One of the biggest struggles I am hearing from my teachers right now is how overhwelmed they are with the number of emails and messages they receive on a daily basis. Emails from administration, colleagues, families and students fill up their inbox on a daily basis. On top of that, we have a messaging app that allows parents to essentially text teachers throughout the day.

During distance learning last spring, everyone started increasing the number of messages they sent electronically. Since we weren’t in the building, we couldn’t just stop by someone’s classroom to have a chat. It almost all went through email. It got to be a lot and often teachers and staff felt like they had to be “on” all the time because the school community was now messaging each other at all hours of the day and night.

I felt it in the beginning, too. I felt like I was spending 24 hours a day looking at my computer screen and responding to emails. I wasn’t sleeping well and it was exhausting. Eventually, I had to take a step back. While I wasn’t always closing my computer by 3:30 every day, I was definitely closing it by 5 or 6. It helped immensely.

Now we are in hybrid learning. We’re all still in the habit of sending tons of emails and messages (families included). But now we have kids in front of us from 8:00 to 3:00. We can’t drop everything and respond in real time the way we did when we were all at home in our pajama pants.

Email can be a HUGE time suck if we let it. I know I’m incredibly guilty of leaving my email open all day long and dealing with new messages as they come in. I have my work email on my cell phone and I’m always checking it throughout the day and night. In fact, it’s often the first thing I see after my alarm in the morning and the last thing I see at night.

But that needs to stop. We think by checking email frequently, we avoid the huge pileup at the end of the day. Productivity experts say you should check email far less than we do. We think we’re saving time by responding in real time, when in fact, frequent checking actually wastes more time than it saves (See here).

There are two other tricky parts of email at work: 1) the more you send, the more you get and 2) when you respond immediately, you set the tone for the future.

The first part is easy. If I send an email to five staff members, I will be expecting 5 emails back from that message. And if I have a particularly heavy email day, I can expect dozens of emails to fill my inbox when I return. My solution here is to stop by classrooms when I can or set up a quick Zoom chat to avoid sending so many emails. Another solution is to consolidate the info in a weekly (or perhaps daily if need be) email that goes to your staff with relevant information.

The second part isn’t hard to figure out but it’s sometimes difficult in practice. When we respond to messages immediately or after hours, we teach those we communicate with that we are always available. But that’s not realistic, especially this year with all of the extra demands being placed on us in schools. Our school handbook says we have 24-48 hours to respond to parent communications. But because we so often send off a quick reply, parents now become frustrated if they don’t hear back immediately.

This is where boundaries come in. It is perfectly acceptable (and honestly, necessary) to set limits to when and how people can reach you. Teachers and other school staff are not “on call.” We do not need to be available 24-7. That said, if you are going to change your communication protocols, it’s a good idea to give people a heads up first so they don’t feel like they are suddenly being ignored.

So what’s my plan to tackle this? I’m kicking around a few ideas around goals for productivity and boundaries:

  1. Stop checking email after work. I have provided my cell phone number to my teachers if there is a genuine emergency. Otherwise, send me an email and I’ll read it in the morning.
  2. Stop sending emails after hours and on weekends. Gmail has a “schedule send” button. If I feel the need to get caught up after work hours, that’s on me and my staff shouldn’t be expected to do the same simply because I am. I will use the “schedule send” button if I’m working outside school hours so I’m not setting the example that working late is the expectation. It starts with me.
  3. Set times for checking email. I need to set up my schedule around what I need to do and not let what comes into my inbox dictate my day. I like to check email first thing in the morning and before I leave for the day. It feels good to have an empty inbox when I walk out. I may also consider adding a 3rd time around lunch if the end of day session starts stretching out too long.

How do you manage all of your emails and stay productive?