Saturday, April 17, 2010

Students and e-mail

Last night I returned from helping to chaperon a student retreat away from the school. Since we were gone for three days, I had to make arrangements ahead of time for classes I would miss. Our school schedule allowed me to make up some of the classes ahead of time, and co-workers who support the retreat program by subbing watched over some of the others.

I purposely left my laptop at home because I didn't want to be distracted by it and I knew I wouldn't really have time anyway. But at least once each day I checked my e-mail on a computer at the retreat center or on a colleague's laptop. Since it was not really my retreat, but the girls', I had no qualms about maintaining a connection with the world.

"Mrs. Lusch," a student wrote, "I missed the movie..." She had been absent during a subbed class and I suggested that she could either find a religion teacher to help her get the video to view on her "off time," or she could wait for my return next week. I responded immediately so that she could choose the option that best fit her schedule.

Later, a colleague complained because a student who "knows I'm on this retreat" had e-mailed her. In pondering later, I wondered what the harm was in the student's attempt to connect. The teacher still had the choice to open or not open the e-mail, and to respond or not respond. And though the teacher was on a retreat, she was in fact checking her e-mail.

The discussion moved on to whether a student should bother a teacher in the evening through e-mail, since of course, she would not think of phoning after the end of the school day. No teacher expects it to be an 8 to 3 job, but settling in for the evening with a stack of papers to grade is not the same as interacting with students.

So, I've been thinking about this further, especially since the word "enabling" entered into the conversation. Am I enabling students when I respond to e-mails they send me outside of school hours? I would not want to get phone calls from students at night, but I don't see e-mail in the same way, because, again, I have the choice. If I'm not home or I'm tired or I just don't have time, I don't have to open the e-mail or answer it. But much of the time I am happy to answer a question while I am at my computer.

I send e-mail to the students occasionally, too. During the Easter break I was a bit excited about the wiki I set up for a final project, so I e-mailed the class about it rather than wait until we were back in school. Once in a while I might send out a reminder to a class, or ask a question about a missing assignment to an individual student.

Not that students always check their e-mail. I've lost track of the number of times I have responded quickly to a student's e-mail only to have her come to class the next day to ask me, "Did you get my e-mail?"

Some teachers like to offer online chats for review the night before a test, while others wouldn't dream of engaging students in the evening hours. If any teachers happen to read this, I would be interested to know your thoughts and your practice. Is your teaching restricted to school hours, or in the age of the Internet and "anywhere, anytime" learning, are you open to being consulted outside the school day?


  1. I think isolating students from teachers in the afterschool hours makes no sense, especially for religion teachers. Post-high school your students will communicate with everyone through email and even phone: college professors, co-workers, supervisors, bosses. Why should high school be different. If students are thinking about your class outside of school - then encourage that! Also, as religion teachers, we need to develop relationships (with boundaries) outside of the classroom (on retreats, for example) to model our faith.

    I would only suggest setting boundaries or procedures with email at the beginning of the year (i.e. at certain times and only about certain topics). For example, an emailed paper during lunch hours from library computers may be a problem.

    Jared Dees

  2. I think that as teachers we are a little insulated from the outside world. Most professionals I know can't really throw an "at work"/ "off work" switch anymore. I expect the kids to keep learning while they are not at school, so I expect to keep teaching. However, I think it is completely reasonable to "unplug" at times during the day, weekends, vacations, etc.

  3. I appreciate your comments! Just got an e-mail from a student working on her Justice and Peace project. I really do like answering these questions.