The Power of Email

I remember several years ago, when a high school where I worked was planning to implement a school-wide email system so that every student enrolled had an account. The program was going to be expensive, and a committee was formed to sift through the dynamics and logistics of the plan. A friend of mine on the committee insisted repeatedly that the system would not be used, because ‘kids do not use email.’ I admit that even I discounted her objections, and of course the plan moved forward. One year later, we were all admitting that my friend had been right. The students were trained in the first weeks of school how to log into and navigate the system, and for most of them, that was the last time they used it.

However, as a teacher in a special program where I worked closely with a small group of students, I was in a position to require them to check school email and use it regularly, as well as monitor that they were doing it. They had to log in to their email account at least once a week, and every time one of them had concerns to discuss with a teacher, I encouraged them to use school email to do so. We always had to consider whether email or in-person communication was the proper approach, but it was important students began to consider electronic communication as an option; at least at the time of this writing, email is still the primary mode of communication these kids will have with their universities when they get to college; and unless things change dramatically in the next 5 years (which may happen) email will be the primary mode of communication they will have with their co-workers and employers too. So in my opinion, it was always a benefit to start getting comfortable with it now – not to mention it was important for the students to use a system the school had spent so much money on to provide!

At first, I was surprised to find students so hesitant to send emails to teachers. Their primary concerns were spelling and grammar errors, but in my experience these were not the biggest stumbling blocks that could derail an electronic communication. Establishing the proper tone was far more important than spelling everything correctly; teachers generally aren’t grading the emails they receive, but they are interpreting them and responding to them on a personal level, so learning how to create and maintain a polite and respectful tone was my priority. It was also the most difficult aspect of email communication for students to grasp (and let’s face it, we’ve all had an email be misinterpreted from time to time, or misinterpreted something we’ve received, so it’s not just a kid thing).

Let me give you an example of a typical student email I might receive – you might not believe this is an accurate representation of a typical email, but trust me on this one:

hi mrs. cox I was checking my grades online and I still have a zero for that late homework I turned in that you said you would grade. can you get that grade changed please thank you

Hm. How did this email go wrong? Let’s count the ways:

  1. Number one is so obvious you probably missed it, but it happens regularly: there’s no name on the email. IF the student used their school email address to send it, a teacher can usually figure out who it is from, but do you really want your teachers to have to decipher who you are when you’re trying to get them to change a grade in the gradebook for you? No, you do not. So always be sure to sign your name, and as a safeguard, ALWAYS use your school email and never a private one, since it is most likely to identify you by name clearly. is likely to go into a spam folder anyway, so that’s another good reason to stick with school email for school business.
  2. While we’re on the subject of proper structure, don’t stop with just including your name as a formal signature – include a formal salutation, separate it from the body of the email, and separate the closing and signature from the body as well. True, this is an email and not an old-school written letter, but it still makes the email easier to read, makes your name stand out at the bottom, and communicates respect for the teacher by addressing them in the salutation. Besides, sending an email to the wrong teacher has been known to happen, and if you’ve put a name at the opening of it you will eliminate that particular confusion. And it’s not just students who skip this step by the way; parents often fail to do this too – I’ve read many an email requesting my assistance for a student problem and had no idea which student was struggling with the issue (NOTE: if a back-and-forth conversation is generated, it isn’t necessary to use the salutation and signature every time, but it doesn’t hurt, either. Besides, if an initial email turns into a chain of responses from both sides, it’s probably best to turn the conversation into a face-to-face one. Too much back-and-forth is a warning sign that email communication may not be working).
  3. Now, let’s talk about tone. I admit that if I received this email at the end of the working day, it might irk me a little. OK I’ll be honest, I know it would irk me a little. The student is just stating the facts here, sure, but it sounds accusatory. And that is not an impression you want to make on your teachers (or your co-workers, I might add). So I always shared the following handy-dandy little trick with my students: whatever the situation is, pretend it is all your fault. I know it isn’t all your fault, but pretend like it is anyway, and write the email from that perspective. You are the one who has messed up, and you’re really just writing to let them know how badly you messed up, and apologize for causing them problems. You don’t have to use those words, just use that tone, and I promise you your email will sound professional, respectful, and sincere. And you will have the best chance possible of not offending your teacher, and getting him or her to do what it is you want them to do. This is the way I approached every single email I had to send to teachers asking them to do things I knew they didn’t want to do (and as a counselor I had to send a LOT of those!) and while it wasn’t foolproof, it almost always did the trick. Here’s an example, based on the same situation as the email above:

Hello Mrs. Cox,

I apologize for taking your time, but I thought I’d turned in that late homework to you last week, and in looking over my grades online I see that I still have a zero. Did I actually turn that homework in, or is it still missing? I really meant to turn it in to you, but I’ve been falling a little behind lately and I’m concerned I messed this up without meaning to. Thank you for time about this matter and again, I apologize for the inconvenience.


Your Student

Notice that nowhere in the email above does the student even ask the teacher to change the grade, but after reading it he or she is most likely going to take the time to do just that. The truth is, your late homework assignment probably HAD slipped the teacher’s mind, and your gentle nudge reminded her about it in a way that motivated her to fix the problem, rather than irritating and reminding her what a pain it is to have to grade late work at all, and trigger her passive-aggressive tendencies so that she waits another week to get it graded.*

Obviously this email has also been edited for proper grammar and punctuation, which is always a good idea, but again – do not get so obsessed with the possibility of such errors that you give up before even trying, and end up with a zero you shouldn’t have. Although it might be a radical thing for an English teacher to say, I maintain that proper tone is more important in an email than proper spelling and grammar – unless either or both of those components are so poor the message cannot be interpreted.

*If you’re still thinking you’d rather not use email for your communications with teachers, consider how convenient it will be if, in three weeks’ time, your grade in the gradebook still hasn’t changed, and you have a dated, written record of your initial contact with the teacher about the matter. Teachers are busy people, and even the best of them forgets from time to time to take care of something like this; while you don’t ever want to use a previous email as a ‘gotcha’ against a teacher, again, that mostly comes down to the tone and attitude you use to handle the situation. The bottom line is, if a teacher ever tells you too much time has passed from the initial turn-in date for that homework assignment for you to get credit, it sure is nice to be able to show him or her that you did turn in the late assignment, and checked in with the teacher about it, in a timely fashion. I cannot tell you how many times communicating via email has helped my students in situations very similar to this one – and every time, the student has agreed that using email was what made the difference. 

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Email

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