Emails and ‘working hours’ in schools

the idea that teachers work only 9 to 3 is, of course, nonsense

When do teachers work?

The battle-lines are well-worn and tediously repetitive: “you teachers finish at 3pm and get half the year off” versus “we work during the evenings, weekends and holidays”. So goes the traditional banter between teachers and their non-teacher friends as we enter the summer holidays. Frustrating, perhaps, but it won’t (usually) damage relationships beyond repair. But when do we do this work outside the core school day? And how does it affect relationships with others?

The idea that teachers work only 9 to 3 is, of course, nonsense. And one of the joys of the profession is the variety of activity and the flexibility which that creates. Early in my career, I taught with a maths teacher who did all his marking for the week in one sitting with a bottle of wine in the conservatory. This sounded calm and idyllic to me as a 22-year-old!

Teachers have always worked beyond the 9 to 3. But, apart from extra-curricular activities and weekend/holiday trips and visits, this has not been something which has been easy to observe. Emails, though, provide an audit trail, documenting how long people take to reply to you. They also provide a way of the sender indicating how important they think their email is. Has anyone ever received an email flagged with low importance?

Subtext in emails

think of the teacher doing the school run; a requirement for early morning and late evening work may make them check out of leadership ambition

What is a healthy email culture for an organisation? We have all received the ‘just getting ahead of the day’ 7am email, with the version of the signature which makes it clear the sender is already sat at their desk. Like all communications, emails—and their timestamp—have subtext. So what is being communicated, explicitly or otherwise, by this 7am email to a group of staff?

Date: Tuesday 19th July
Time: 07:02am
Subject: Grade entry
To: HoDs

Dear All,

Good morning! I’m just getting ahead of the day and thought I’d send you a polite reminder that the deadline for entering Y11 mock grades into the MIS is 4pm today, so I can look at the data this evening.

Best wishes,

Alexa Assistant-Head

Interpretation 1: ‘Gosh, they’re in early’

A recipient who is in a good mood when they receive this may be predisposed to admire Ms Assistant-Head, and perhaps even be pleased that there are people who take the mundane side of running a school so seriously that they will work early in a morning and through the evening to get this data right.

Interpretation 2: ‘This must be urgent’

If a recipient is in school at 7:30am with a full teaching day ahead, they may be grateful for the early reminder that they are about to miss a deadline about which they had completely forgotten.

Interpretation 3: ‘I can never be SLT’

That escalated quickly! Think, though, of the teacher who reads this on their phone, trying to get their mind around the day, whilst making sure their children have breakfast before doing the school run. If it looks to that person as if early morning and late evening work are part of the way things are done in senior leadership in that school, trust or even sector, then it would not be unreasonable for them to check out entirely of leadership ambitions.

Interpretation 4: ‘We all work in different ways’

The recipient from interpretation 3 could, of course, look at Ms Assistant-Head’s work/life pattern, and deduce that they had to work mornings and weekends because of family commitments, but that the pattern could be reversed. For this to be a reasonable interpretation, there would to be visible role models of different working patterns amongst the senior leadership in the setting.

Email culture and EDI

Imagine a school with a comms policy which promised parents who sent emails at least a holding reply to their query within 48 hours; and to make this work, teachers need to turn round a reply within two working days. This is not fictional: I have seen it in a number of places and I wonder whether it was on a template which came via ASCL or The Key! In this model, though, a part-time teacher who works Monday, Tuesday and Friday cannot meet the requirements of the comms policy; and what is a ‘working day’ for them? Even for full-time teachers, what happens at weekends? A parental email sent at 7pm Friday needs a reply by 7pm Sunday, which is impossible if the fiction of teachers not working at weekends is maintained.

This came up in a Twitter conversation last week started by Steven Berryman ( If you read the whole thread, you’ll see that Steven gives a range of possibilities which are the basis of what I am writing here.

If we were to over-simplify, we could posit two attitude groups in the average school staff room (not the only two, but a useful two for my purposes here). I am, of course, caricaturing them! One: those who think that work in general, and senior leaders in particular shouldn’t bother them outside the school day, and this includes emails. Two: those who dislike teachers who leave at 3pm and aren’t heard of until period 1 the following day.

Neither attitude is helpful. Outside the confines of the school day and (in schools where STPCD applies) the 1265 hours, why shouldn’t teachers arrange their work as they see fit?

This is not just about teachers as a profession: it is about our education system as a whole. If we don’t allow people with a range of lifestyles to lead departments, schools, and trusts, we are not reflecting the society we are trying to educate.

Envoi: a technical solution

Moving an entire school’s culture towards every member of staff being generously forgiving to every other member of staff’s personal circumstances and preferences is, of course, ambitious. But there may be a technical solution. (Note: I, and my school, are thoroughly bound up with Microsoft 365. Gmail and Google Calendar may be able to do the same thing, but it is beyond my experience!)

Every person with a Microsoft 365 account on the school network has an Outlook calendar, and can set their working hours and days. And everyone sending internal email via Outlook, at least on the new version and the web app, gets a notification when they are sending outside a recipient’s work hours. This enables them to delay the delivery of the message until the colleagues are inside work hours.

This is what you see when sending an email. Instead of clicking the Send icon, you click Delay send. Your work is done when it suits you, but your colleagues won’t receive the message until it suits them.

The prerequisite for this, of course, is that everybody needs to have set their working hours accurately. Unfortunately, Outlook only allows you to set one block of working hours per day, so if you like to finish at 3pm and start again at 8pm there’s no way to accomplish this.

The images above are from, where there is a tutorial which will be useful to your technical support department if this option is not yet enabled at your school.

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