Recently (although it happened not recently), you may have heard about Kristen Bartkiw, the Manitoba woman who was fined for not including a grain product in her children’s lunch, as per a government regulation.
You could predict the ensuing discussions:
- How accurate is Health Canada’s Food Guide anyway?
- Should government be involved in our meals?
- Why is a homemade meal not acceptable but high-sodium microwave fare is okay?
- What is a Manitoba?
I haven’t seen any talk about what could have avoided this international infamy: a phone call.
As a teacher with a communications background, colleagues would sometimes ask me to read over emails they were sending to a parent about a sensitive topic. I recommended the same each time: “Don’t send this email but instead use it as talking points in a phone conversation. Oh, and please fill the photocopier when you empty it, Steve.”
I’d also then tell them this story about why you should use your fingers to click phone digits, not the email send button.
In my first official year of teaching (Grade 3), a student asked to go to the bathroom during start-of-class instructions. If he goes he misses the instructions, but if he goes it’s a bigger problem. So, to avoid interruptions while I’m working with students, one class rule is always: If you missed or don’t understand the directions, don’t ask the teacher; ask three classmates. (If those three students don’t know then all four of you come see me, as the instructions were obviously unclear.)
However, when he returned from the bathroom, the student asked me for the directions and I directed him to ask his classmates. That night, his father emailed to ask why I “wouldn’t help” his son. I wrote back to explain (1) there are class rules in place and (2) this one incident isn’t a big deal because (3) part of school is learning rules and behaviours.
The next morning I opened Outlook and read an email about being charged with a lawsuit if the child developed a urinary tract infection because I said his son “couldn’t go to the bathroom.”
Lawsuit?! UTI?! I could barely choke down the rest of my apple juice.
The next step was to invite the family in for a (possibly tense) meeting and I asked administration to attend. Thankfully, the parent apologized for overreacting in his message. He inferred from my email that the class rule was “You can’t go to the bathroom when the teacher is talking.” Once I made clear the class rules, the dad thought they were sound and even told his child to “listen to the teacher.”
Afterward, the principal asked, “What did you learn from this?” My response: “Install a toilet in the back of the classroom? Also, don’t email – call.”
When you need to address a sensitive issue, do it in real time. Why?
1 | Email doesn’t spare your nerves. You may sound more confident and detailed via text than speech. I can sympathize. Look into your future, however: How nervous would you be getting an email about litigation and a ruptured bladder? That threw off my whole day. Choose the option that ultimately invites less anxiety.
2 | Email is ambiguous. I often hear teachers’ stories about misunderstood emails. Why? They’re either too vague to understand or too lengthy to command full attention. Via phone, I could have responded to follow-up questions immediately. Be understood the first time.
3 | Email isn’t quicker. The time you “save” emailing is lost when you need a meeting to discuss the content of the emails. I didn’t fully explain my class rule(s) because it would have taken too long to type, but that’s partly what caused the confusion. Faster = disaster. (Running out of good one-liners.)
4 | Email is forever. You can speak a mistake on the phone and clarify yourself right away. You cannot retract a sent email, and administration may spot an errant comment and disapprove. A permanent record could go on your permanent record. (Good one, Peter.)
If the care centre had phoned about the grains instead of sending a note, this wouldn’t have escalated to international news.
But then no one would have learned what a Manitoba is.
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