button. Get that stuff out of your inbox!
  • Unsubscribe. Take a good hard look at what kinds of e-mail you receive on a daily basis. While I love my Americorps updates, blasts from the neighborhood parent listserv, and education journal updates, I just cannot keep up. I chose to unsubscribe to as much as possible, and Anita did too. She set up a rule to funnel any blasts or updates she wanted to retain directly into a folder. Then she made a Calendar appointment with herself to review that folder on a weekly basis.
  • Create a “junk” account. Anita has three e-mail accounts she checks regularly—school, friends/family, and her art work. However, we realized she needed a “junk” account for retail log-ins, receipts, and other items she doesn’t want to clutter her inbox. Many teachers use a Yahoo or Hotmail account for this purpose, and only check it a few times each week.
  • Design a super simple filing system. Eighty percent of Anita’s email can simply be “archived,” allowing her easy access when she searches. See Idea #1 above. Ten percent can be “trashed,” leaving only ten percent that actually requires Anita’s time to “label.” (Outlook users: this is simply “folder” language in Google speak). For messages Anita needs to store together, such as “Advisory” and “Discipline,” she can make labels and file the items accordingly. Don’t go crazy with too many folders—remember, you can always search. Instead, limit your labels/folders to the key priorities and “big buckets” of your job.
  • Designate times each day to check your email. Anita was only checking once or twice per day, which was not enough at her school. Many of us have the OPPOSITE problem—we’re ALWAYS checking, but never actually doing anything about it! Anita plans to now check three times per day—she’ll have two shorter e-mail-check periods where she answers quick e-mails and notes the longer ones to return to later that day. Then, her last e-mail-check period will be longer, allowing her to answer the messages that require more detailed responses, or plan a time in the next few days when she can respond.

After a few days of trying the suggestions above, Anita reported, “I am making some progress with the e-mail challenge. I’m making folders and trying to move messages out of my inbox. Additionally, I stopped today at midday to review urgent emails. I think you are right…This is a must-do practice at my school!”

Together Teacher Sharing Question: What have you done to make dealing with e-mail more efficient?