The “always on” teacher and avoiding zombies: towards the thoughtful use of digital communications
I check my email at lunch and I see two emails that arrived during the morning from a parent who has developed the habit of emailing me several times a day. The last one says, “You haven’t replied to my email and I have noticed that your computer is on all day. Don’t you hear it beeping when an email comes in?” I can’t email her while I’m teaching students but she doesn’t seem to understand this. I wonder if my quick replies have been encouraging her to email more.
During research designed to discover how kindergarten to grade 12 (K-12) teachers experience digital communication, email in this case, anecdotes collected suggest that today’s communications technologies may bring about many complexities. The example above suggests but one area of difficulty that those who do not work in schools may not consider—that for a teacher, processing email is a task that typically is done before teaching begins, during designated breaks, or at the end of the teaching day. A teacher typically spends very little time at their desk as they engage with students during the day, unable to address email that accumulates.
The changing nature of communication in schools
Much of today’s communication, including within K-12 settings, has moved to the digital world and its convenience is undeniable. A message can be sent no matter the time or place, provided there is access to a device and a network. How has this digital medium changed traditional conceptions of availability and caring for students, parents, colleagues, and others? A teacher recollects a moment of wanting to connect with colleagues:
I decide to head to the staff room for a break and to get some advice about a problem with a student. No one is there. Still, my phone keeps pinging with email from colleagues who I know are only a few steps away. I wish they would just come and talk to me instead of emailing.
Teaching is different than other professions where it may be easy to collaborate with colleagues during the day. A teacher may feel isolation from colleagues at times, since work with groups of students in individual classrooms comprises most of their day (Flinders, 1988; Ostovar-Nameghi and Sheikhahmadi, 2016). The time to seek advice is limited to before or after classes or during designated breaks. This anecdote reflects a new reality in that the increase of digital communication means that teachers may choose to stay in their classrooms to catch up on electronic messages rather than engage in dialogue with their colleagues.
Schools are communities comprised of teachers and others who work together in the best interest of students. One of the places where people in a school typically gather is in a staff room. Stories and resources may be shared informally in this place of respite and intimacy. What happens when a teacher encounters an empty staffroom in a moment such as this? Besides the empty chairs and perhaps an empty coffee pot, a teacher may feel disappointment that colleagues are unavailable to them. There may also be a sense of loss of the togetherness that typically happens in a place such as this. Email’s ability to connect people across distance and time can paradoxically and simultaneously create a feeling of disconnection.
Why email is like a zombie attack, but who is the zombie?
In a New York Times article, Chuck Klosterman (2010) compares email to a zombie attack. He suggests that like zombies, email never stops coming, no matter what you do. The more you read and reply, the more email gets generated and we somehow feel that “as long as we keep deleting whatever’s directly in front of us, we survive” (para. 15). While Klosterman’s (2010) metaphor for email as a zombie attack resonates in some ways, we might ask ourselves who the zombies are in this scenario. If, as he posits, a zombie is an organism that does not talk or think, and its sole motive is consumption, then perhaps we are the zombies. We may not stop to question why we feel we must perform this task or if there might be a better way to communicate with the people whose names reside in our inbox.
Being asleep or numb to our technology use is not a new idea for those in fields such as media ecology. Marshall McLuhan’s iconic book (McLuhan and Fiore, 1967) was originally entitled The Medium is the Message, but when the book came back from being typeset, it was spelled “massage” rather than “message” (McLuhan, 2017). McLuhan decided to leave the typographic error because he thought that it was apt as he believed that technology massages us into a numbed state (McLuhan, 2017, para. 1). McLuhan states, “Environments are invisible. Their groundrules, pervasive structures, and overall patterns elude easy perception” (pp. 84-85). He posits that while we may think that we use technology, but technology also uses us. In order to be able to think carefully about how we use a technology such as email, we must wake up to how we are using it in order to see the work it is doing on us. The recent discussions of “nomophobia” or “no mobile phone phobia” are an illustration of how people can become so attached to their devices that they feel a sense of panic when they are without them (King, Valença, Silva, Baczynski, Tarvalho, and Nardi, 2013; Nagpal and Kaur, 2016).
The pervasiveness of digital tools for teachers
In some schools, teachers are required to use digital tools that generate a great deal of email. For example, many schools use student information system to post items such as student attendance, assignments, and student grades. Parents and students can subscribe to the system so that when a teacher updates student grades, an email is generated and sent out. If such an alert prompts a question or concern, an email may be sent to the teacher. If a teacher has over 100 students in a semester, we can imagine how many messages might result after a simple updating of what might have been, at another time, a teacher’s paper grade book.
While there are many reasons why information about grades and attendance might be helpful to parents and students, we may also wonder how much communication is enough. Do parents and students need to have multiple reminders by email, text message and classroom websites? Could the proliferation of communication also hinder the development of responsibility in students to keep track of their own school activities?
Complicating decisions about how best to handle email is a teacher’s care and concern for students. Connecting with students is a part of what makes teaching satisfying and being available is at the heart of what it means to be a teacher. As Gabriel Marcel (1984) notes, availability transcends being physically present. It is about being open and gifting ourselves to the other. Being available, however, is not only important for students, parents and colleagues, but also for their loved ones and themselves. In the end, it is up to the individual user to determine what works best for them. In the words of Michel Foucault (1988), “One must become the doctor of oneself”. It is important for teachers to determine what email practices add to their professional worlds and personal lives and take steps to manage it when it becomes more of a burden than a benefit.
 This article is adapted from Turville, J. (forthcoming, 2018) Email in the Life of K-12
Teachers: Phenomenological, Postphenomenological and Posthuman Explorations. University of Alberta.
 This article makes use of gender-neutral language.
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Foucault, M. (1988). Technologies of the self. In L. H. Martin, H. Gutman, & P. H. Hutton (Eds.). Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press
King, A. L., Valença, A. M., Silva, A. C., Baczynski, T., Carvalho, M. R., & Nardi, A. E. (2013). Nomophobia: Dependency on virtual environments or social phobia? Computers in Human Behavior, 29(1), 140-144.
Klosterman, C. (2010, December 3). My zombie, myself: Why modern life feels rather undead. Retrieved from New York Times: [www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/arts/television/05zombies.html?pagewanted=all].
Marcel, G. (1984). The Philosophy of Existentialism. Seacaucus, NJ: Citadel Press.
McLuhan, E. (2017). Commonly asked questions (and answers). Retrieved from Marshall McLuhan: [https://www.marshallmcluhan.com/common-questions/].
McLuhan, M., & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is the Massage. London, UK: Penguin.
Nagpal, S. S., & Kaur, R. (2016). Nomophobia: The problem lies at our fingertips. Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, 7(12), 1135-1139.
Ostovar-Nameghi, S. A., & Sheikhahmadi, M. (2016). From Teacher Isolation to Teacher Collaboration: Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Findings. English Language Teaching, 9(5), 197-205.