How to answer difficult emails from students: Angry and upset emails

how to respond to an angry email from students

As an online teacher, what do you do when you receive an angry email from a student? There isn’t much formal training on the subject, so we thought we’d address this topic as part of our email etiquette series for online teachers. At some point in your career (probably more than one), you’re going to receive an upset email or deal with a student who isn’t satisfied with your services. Here’s what to do and how to respond when that happens.

Allow some breathing room

When an angry email comes in, my first and most important piece of advice is to not reply right away. Let it sit for several hours, perhaps even a day or two. There’s no shame in not replying right away. In a sense, this is the beauty of email, particularly in a teacher-to-student relationship. An immediate response is often not expected or required. Waiting for the heated moment to pass accomplishes two primary things:

  • It gives you time to formulate a proper professional response, and not just ‘shoot from the hip’ and say something you may regret/
  • It allows the student time to calm down and cool off. Often, they will apologize before you even send a reply, or will respond to your reply with a profuse apology.

Upset emails from students are often sent in the heat of the moment, when emotions are high and the student hasn’t had a chance to fully process their thoughts on whatever it is that has so upset them. A day or two to unwind typically does magic – it will at least give them time to step back and look at the scenario from a different perspective (if they choose to).

Remember that you are an authoritative figure

This is another big one. You, as the teacher, have to take the higher road and keep all communication professional. Teachers have authority over their students, in a sense, they are a mentor of sorts, and as such should never engage in ‘battles.’

Keep your language concise and to the point. Don’t make offensive or derogatory statements, and be respectful and wise (even if you don’t feel so wise just then).

Break down the angry email and respond point by point

One common mistake I’ve seen, and have made in the past, is to only address certain parts of the student’s email in my response. This can come across as an avoidance tactic, or of just plain lethargy. What I recommend is making a bullet point for each issue the student makes, and addressing them one by one. Use direct, informative language in your response and be sure to cite examples whenever possible.

In these bullet points, emphasize that you understand the student’s concern. Try to relate to them as much as possible. Apologize if you need to, but don’t go overboard with it.

Take preventative action

It’s important to remember that students are exactly that: students. In most cases, they aren’t professionals (at least not in your field) and may not be fully aware of proper email etiquette. I encourage online teachers to have a disclaimer or section in the ‘Q+A’ section of your website that explains your email policy. Note the following things:

  • After what hours are you unavailable to answer email?
  • An outline of what is appropriate to discuss via email, and what should be held on to until the next lesson.
  • Advice on how to format emails. This could explain that you don’t respond to internet slang, innuendo, or offensive remarks, in addition to encouraging students to use a quality subject line and format the email as if they were writing a letter (or at the very least, NOT formatted and written like a text message.)

If students come into their studies with you having an understanding of basic email etiquette, then it’s on them to follow the guidelines. If they choose not to, they shouldn’t expect a response.

Part 1 in the email etiquette series: Dealing with death or illness 

Ray is the founder and creator of Teacher Indie. He is an award-winning entrepreneur who has created online education businesses that have appeared in publications such as Entrepreneur Magazine, Inc Magazine, Buzzfeed, The Boston Globe and many others. His goal is to help teachers from around the world get online and gain the financial independence they deserve.

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