Think Before You Click ‘Send’: How E-mails are Secretly Destroying Teaching Careers

All character names contained in this article are fictional

Wayward e-mails are secretly destroying careers
Wayward e-mails are secretly destroying careers
Sending and receiving e-mails has now become an obligatory duty for teachers, especially in big institutions. A form tutor asks you for feedback about a particular student, so you e-mail your reply. The deputy head asks for any items for tomorrow’s meeting agenda, and those people that have issues they wish to raise type their responses and click ‘Send’. You have a problem opening a file on a school computer, so you send a quick message to the ICT technician. You e-mail parents. The list goes on and on.

As teachers, we are spending more time sat down in front of computers than ever before. E-mails allow us to communicate important items quickly and efficiently, and this ‘convenience’ is being improved upon year after year as smart phones and smart watches increasingly utilize novel systems to make dealing with e-mails an easy and fun task. All of this has made e-mailing become a ‘mechanical’ part of one’s working day, where little thought is needed to deliver a quick message.  What most people don’t consider, however, is that e-mails are secretly destroying the careers of teachers, along with everything else they’ve worked for.

Charlene was annoyed. She had been slaving away for the past two terms getting her ‘A’ – Level Chemistry students ready for their final exams. She had lead after school revision clubs, printed reams of past-exam papers and resources, spent hours after school planning and setting up practical activities and had spent many a late night updating her school’s VLE with a myriad of resources for these senior, pre-university students. She felt that she had gone above and beyond the call of duty, and when term three came along and her students were on study leave, she planned to use her gained time to prepare resources for the next academic year.

Knowing that Charlene now had a considerable amount of free time, her head of department, Francis, thought it would be a good idea for her to help the other science teachers alleviate some their workload. She asked Charlene to take on one of her colleague’s Key Stage 3 classes for that term, and she asked her to help assess some of the end-of-year tests for the students in classes that she didn’t teach.

Charlene was furious! She felt completely unappreciated and exploited. She had worked her socks off all year, doing things that her other science colleagues didn’t have to do, and now she was being asked to do more. She needed to get all of her frustration off her chest, so she decided to e-mail her good friend: Tracey; who happened to be her NQT tutor in her previous school. She laid it all out, saying how her boss was a complete idiot (using some rather colourful language) and how her efforts all year had gone completely unnoticed. She felt really ‘hard done to’, and typing it all out made her feel much better. However, she made one mistake that proved to be the Armageddon for her career in that school – she sent the e-mail to Francis by accident, and not to her NQT tutor.

Using an e-mail system to complain behind someone’s back can be a fatal, career-killing mistake
This kind of situation happens all the time – teachers sending e-mails to the person they’re talking about, and not to the intended recipient. For Charlene it was coffin nails for her job at that school. Francis scheduled a meeting with Charlene, and her conclusions were made very clear. She felt that Charlene could have dealt with her frustration in a much more professional way; for example, by simply talking it over with her. If Francis had known Charlene’s plans to get some good resources in place for the next academic year, then she would have passed on less work for her to do in her ‘gained time’. Additionally, the tone of Charlene’s e-mail was so negative and ‘immature’, that her character as a professional was now being called into question. Could she be trusted as a sensible member of the staff body? What if she had sent an e-mail like that to a parent instead? After Charlene was passed up for promotion the following academic year (because of feedback from her head of department to the school principal), she left by her own accord. To add insult to injury, Charlene’s new school needed a reference letter from her current head of department. Thankfully, Francis felt kind enough to emphasise Charlene’s good points, as opposed to writing the king of all character assassinations that she could quite easily, and understandably, have produced.

This story teaches us that e-mails should be handled with care. Always take time to craft e-mails properly, and always assume that every person in your school will see it. Never assume e-mail privacy, and always choose your recipients carefully. With the ability to send e-mails through voice-command and touch-screens on smart phones, it is now even easier to make these fatal mistakes than it has ever been before. Be vigilant!

