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Caring Email Communication: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Robotic Messages

I communicate with a lot of school leaders as part of my work. That means I send a ton of email.

Often, the school leader or another person at the school district gets back to me quickly. I find myself thinking, if I were parent, if my kid went to this school, I’d be impressed with the timeliness and the thoughtfulness of their responses.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed a troubling trend.  Let’s call it Rise of The Auto-Responder.

I type my email and hit send, two-seconds later my inbox lights up.

The automated reply goes something like this:

“Thank you for contacting ABC School District. I’m very sorry but I’m currently very busy with boundary changes, or budgets, or testing, or [insert your issues here]. Because of this, I only respond to email from 10am to 12pm on Thursdays. Also, due to the sheer volume of emails I receive, I will not be able to respond to each one individually. Thank you for understanding.”

I get the spirit of what’s intended here. Heck, I applaud it. You want members of your school community to know that you’ve received their messages, that what they have to say is important. In some cases, you want to buy yourself some time. Fair enough.

But sending what amounts to a robot response to every email defeats the purpose, unless you actually intend to respond.

When I read a message like this, three thoughts come to mind: (1) My message is going into a black hole deep in the school district’s server farm (2) I’m never getting a response and (3) If I was a parent, I’d be a little ticked that the administration expects me to wait several days for an answer. That the school leader takes it a step further and lets me know that I might not receive a personal response at all is like something out of an Aldous Huxley novel.

Cue thought bubble: Did a robot just tell me that I might have to wait two days to hear from a different robot?

I make light of the situation. But, when it comes to the importance of school communications, such exchanges are anything but.

Parents and students and teachers want school districts to be more responsive. School leaders, for their part, honestly want to be. They want to provide a better school experience, and they know how important this kind of personal engagement is. In the age of choice, they also know the cost of falling short.

But that doesn’t mean they necessarily know how to fix it either. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for auto-responses. When you’re communicating about inclement weather, or other events that demand mass communication, it makes sense. If you’re reaching out to people immediately to let them know you heard them, and that you will respond soon, that’s OK too—provided you actually follow up.

But if you’re just telling people that you might, or might not, have the time? No matter how many students you enroll, there’s got to be a better way.

It’s not hard to see that this is a problem for schools. Week after week, my newsfeed is filled with Google Alerts about school leaders under fire for failing to listen to their communities. The fact that these emails were created, in part, to help solve that problem, shows just how far our school communications still have to go.