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Tips for Snagging a Winning Teacher Recommendation

Updated: Feb 22

[This blog entry was originally published in The South Pasadenan on 2/27/2019.]

As a former full-time public school teacher, I’m going to reveal something from my first teaching year that I know I’m supposed to keep to myself. It’s the moment a high school senior asked me to write his college recommendation, and what happened next.

I'm hoping my teacher rec advice will be a little more helpful than "raise your hand in class!"

His recommendation was the first letter I would write for a student. The student was energetic, loved to learn, was always first to raise his hand, and often struggled to articulate himself when he did -- at least, within a reasonable amount of time -- and, of course he did: This student was on the “beyond functional” side of the autism spectrum. He belonged at an excellent, rigorous university that would also support him with the social-emotional needs that would inevitably come up for him. I knew all these words and had them ready, so I wrote them down the same day in a first-draft letter of recommendation.

On Monday, I reread the letter. It was, objectively, garbage. Having all the precise words for this special student -- absolutely true, valid, and observed with patience -- mostly gave the impression that the student was a huge hassle to have in the classroom. Agh! Not even close to what I’d been going for.

I went to my colleague (25+ years teaching experience) who led the Spanish program, and I asked her for support. I didn’t want to let this student down. Almost as if she’d been asked before, Señora was quick to help. She flipped out her USB drive, plugged it into my laptop, and uploaded five MS Word docs from a folder called TEMPLATES ALL. In order, the file names were “meh1,” “meh2,” “good,” “great,” and “best in my career.”

My colleague had a system like many teachers do. Colleges know all about this, and many are searching for those words: "Best in my career."

She explained the system: Every student fits into one of the five categories, the student’s name goes into the series of blanks on the template, and the teacher takes extra-special care to make sure the names don’t get switched or messed up. One of the paragraphs on each template always had a section for the teacher to rattle off the student’s school and community activities; there was another section for generic adjectives like “caring” and “organized”; and there was a little area for special comments if the teacher deemed any worth mentioning. As long as I had the student’s resume and could vaguely remember their performance and personality, Señora told me I could print and sign the letter in five to ten minutes.

I played around with different iterations of my autistic student’s letter for a few weeks, but in the end I used Señora’s template. I felt guilty doing it because it stood in such marked contrast with how I had imagined my favorite teachers crafting my own recommendation letters when I was a high school senior working toward my dreams. But, as a first-year teacher, I knew the template letter (“best I’ve encountered in my career”) was the best version of a teacher recommendation this student could get from me at that time.