Teacher clashes with principal over all-staff email to advertise GSA

Q: We have rules at my school regarding when it’s appropriate to send an all-staff email. Basically, it needs to pertain to school business. I get that. No one wants their inbox clogged by teachers looking to sell old couches or find an in-network dentist. Still, I was shocked when my principal chastised me for sending an email letting staff know I’d formed a Gender and Sexuality Alliance for students. I sent the email with the group’s first meeting time and location, hoping teachers would share the information with their classes. The principal wrote me right away to say, “While I think it’s nice that you’re supporting LGBT students, this was an inappropriate use of all-staff email. Once a staff member starts sharing this kind of non-school information on the listserv, it opens the door for everyone. Plus, what if someone replied with a slur about homosexuals? Please find other ways of distributing these kinds of messages.” I’m so angry. How is this non-school business? I’m not feeling very calm right now, but I want to respond with a constructive email. What should I say?

A: For starters, don’t respond over email. Any time you’re broaching a sensitive topic, have the conversation in person to clear the air. There’s less room for misunderstanding. Before you have that discussion, however, take time to think through your questions and your arguments. It won’t do any good to show up defensive or angry.

There’s a lot to sort out. There’s the question of what is and isn’t school business. Is there a handbook with a clearly articulated policy? Does it need to be updated? While it’s respectful not to send excessive emails, the principal is veering down a slippery slope. Even if he could make a reasonable argument that after-school groups don’t meet the “school business” test, the rest of his argument is problematic. People’s emotional response to the content of your email is irrelevant. Ostensibly, the school policy isn’t about preventing staff from making unwanted comments or discussing divisive topics. If your email has been singled out because it pertains to the GSA, use examples to highlight the injustice. Are you able to point out that other affinity groups are allowed to advertise through all-staff email? If so, this is a troublesome inconsistency, and the principal is laying down the law for the wrong reasons. Not to mention, no one should be condoning that type of speech under any circumstances. If he’s genuinely concerned that teachers will jump in with homophobic slurs, he needs to provide more training on issues around diversity.

But let’s go back to the issue of whether providing a safe space for LGBT students should be considered school business. When GSAs are present in middle and high schools, students hear 20% fewer homophobic remarks, feel 29% safer and are 48% less likely to fall victim to bullying (GLSEN survey). As a member of the middle school GSA at Shady Hill School in Cambridge notes on the Glad.org web site, “A GSA is a positive step to having an accepting community not only for members of the LGBTQ community but for all people and introduces kids to ideas of inclusion, acceptance, and support at an early age.” One could argue that creating a welcoming school culture that supports all students is very much school business.

You certainly can make that case, but I suspect that’s a longer-term discussion. Right now, ask the principal how he’d like you to communicate this type of information going forward. Is there a means for staff to communicate non-school business, perhaps by using a weekly staff newsletter or community listserv that people can access by choice? Are there morning announcements? There should be a way for teachers to share resources or materials, exchange duties, or talk about after-school clubs. If no avenues exist, it’s time to plug that hole. All-staff email etiquette is a thorny issue for many schools. It can be a challenge to foster open dialogue without flooding people’s inboxes. The good news is that your specific issue might be the catalyst for better schoolwide communication.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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