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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Principal Connection / Too Plugged In

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    If 90 percent of communication is body language, what does that tell us about e-mail?

      "Raise your hand if technology has made your life easier," I asked the room of principals. After a few seconds, a couple of hands, representing a small minority of the group, went up. I repeated the question, but the audience remained still. Someone responded with an incredulous "easier?" I nodded and waited, but no more hands were raised.
      Technology brings us many advantages, and I'm no Luddite. I breathe e-mail, embrace my Kindle, and find PowerPoint to be a wonderful tool. Electronic spreadsheets enable me to track lots of data, there are relevant apps on my iPhone, and it sometimes feels like I live on Google. But, as the audience knew, technology doesn't really make our lives any easier. In fact, technology can make our jobs much harder.
      I know I'm not alone in spending hours each day initiating and responding to e-mails. Like many of you, I receive nearly 200 e-mails each day. Although some are junk (I can't believe how many lotteries I've won, even when I didn't enter them!), the bulk of them are from staff members, students' parents, or other educators. I feel compelled to respond to them all. Almost every message is a piece of an ongoing dialogue, and if I'm absent, what does that say? So I usually enter the e-fray, sometimes sending lengthy comments and occasionally offering a pithy retort. Consequently, e-mail is with me way too much. I check my e-mail before my first cup of morning coffee and after my evening is over (and sometimes when I wake up in the night).
      The good news is that I spend a lot less time on the telephone. But I'm also less likely to walk down the hall or up the stairs. My keystrokes often substitute for my presence. That's not good! But that's not the biggest downside to technology. Far worse is what e-mail has done to our expectations and level of discourse.
      When someone sends an e-mail of complaint, it lands on my screen immediately. And the person who initiated the e-mail is expecting a quick answer. Does too much time without a response mean that I don't value the sender or the comment? I certainly don't intend that to be the case, but what might the sender infer? So I respond quickly, sometimes without careful thought.
      That complaining parent was upset when he hit send. His e-stick-in-the-eye was designed to provoke a reaction, and it did! I read his e-mail, pound a response (it does feel good to make those keystrokes more intense), and hit send: Back at you! Alas, that quick response doesn't lead to a solution, and the e-mail record allows everyone to revisit each comment and get upset once more. Or perhaps the e-mails are forwarded, and then others join the upset parade! E-mail makes it too easy to lob an e-bomb over the fence instead of confronting someone directly. When blood pressures rise, we all need to take a deep breath and remember that difficult conversations need to be done face-to-face. If 90 percent of communication is body language, what does that tell us about e-mail?
      I've always felt it's important to be visible to parents and staff, and the ease of e-mail makes it, oddly, even more important. So I am at the school doors or in the main hall almost every morning when students enter and almost every afternoon at dismissal. There is always something else that I could be doing, but I know how important it is that I be out and about.
      I'm also initiating four Breakfast with Tom sessions during the year for our parents. There's no agenda for a Breakfast with Tom. I'll provide the pastries and ask parents to bring their questions and comments. The conversation will go wherever they steer it. The low-key nature of these meetings will mean that parents won't have to wait until an issue is significant to raise it with me. (I've held these breakfasts for our staff on in-service mornings, and the interactions are always productive.)
      Each week, I send an e-letter to all families. Of course, the e-letters elicit e-mails. To work against that tide, on a monthly basis I'm going to remind parents that I'm always available to meet if they have questions or concerns. My hope is that these face-to-face meetings will cut down on the need for extended e-mail conversations.
      I'm employing small tricks to reduce the e-mail flow, such as putting succinct messages followed by EOM (End of Message) in the e-mail subject line only, rather than typing a message in the body of the e-mail. This saves me time typing and the reader time reading. I also resolve to not respond to every e-mail and to discourage others from hitting reply to all when it's not necessary.
      Most of all, my resolution is to get away from the screen and to make the human connection. I'm going to walk a floor of the school each day, stopping in classrooms and chatting. I'll work to be more than just a screen name.
      Using technology without being seduced by it is an ongoing struggle; new technologies beckon daily. They seem so quick and easy, and that's the problem! How are you handling this challenge? What suggestions do you have?
      OK, now it's your turn: Stop reading and go talk to someone!

      Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

      Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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