Parents expect eMail accessibility

In today’s wired world, “winning friends and influencing people,” especially parents, requires eMail accessibility.

Time-pressed parents are seeking new ways of staying involved in their kids’ educations, and the option to eMail their children’s teachers with questions or concerns can make a huge difference in their ability to stay in touch.

And, since the vast majority of parents today have eMail access either at home or at work, concerns that such communication methods are elitist should be waning.

If my experience with my two school-aged children is any indication, such access is still rare, however.

Though I’ve been communicating with other parents online for some time to check class party dates, sell wrapping paper, arrange play dates, or review school improvement plans, having the ability to eMail my children’s teachers has been a luxury.

This year, my third grader’s teacher gave out her eMail address and takes care to answer any queries within a day or two. She also sends out periodic updates about class projects and activities.

Because I usually arrive back home during the witching hour, when everyone’s foraging for food and voice mail messages and backpack notes have long been erased or misplaced, this simple communication channel has been a godsend.

More than once this year, I’ve received a late-afternoon message from my daughter’s teacher or another parent reminding me of important deadlines. For working parents, finding out that the three-dimensional book report and handmade puppet is due tomorrow or that it’s your turn to bring treats means you still have time to swing by the store (without making an extra trip) to get the needed supplies.

On more serious issues, such as concerns about bullying or suspected learning disabilities, early intervention is the key. In these situations, a quick eMail alert might be all that’s needed to get things moving in the right direction.

Unfortunately–and perhaps understandably–many teachers seem reluctant to share eMail addresses with parents, fearing the sheer volume of communications or the impact on their privacy.

While spam is definitely on the increase, making even tech-savvy school leaders leery of posting their teachers’ eMail addresses on the school’s web site, these concerns are fairly easily addressed.

I recommend that teachers and principals set up a separate eMail account for parents–something most schools and districts should have no problem paying for–and establish a few simple rules regarding response times and other issues.

For example, teachers could alert parents that they’ll need 24 to 48 hours to answer eMail messages and that messages will be answered only during weekdays. If the volume is unusually high, they could set up an automatic response to that effect (similar to “I’m on vacation and won’t have access to my eMail” messages) to buy themselves additional time.

Given the increased numbers of students at the secondary level, high school principals, counselors, coaches, department chairs, and teachers probably are going to need a longer response time, perhaps five working days for non-emergencies.

Since principals typically have school secretaries screen their eMail, they need to make clear what the triage priorities are. You wouldn’t want to find out that an eMail message regarding gang threats or a teenager’s suicidal tendencies was accidentally buried in your inbox or on your assistant’s desk.

Parents also might need guidance about when and whom they should call. For example, while the preferred point of first contact is usually the homeroom teacher, at other times a school nurse or counselor might be more appropriate.

If parent communiqus are getting too lengthy, short, precise answers or a phone call might be in order. If there are major problems in a child’s life or schooling, a good, old-fashioned face-to-face meeting is still the best venue for seeking common ground and workable solutions.

Try not to get too bureaucratic, however. More good communication channels have been screwed up over the years by putting up artificial barriers, and schools tend to be first-class offenders in this regard. Just as businesses today live and die by the quality of the customer service they provide, so should schools.

Parents also should be ready to live by the same rules, however. If you expect your child’s teacher to get in touch with you in a timely fashion, then you need to answer pleas for help from the teacher, room dad, club sponsors, or Parent Teacher Association leaders.

Schools need to support teachers and parents by providing more access to computers, more on-site technical assistance, and more uninterrupted, off-duty time for parent communication as well as classroom planning.

Expecting teachers to spend their limited time at home communicating online with parents is unrealistic and unfair. If school leaders value parent partnerships and communications as much as we repeatedly say we do, it’s time to start putting our money where our mouths are.

These issues might seem benign now, but as more and more of the world gets used to 24-7 access, parents increasingly are going to expect and demand online access to homework assignments, grades, lunch menus, testing dates, field trips, parent-teacher conferences, and other critical aspects of their children’s schooling.

Budgets might be tight, but having computers shut away from teachers in labs and relying on volunteers (whether teachers, support staff, or parents) to staff the school web site during their so-called “free” time are ultimately more expensive in terms of lost productivity and lost opportunities to communicate effectively with parents.

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

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