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June 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 9

You've Got Email

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Credit: June 2020
A principal's time is always in demand, and communication is a major factor in this cycle. About 100 years ago, researchers were studying how dictated letters affected principals' workdays. Today, of course, communication methods have changed dramatically. Educators may opt to communicate with their students via text message, phone calls, or video chats in addition to more traditional communications (particularly while school buildings have been closed due to the pandemic). Above all, email persists as a primary mode of communication for many school leaders, since it is widely accessible, generally efficient, and easy to store and organize.
But how do principals feel about the role of email in their lives? What are their perceptions of email and how much time it takes in their hectic workdays? In 2019, Pollock and Hauseman interviewed 70 Canadian principals, who perceived benefits of email, including managing their workload and creating an accountability trail. For instance, one principal said, "If you send an e-mail, there's a record of it" (p. 378).
However, these principals also reported that the obligations of writing and responding to email messages intensified and extended their workdays. Describing how email impacted the lives of principals, one principal stated, "I check every hour, and that's even at home, too" (p. 388).
But how does email actually affect the workload of principals? I recently partnered with the Eudora School District (ESD, a pseudonym) to collect data on the actual email activity of principals to see if their perceptions match reality. I worked with five principals in the district—one high school, one middle school, and three elementary school principals. From the district email server, we downloaded their email data—such as email addresses of senders and recipients; timestamps of drafted, sent, and received messages; and subject lines—for one week. I did not review the content of any of the emails.
Classified as a "rural" district by the National Center for Education Statistics, ESD educates approximately 1,500 students across five schools. Less than 10 percent of ESD students identified as a racial minority and more than 15 percent received free or reduced-price lunches. Academically, ESD schools perform similarly or better than state averages on a variety of measures.
During our seven days of observations, the five principals drafted or sent 942 emails, with individual totals varying between 96 and 285. More than 93 percent of the emails occurred during the school week. As a result, the sample averaged 35 emails per principal per school day. However, individual rates of sent emails varied between 19 and 50 emails per school day.
Comparing timestamps with school hours revealed that approximately half of school-day email communications occurred during instructional hours. Although instructional-hour emails accounted for only 31 percent of emails from one principal, rates of the other four principals ranged between 44 and 51 percent. Those same four principals sent 12 percent or less of their emails after classes ended. By contrast, 37 percent of the sample's school-day emails occurred prior to the start of school.
All of the principals began their email activity early in the morning. During the school week, most of the principals sent their first email of the day before 5 a.m. As a result, typically their last email was sent more than 12 hours later. Of the emails sent during these hours, approximately 80 percent consisted of principals forwarding or replying to previous emails. This finding suggests principals spend a substantial amount of their email time being reactive rather than proactive.
These results were supported by the anecdotes and perceptions from Pollock and Hauseman's study of how email is contributing to the work of principals. Communicating via email has become a significant piece of principals' workload. Email not only adds to the extensive list of principals' duties and expectations during the school day, but, with approximately half of email activity occurring outside of school hours, extends the hours that principals work.
My research looked at only a small sample of principals, but the results identified some potential pitfalls that affect principal time use. If principals can recognize how these issues affect them, then they can implement intentional strategies to enhance the benefits and reduce the burdens of email.

Recognize the Pitfalls

As school leaders consider how to better address the time they dedicate to email, they might focus on two critical factors: access and deliberation.
Principals can access email all day from any location, which provides added pressure to "stay on top" of email responsibilities. The continuous checking of inboxes—during meetings, after meetings, whenever they unlock their phone or turn on their computer—extends the principal's already long workday and adds stress.
Beyond the problem of continuous monitoring, crammed inboxes may also lure principals to make quick decisions. Even before the obligations of email, researchers had suggested that the hectic pace of principals' workdays hindered their capacity to contemplate decisions. In 1981, Crowson and Porter-Gehrie observed, "Decisions were made on-the-spot—there was little time for introspection, for worrying about the implications of choices made, for becoming preoccupied with any one troublesome issue, or for gathering added information" (p. 51).
In our era of digital communication, this finding may be even more applicable. If the principals in our study were sending an average of 35 emails each day on numerous topics, that inherently limits the amount of time they can deliberate on any single one. If the emails are addressing important issues, then principals risk misaligned, hypocritical, and even poor outcomes from their decisions.
By the same token, even seemingly innocuous and straightforward email communications can consume time if not thought through. Unclear wording or missing information in a simple email can provoke an influx of "I don't understand what you mean" messages. A quick response to a single individual can inadvertently overlook a systemic issue. Principals can easily find themselves drawn into a time-consuming cycle of individual email responses.
Recognizing how continuous access and limited deliberation can contribute to the time they spend emailing, principals can tailor management strategies to their individual needs, preferences, and schedules. For example, some principals might limit the number of devices they use for email so they resist the temptation of constantly checking in. Night-owls or early-risers might choose to respond to email during their preferred work time, rather than both morning and night.
To make sure they aren't making important decisions too quickly, some principals might wait for a specified period of time before responding to an email or send a confidential draft of a response to a trusted colleague to review. They should also use the filtering tools in their email programs to sort and prioritize messages in terms of urgency, needed response times, and tasks that can be delegated. None of these strategies will necessarily reduce the principals' inboxes, but they might enhance how efficiently and effectively principals use their time to email.

Keep Control Over the Inbox

The numerous obligations and expectations of leading effective schools requires principals to be adept at managing their time. Although email can help principals efficiently communicate with their school communities, it can also increase the demands on their time, add stress to their workdays, and hinder their decision making. Through understanding their email activities, principals might improve the quality of their communications, as well as their time use.
End Notes

1 Pollock, K., & Hauseman, D. C. (2019). The use of e-mail and principals' work: A double-edged sword. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 18(3), 382–393.

2 Crowson, R. L., & Porter-Gehrie, C. (1980). The discretionary behavior of principals in large-city schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 16(1), 45–69.

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