Lunch and Learn 2019: First Aid For Communication

posted Jul 24, 2019, 1:49 PM by Emily Kroutil   [ updated Jul 24, 2019, 2:59 PM ]
Last fall, I received the following email from a student in my class:

I replied with the following email that night:
This is very similar to an email template that we provide for mentees at Georgia Virtual School and very similar to  emails I've sent countless times before. I like to emphasize the documentation, because like I say in the email, I've never seen an extension request approved without some sort of documentation. We also live to encourage students to continue working on their assignments while they wait to hear back about their extension request because we want them to keep working and not stop everything waiting for the approval/denial of the extension request.

I sent the email and didn't really think much more about it....until I got the following email the next morning:
I was just completely flabbergasted to receive that email (obviously, since I still think about it and immediately thought about it for this assignment). Previously, mom and I had had a good relationship and she'd even sent me AP Environmental Science resources as either she or her husband was an environmental scientist in some capacity. I can only guess that mom was completely stressed about the impending loss of her grandmother and that, somehow, the message in my previous email, was misinterpreted by her son and instead of asking to read my email (again, the stress of the situation), she quickly typed and sent this email. When my father in law was in the ICU before he passed away, my mother in law was very upset and I became a target for her frustration. Now, I know she was simply upset at the situation and a daughter in law was an easy target. It doesn't make it right, but I understand that when you are under that type of stress, you don't always behave rationally. 

This mother's words obviously hurt because I do feel like we try to treat our students with compassion and understanding. But we also have policies and procedures in place and it is important for everyone that attends and teaches at Georgia Virtual that these policies are applied fairly to all students. If they aren't, it can compromise the integrity of these policies. I also know that mom was not thinking about all of that at the time.

I replied with the following email and copied my ILT on my response, just so she was aware of the situation:

I never heard back from mom. About a month later, I got a message that a bereavement request was submitted but denied due to no documentation and then approved later that afternoon once documentation had been received. I assume this was because the grandmother had passed away, but the family didn't contact me again. I don't know if it was because mom was ashamed of the hasty, angry email she sent the previous month or if she simply had enough on her plate with the loss of her grandmother, that emailing me was simply not on her radar, or both.

I've thought a lot about this situation for a few reasons:
  1. Mom got upset so quickly and I'd sent the email about extensions countless other times and it was never received that way
  2. I was caught so off guard by her email because I'd previously had a good relationship with the family and I had tried to express sympathy in the first email I sent to her son.
  3. How was this situation so different from countless others and how could her anger have been avoided.

I think I handled the situation pretty professionally and in my response to mom, I tried to include my personal experience with the loss of my own grandmother to try and express that I really was sorry about the situation, but I had no control over extensions and whether they were approved or not. I thought about calling mom, but I was worried that she was in the hospital and if her grandmother were as close to death and she thought, the last thing she would want to do is talk to a teacher, and, because, she was already upset with me and she was obviously stressed and I knew I would be an easy target for her to let out her anger/sadness/frustration on (again) and I really didn't want that.

With that being said, I had a similar situation this summer. A student had spent time in the hospital because his uncle was in failing health and his uncle passed away the previous day. The student emailed and asked for an extension. I sent the following email:
The email reply was basically the same, but instead of putting the types of documentation in parenthesis in the 3rd to last paragraph, I tried to put the typical types I see for this in a separate sentence describing how other students have handled the situation. I also emphasized in the last sentence that I sympathized and understood the stress the student was under - suffering a loss and trying to balance schoolwork. 

Additionally, I spoke to mom via phone, not long after I sent the email. I wanted to make sure she knew that I was sympathetic to the situation. Mom and I discussed types of documentation that might be accepted. I let mom know that I would go ahead and fill out the extension request and mention in the request that she would be providing documentation/another extension request the next morning. I told mom that she and the student should focus on the funeral tonight (she said the student was contemplating missing the funeral so he could complete his work) and that we would figure something out for documentation (they were Muslim and they don't have obituaries or funeral programs in their culture. His extension ended up getting approved (they submitted a death certificate) and mom and student were both very thankful for my help.

I'm not sure the slight changes I made to the email and/or the phone call helped, but I like to think they did. Through both of these situations, even though they happened before the Lunch and Learn, I tried to employ some of the strategies in the presentation, such as actively sympathize (adding extra sympathy to the end of the email), remain calm, and think about the fact that emails are forever. When sending emails, I try to think about whether I'd like that email printed on the front page of the newspaper, and, this is a big one for me, I try not to send emails when I am upset or angry.

When I look at these emails with an even more critical eye, I'm thinking that the "Thanks!" at the end should be taken out either completely or replaced with "Thank you." I think it would reflect a more somber tone in agreement with the student and/or parent's tone.

The big thing I need to take from the presentation is not to take a parent's anger personally. When a parent attacks you either on the phone or via email, it is easy to take their attacks personally (and, again, obviously I did on some level or I wouldn't still be thinking about it), but I need try to remember that they usually have something going on in their lives that makes them act that way (stress at work, a family member's illness, worried about their child's success, etc.) and that all they really want is what is best for their child.