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Writing Letters for Students – A Teacher’s View

It is only the second week of school and the second week of my retirement and already I have received several email requests from students to write them letters of recommendations for college. I know that this is just the beginning of what could become a flood of requests that will go on until January when the season for applying to college officially comes to a close.

I have an interesting history with writing letters of recommendation and a thoughtful analysis of that history can unveil some seldom talked about aspects of the college application process and access in our schools.

When I taught at Simon Gratz from1976-1998 ( a comprehensive neighborhood high school in the heart of the African American community)I saw my role as a student advocate — someone who was there to fight against the system that created obstacles for my students — someone who was going to help open doors for them that seemed jammed shut — someone who would work tireless with other colleagues – teachers and counselors – to provide SAT prep, access to summer programs and college. I would often tutor students ( off the books — I never got paid) for the SATs early in the morning, buy the Barron’s book myself, studying it and xeroxing it. In later years, when my own children were in high school and I paid for them to have a private test prep class, I used all the materials that my children received and shared them with my students.

So in that context writing letters of recommendation was part of the mission — it was part of my ethical responsibility to advocate for my students who were hardworking and who wanted to go to college. I would write beautiful letters for them, taking an enormous amount of time on each, meeting with them, interviewing them about their lives, goals and aspirations, going though all the papers they had written in my class so I could quote their insights, cite examples of their brilliance. I still have a letter sent to me by the University of Pittsburgh, thanking me for a letter I wrote for Johnny Oliver even though they couldn’t accept him. ( He subsequently went to Bradford College in Massachusetts and earned a Masters’ Degree from Temple.)

When I transferred to Masterman, it took me a while to learn and understand my new context. I knew that it was a magnet school for academically talented and mentally gifted students from all parts of the city, but I knew nothing about the culture of the school. Some of my students my first year there told me that in short time I would be “Mastermanized” and they would laugh knowingly and I would remain perplexed. I got my first inkling of what they meant when I found a note in my mailbox on lawyer’s letterhead questioning me about my homework policies and why his son had lost points on a late assignment. Clearly, the students ( or at least some of the students as I would come to know) didn’t need me as their advocate when their parents were quite capable thank you.

My next lesson came in early October when I was asked by several of my 12th grade students to write their letters of recommendation. I thought it was a bit odd that they would ask me, since I had only been their teacher for a month or so and initially I encouraged them to ask other teachers who might have known them better. They convinced me that the ones who knew them well had retired and they flattered me by saying that I knew them better after one month than their former teacher had after two years! I met with three young men and interviewed them as I had my Gratz students and wrote them glowing letters to places like the University of Chicago, Brown, Penn.

The word spread that I was an easy mark for students who had alienated their former teachers by hectoring them in class, not completing assignments, cheating on tests and other behaviors that would make it difficult for a teacher to attest to the students’ integrity.

The students for whom I wrote ( and there were way too many that year for someone who had just come to a school and who barely knew her students) remained on their best behavior until around December 15 when the early decisions came through. Once they had their acceptances in hand, they no longer had any need to act respectfully in class, do the assignments with integrity nor in some cases even come to class. One young man who had been accepted to the University of Chicago even came to my class drunk and became infuriated with me when I turned him in to the dean of students.

I spent a good part of the year stewing. I had been had. The veteran teachers just looked at me knowingly — the ones who had endured the disrespect and arrogant entitlement for years before my innocent arrival on the scene. And I vowed that I would not be used in that way again.

That was a hard promise to keep in a school like Masterman where the students are told from the time they are in 5th grade ( and since birth in many cases no doubt) that they are the smartest little people in the world and that they are destined to go to the best colleges in the country. Perhaps destined isn’t quite the right word — but certainly entitled — expected. I remember a parent conference my first year there with the parent of a 9th grader who had earned a D in my class — the kid was a mess — he wouldn’t keep a notebook and did very little homework – the only thing that saved his grade was that the did read the assigned books. At this parents conference, as I was explaining to the father why his son had earned that grade, the father broke into tears and literally sobbed as he said, “I guess he won’t be going to Harvard.”
Dreams die hard and at the time it was hard for me to understand the way it was all crashing down on this father’s head — dreams that he had had since birth for his son, who just wasn’t sharing the same dreams. Today that young man ( who graduated near the bottom of his class ) works in the tech world and graduated from Drexel University.

I continued to write letters for students — this time however, I was able to know the students better — some of them I had taught for multiple years in both English and Drama — still others had also been in my homeroom for four years and I felt that I really knew the students. Still there were nagging doubts — was I writing for someone who had cheated in other classes — perhaps had cheated in mine — I was told by my students that I was naive to think that people didn’t cheat. They told me it was part of the culture not only of the school but of American society and that any attempt I would make to address it or change it would be futile.

That same year, I wrote letters of recommendation for college to almost 50 members of the graduating class of 2003 ( There were only 110 students in the entire class.) I wrote letters for students applying to the most prestigious universities in the country and for students applying to state and land grant colleges. I wrote for students at the top of the class and students who I thought could use an advocate at the bottom of the class. My letter writing began in September and it was still in full force in January when the entire class of 2003 decided to stage a “class unity” cut day on January 3, 2003. I got wind of the impending cut day because I was inadvertently included on several students’ email lists so I became privy not only to the details of of the cut day ( one week before mid-terms!!!!) but also to the ways in which certain students were pressuring others to conform threatening them with all sorts of social ostracizing if they too didn’t stay home from school that day. And to my dismay, those students sending the threatening emails were students for whom I had already written letters — students who had already be accepted by the University of Pennsylvania.

