As the school year winds down, I am reminded of the high volume of email traffic that goes back and forth between school and home in all of our schools and the extent to which some of it is inappropriate, mean-spirited, or just plain rude. Now don't get me wrong, I believe that everyone needs the chance to vent. The difficulty is that in our age of instant messaging, what might in the past have been a rant at the dinner table, followed by some reflection and perhaps tempered in conversation with friends and family members is, instead, often immediately shot through cyberspace at an unsuspecting target.
Effective communication is nuanced. It assumes a relationship, either personal or professional, and it depends on the opportunity for actual give and take. It is also most effective when it takes place in a calm and cordial atmosphere of sharing and collaborative problem-solving. At our school, that is still how the vast majority of parent-teacher conversations take place - a phone call, a pop in visit, or a formal interview - personal, face to face, human interaction. We are a small and intimate community and, in spite of the occasional glitch, it usually runs very smoothly.
Unfortunately, it would appear that we are rapidly becoming the exception, not the rule! In our age of instant messaging, someone's initial outrage over an issue has become the stuff of public record. Comments permanently posted on the web arrive there without context, and without the tone of voice, or note of exasperation, or raised eyebrow that would cause a personal audience to take it with a grain of salt and see it for what it was.
As adults, we should know better, and as parents and professional educators, we should do better. Every teacher, tutor, or administrator receives the occasional sarcastic (and sometimes nasty) email from a parent about some perceived injustice done to their daughter or son. In our instant age, we know how this happens. A person gets ginned up, bangs something out, and sends it. The content and the language are such that they would never use over the phone or in person. But in an email, tweet, or social media comment, they can make the most outlandish remarks without fear of interruption or contradiction. And, all too often, the receiving faculty member or administrator, offended and upset by what they feel to be an unwarranted attack, responds in kind. Each party's spin on things becomes a part of the permanent cyber record and no matter how many subsequent conversations or comments lower the temperature of the discussion, the original exchange remains, white hot, frozen in time and cyberspace.
Having all suffered (and often committed!) these abuses of electronic communication we should, and must, do better to prevent them from happening in the future. Because, once we press send, the damage has been done. The ripple effects of a rash email or tweet are unpredictable. Hopefully they will dissipate quickly like the aftermath of a brief summer shower - but perhaps, if we are lucky, the lesson learned will have much more permanence.