Using e-mail as a professional messaging tool

  • E-mails are not private: That’s right – you’re school principal could be looking through your inbox as you read this! E-mails provide managers with a unique window into an employee’s life that they would never normally have in their day-to-day interactions. It is such a good ‘teacher monitoring tool’ that most schools will now have professional e-mail systems set up for them which allow ‘snooping’ by senior management. This is perfectly legal, and you’ve probably signed your consent for it in your employee contract. Many schools are now making all new teachers sign an ‘Acceptable use of ICT’ agreement, where it will explicitly say that your e-mails should not treated as though they are private. However, despite this, many teachers still do not follow professional e-mail etiquette.
  • beautiful-15679_1280
    Smart phones and tablets have made it easier for us to make silly mistakes, such as sending an e-mail to the wrong recipient
    Never complain in an e-mail: There are lots of obvious reasons for this, and many centre around the ‘management snooping’ issue. Additionally, however, many employees fall into the trap of sending an e-mail to the person they’re complaining about, rather than the person it was intended for. This can have apocalyptic consequences for you, especially if the e-mail is sent to a manager. Avoid this by making all e-mails professional, imagining that they’ll be blown up to A1 size and posted on the headmaster’s wall (because as far as you’re concerned, they might as well be).
  • E-mails can be copied, forwarded and saved forever: Whenever you send an e-mail, you are creating a permanent piece of evidence which may be used against you (or to support you) in the future. E-mailing your best friend to tell them how much time you’ve wasted drinking coffee today, or how you can’t wait for the semester break
    An e-mail is a digital document that can be copied, forwarded and saved in a retrieval system indefinately
    to come around because you’ve ‘had enough’, are not good ways to fill your HR file. I feel it’s important to repeat that you should treat all e-mails as if they were posters in the principal’s office.
  • Extinguish all flames: A ‘flame’ is a hostile or insulting message that is sent from one internet user to another. They often contain profanities, expletives or complaints, and in the teaching profession they are most commonly sent and received through e-mail. If you receive a flame from anyone then you must do two things right away:
  1. Respond to the person who sent you the flame, making it clear to them that they should never send you a hostile message via e-mail again. Make it clear that e-mails are not a private messaging tool, and that you do not respond to expletives or profanities. You should also do this for any unprofessional or inappropriate e-mail, such as one from a colleague talking about how much he has slacked off that day.
  1. Delete the original flame e-mail. If your inbox is being monitored, and a member of senior management sees the flame, they may think that you are in agreement with the person who sent it.

Teachers are held in high regard by students, parents and the wider community as a whole. We can never be ‘off-duty’, and we must strive for perfection and professionalism in all of our undertakings. 


High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK). Richard is the award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management: 45 Secrets That All High School Teachers Need to Know

One thought on “Think Before You Click ‘Send’: How E-mails are Secretly Destroying Teaching Careers

  1. Sadly, quite a few teachers in Thailand seem either to dislike email or use it begrudgingly. I work with teachers who would rather print something out, walk over to the printer to get it, then walk to your location and hand you the paper (or dispatch a “lower” teacher as a courier) than just send you the email and be done with it.

    Having worked in government for many years (where anything you say might be used against you) I offer the following basic rules of email:

    1. Don’t send anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see published in the newspaper. Once an email has left your PC, it can end up anywhere – including your supervisor’s inbox.

    2. Don’t use email to berate, coach or issue corrective measures – it makes you look like a passive-aggressive coward. Those kinds of things should always be handled face-to-face.

    3. Don’t respond to emails when you’re angry. Wait at least one business day. If you don’t see the importance of this, look back at some emails you sent a few days ago and you’ll most likely see some things you’d want to change if you had to rewrite them.

    4. Increase your politeness level a few notches in emails compared to speaking (because people tend to read negativity into emails when it’s not intended).

    There are many more rules of email etiquette but these four are the ones that get email newbies into hot water.

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