How to answer difficult emails from students: Death and illness

how to respond to difficult emails from students

Coming into the online teaching field, one might not expect responding to emails to be a source of much anxiety. But it can be – because the people sending them are often paying clients. As the teacher, you don’t want to respond in the wrong way or make promises that you can’t keep.

In that light, Teacher Indie is kicking off a 3-part series on teacher email etiquette in awkward situations. We’re starting off with a bang – what to say when a student faces death or severe illness. Let’s dive in!

Teacher email etiquette: the basics of responding to difficult emails

Basic teacher email etiquette is similar to any profession – except for the fact that you may be dealing with kids, teens, and others far younger and more inexperienced in the ways of the working world than yourself.

I remember the old college excuse of ‘I can’t attend class because my grandpa/grandma/aunt/uncle died and I have to leave town.’ I may even be guilty of using it – I honestly don’t remember. These are difficult emails to receive. But looking back (and after talking with an in-law who works as a professor), I realize how easy it must have been to see through lines like that. In a given semester, what are the odds that 50% of the students in a course have ailing grandparents whose health took a turn for the worse right before midterms?

This leads me to our first point. Students will want to know if they can still pass a course, lesson, assignment, whatever it is, after missing class. The truth is that this almost always depends on a case-by-case basis. How well do you know the student? Do you trust him or her to make up the work? And, perhaps most importantly, how believe-able was their email?

The ole’ long nose

Let’s say for example that a student’s excuse for missing a lesson is blatantly false. You may want to fire back an ‘I know what’s going on here!’ response. But hold on a second. It’s important to maintain professionalism and courteousness. After all, they are a paying customer.

In many cases, the work can be made up. I encourage most online teachers to ask simply whether the work can be made up in a prompt manner without affecting the course of the lessons or training.

If not, the responsibility is on the student – how much of a priority is it to maintain the relationship with you, and get through whatever it is that you two are working on together?

What not to do when responding to difficult emails

As I noted before, exercise serious restraint when it comes to outwardly doubting a student’s reasoning for being absent or late. At the end of the day, you don’t know what that person is going through or how they react to stress.

When it comes to granting more time – be honest. If it isn’t possible to rearrange or disrupt the lesson plan, inform the student about the situation and see what the response is. Ultimately, they are paying you and you are there to serve their best interests, not yours. Difficult emails aren’t any more enjoyable for the student than they are for you, even if you suspect a half-truth situation. Keep that in mind.

Also, avoid skipping or not addressing certain parts of their email in your response. Try to respond to each part of the email, point by point, with direct and honest answers.


Part 2 in the email etiquette series: Angry emails

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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