Do you sometimes wish for a simpler time? One where your colleagues came and found you for a face-to-face chat, rather than bombarding you with emails, creating an impossible to-do list? Phil Naylor believes it’s possible to flip our current email practices upside down…

 

The 1980s are enjoying a welcome resurgence. Netflix’s phenomenon Stranger Thingshas opened up the joy of a more straightforward, less frenetic and, paradoxically, more exciting time. The protagonists of the show devote their time to friendship (face to face), music (albums on vinyl or cassette), freedom (BMX, outdoors) communication (face to face or payphone) community (families, schools and friendships) and some monster hunting…

One of the key tenets of Stranger Things is that there are other dimensions where events are played out in parallel to the human world. The Upside Down is the name of the alternate dimension and Will, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas inadvertently create a portal to this world. Watching and becoming nostalgic about the 80s, the decade I spent in school as a pupil, I started to ponder.

What if there was an upside-down education world where schools were still in the 1980s? How would things be different? Have the advances of the past 40 years all been beneficial, aiding and progressing learning for students and making the profession more attractive for teachers? Would pedagogy be much different with chalk and a board? Would leadership be more of a challenge without software and hardware on computers? Has technology made life easier or harder for teachers?

In my education analogy, the faceless beast, the Demogorgon is in our dimension and that beast is email. A function that was designed to make sending messages easier has morphed into a pernicious and all-pervading monster. Leaders I have spoken to regularly receive over 100 emails a day from teachers working in the same building. One of the stranger things is that if the leader didnt receive so many emails, they may actually be able to escape the office and speak to the senders! Communication is of course important, but does it need to be instant?

If a portal was created to the 80s teaching world, would you step through it, to the upside down no email world?

A look through the portal and look at the day of a school leader in the 1980s

Morning

No mobile phone to scroll through instead of getting up, no emails, no pressure, freedom to enjoy breakfast and talk to family. No work-based communication and youre unlikely to have missed anything.

In class

Fully immersed and present. No incessant pinging. No chance of disturbance or derailment and full freedom to teach.

Breaktime and Lunchtime

Converse with colleagues, without the conversation starting with the wearing did you see my email?” Mark books if you must, duty is not a requirement. The opportunity to sit down and have a rest.

Meetings

The whole team engaged in discussion, no computers or screens. Shorter and more productive meetings with clear actions and time to follow up. Focus on breeding teamwork.

Evenings

Your time is your own. You have escaped the tentacles of the Demogorgon. Nobody should need to reach you (unless an emergency). Work if you need to or wish to. Hobbies, leisure, family and recharge are possible. An interesting scene in series one shows a teacher taking a late-night call and being most perturbed and somewhat annoyed by it, while today we allow 24hr, 7 days a week access through the email beast.

If the modern world’s allure is too strong and you find yourself longing for the benefits of the 2020s, you can traverse the portal and return. Having experienced life on the upside down, on your return you may seek to tame the email beast. Having experienced the headspace, the serenity and the freedom away from the reach of the beast, you may decide to use technology in a way that you control it rather than it controlling you.

I have devised an email protocol which may be useful for readers returning to our side of the board, in 2022 schools.

I’ve set out a list of questions that you should consider before sending an email:

  1. Do I really need to send this email? How many conversations start with Did you get my email?
  2. Do I have to send it now?
  3. Can I solve this issue by waiting and asking the person face to face?
  4. Does every single member of staff need to read it? Some schools have adopted an email window, for example:
  5. No emails should be sent between the hours of 7pm and 7am from Monday to Thursday.
  6. No emails should be sent after 5pm on a Friday. This email window could apply in term time and during holiday periods. But what about if you want to work outside this window? The good news is that its still possible to work on emails outside of this window for teachers who wish to do so and for whom this fits better with their working lives. Teachers should always consider the before sending an emailquestions above first.
  7. Write out the email, store it in your drafts and then send it in the morning.
  8. Alternatively, most email providers have a Delay Sendfacility. This allows you to schedule emails days in advance.

I would like to see leaders incorporating a digital detox and allowing themselves and their staff to go back to the 80soccasionally. It is palpable the number of books written by leaders who wish they could be transported back to their early days in leadership and invest more in the formative years of their own children and families.

These same leaders identify that the value of constant communication is overstated. The always available’ ‘always onapproach may be beneficial in the short term, but the only place a leader is indispensable is in their own home. Leaders are too often present at home and at work but unreachable, like Will, behind the email wall.

Email is one of the stranger things of education, it is making us frenetic, and it is the beast that needs to be tamed. Is it time to become phronetic and use our experience of the 1980s and turn our view upside down?

Author

Phil Naylor is Deputy Head at an academy in Blackpool and is the creator and presenter of the Naylor's Natter podcast, where he interviews teachers and school leaders to discuss pedagogy, curriculum and school leadership.

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