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When PANIC is a good thing. How to answer any email in 6 lines or less.

advice education leadership Feb 11, 2024

We have all been there, the email that makes your stomach flip and your breath catch in your throat. It usually starts with 'I am extremely disappointed...' or 'My child arrived home today extremely upset...' and usually concludes with a remark about your decision making, possibly the threat of pulling their child out of school or 'I expect a response immediately '.

These kinds of emails used to keep me up at night and overthink every decision I would make. Self-doubt and upset would completely derail me and I would feel sick about how I would respond.

I have noticed an increase in these types of emails in the last 10 years. It's not because of the increase in my poor decisions or even the change in my job title. I put it down to the ease of communication that mobile devices have provided us. I have seen a child complain about a decision as they were being picked up in the afternoon just to hear their parent say 'I will email your teacher right now and tell them how upset we are''. I have also watched a parent email me at school pick up rather than literally taking 10 steps and speaking to me in person. It is interesting, it is emotional and it is instant. 

Nowadays,  these emails rarely worry me and I never lose sleep over them. I often take a moment to see what time the email was sent and consider was it straight after school or at 10pm at night? Was it as a response to the off-load that happened as soon as a parent asks 'how was your day?' or was it the conversation that came as a child asked for one more book or another drink of water before bed?

When considering how to respond to an emotive email, I use the acronym P.A.N.I.C. somewhat because I think it's funny, but mostly because it helps me not respond in an emotionally charged or defensive way.

Purpose - pause and consider why this person has written this. Usually, it's because they have felt that a step has been missed: they might have been blind-sided by a decision, ill-informed or unaware of a change. Sometimes parents write you an email just to express their anger or frustration over a situation. It reminds me a little of my mum who quite often writes to members of parliament about whatever is currently frustrating her. 'I just want them to know that I'm upset,' she would say, not actually expecting a change of policy. Sometimes, people just want to have their say. I still believe these emails deserve a polite, albeit short response. 

Audience: Is this person a 'frequent flyer', or someone you haven't heard from before? It might help you recognise whether it is expected or unexpected. Even with an expected email, ask yourself why was it expected? Perhaps this can help with a 'pre-emptive conversation' with a parent before making an announcement.  This might sound like additional work but if you are expecting an angry email the best defence is a good offence, right? I have made phone calls about papercuts, friendship disagreements and students getting out in a lunchtime game of handball. Whilst there is a little part of me that feels beyond frustrated,  a quick call stating 'it might be nothing but I wanted to give you the heads up incase your child raises it tonight' has helped me out of a number of situations.  What it also means is that you have a few dollars in the emotional piggy bank for the time when something slips past you or your reading of a situation is different to a parent. Being able to say honestly 'as you know, I would give you a heads up if I thought it would upset your child, I didn't call because I didn't read the situation that way' is something that can take the sting out of a potentially difficult conversation.

Need: What do they need? An answer? A link or to be heard? Read the email again and check to see if there is a specific question that needs answering or is an acknowledgement all that is required.Learn from the need. Provide a solution, but don't feel compelled to solve everything. Meet the need in a simple, professional and polite manner. N can also stand for 'No response is not a response'. You must answer the email, keep it short but don't avoid answering, that just leads to more emails.

Intention: Be intentional and considerate with your words. If you find yourself being defensive, emotional or blaming, step away from the keyboard! If you are unsure of your response, show a member of the Leadership Team or a colleague. If you don't want to show a colleague that is an indicator that you shouldn't send the email. As a principal, I have had plenty of emails forwarded to me from parents who were upset with the tone of said email from a teacher, even if it were not the intention.

Communicate: You need to respond. Communication is essential.  Use the 6 line template below to help you. If you need more, phone or meet with them in person. Remember,  we are all human and people see things differently.  Communication is a way to understand the feelings of another and work together towards some common ground.

6 Line Email Template.

1: Dear ...
2:Thank you for your email regarding....
3: Reflect their email message
" I acknowledge your upset about your child's class placement, your disappointment in the decision."
4 and 5: Answer the question if asked:
"Class placements are carefully considered, and when published are final and as such, there won't be moves. I recognise your expressed possibility of changing schools and I respect your decision."
6: Sign off Kind regards

Since using the 6 line method I feel so much more confident and calm when receiving and responding to emails.

There's no need to panic after all! 

Have a great week ahead!


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