On January 2, I told both of my senior classes that if students were not in class tomorrow, I would not complete the letters that I was still in the process of writing. I also let it be known that a teacher has the right to withdraw a letter of recommendation at any time — with prejudice or without. This sent shockwaves through the high school community. Later it came back to me that the students were talking about it all day — Would Pincus really dare to do that? Is she ALLOWED to? They would get their parents to make sure I wouldn’t withdraw any letter I had written. They’d sue. Etc. I informed the administration of the impending cut day and in true fashion, the principal said that if students were to cut they would be disciplined when they returned. The discipline consisted of a mass detention in the auditorium the following day — which was more like a part for sure and many of the students. Also, the parents became complicit in the cut day (one of the parents even hosted the event in her home and said that the students deserved a break — this after a 10 day Winter vacation!) by writing absent notes and essentially lying for their children so they wouldn’t have to face the ( meager) consequences of their actions.

The next day ( January 3) half of the class did show up for school — When I discussed it with them that day, one girl said she came because she abhorred the peer pressure that was being sent out on the list serve and hated that kind of mindless conformity. Others admitted they were there because they still needed me to finish their letters. Still others said that their parents would have killed them if they cut school.

That year I did not withdraw any of the letters, though I never discussed it again with the students, nor did I acknowledge that I had heard the buzz about suing me that had ensued in the wake of my informing them of that possibility. But I did learn a valuable lesson about how to proceed with the letters in the future. Students needed to be educated about not only the process of asking and getting teachers to write for them but understand the expectations and significance.

Another piece of this story is the fact that teachers do not get compensated in any way to write these letters and they take an enormous amount of time. Many students apply to 5-10 schools and each letter has be accompanied by a specific form and all the materials have to be placed in envelopes and sent out. I can take up to two hours to write for one student – longer depending on how many schools she’s applying to. Multiply that by the number of students and you can see that this is a significant endeavor. On top of that, the burden is almost always distributed unequally. Bad teachers never get asked to write. Some old crusty teachers refuse. Distant professorial like teachers don’t know their students well enough to write substantive letters. So the same few teachers, the ones who tend to work harder anyway — who coach or sponsor after school programs, who supervise community service projects – the ones who really know their students are the ones who write the most letters. And if we refuse or become overwhelmed, we leave the students in a bind. We are not given roster time; we are not remunerated. And to even suggest such a thing is to open yourself up to criticism about your own integrity.

The writing of letters of recommendation for students for college remains one of the more problematic aspects of a high school teachers work and it is never discussed in public forums like faculty or home and school association meetings. Unexamined, it remains plagued with problems and inequities.

Ever since that year, before I would assent to write letters for any student at Masterman, I would sit down with them and have a conference. In that conference, I would tell them that writing a letter for students for college is part of an enormous process that affects hundreds of thousands of individuals and that in order for the process to be as fair as possible, it relies on the integrity of the people participating – including the teachers whose words are taken as truth in helping colleges determine which students gain admission to their schools. I told them that in signing my name to that letter, I was putting my professional reputation on the line and I was not only vouching for their past performance but their future performance as well – in college and in my class the rest of the year. I informed them that as a teacher I had the right to rescind their recommendation at any time if I felt the student had not lived up to the high standards attested to in the letter. I ended each conference by telling the student that if they felt that they weren’t able to promise that they would continue to perform with the same honesty and integrity and commitment that they had in the past that I would understand if they didn’t come back to me the next day with all of the materials I needed to write the letter.

I started doing that with the Class of 2004. In all the years since, out of all of the students with whom I have had that conversation, ONLY ONE student decided that it would be too difficult for him to live up to those expectations and asked another teacher to write for him. I never did discuss with that teacher whether she held him to the same standards. In fact, she was one of those teachers new to Masterman much like I had been in 1998 before I understood the culture of the school.

I want to end this on a positive note. Initially, when I began this process of vetting who I would and wouldn’t write letters for, of explaining the meaning of the letter to the students, of having conferences in which I asked for a pledge of integrity — many people — my colleagues and some of the students thought that I was over reacting. Or they thought that I was like Don Quixote grappling with windmills engaged in a fruitless battle for a questionable cause. But as 2004 progressed and the other classes followed, my pre-letter conference became part of the culture– it became part of the school lore passed on in stories from one grade to the next and it became less unusual as other teacher began engaging in similar dialogue with their students before putting their pen to paper and signing their name to a legal document attesting to a child’s integrity.

One day, back in 2000, when I was still pretty new to Masterman, in a frustrated response to what I was hearing my students saying, I blurted out, ” I didn’t become a teacher to get you into Harvard!” There was stunned silence. Finally one young man looked up at me and with no trace of irony asked, “You didn’t?” What ensued was a discussion about how they viewed their school and how they felt that that was the message they were getting — that they would only be worthy as human beings IF they got into Harvard — that all of the teachers were working so hard to get as many of the students into those schools as possible so that the school would have a great reputation. I was stunned. I hadn’t heard it explained quite that way before. They poured their hearts out to me about the impact those expectations had on them — and how it affected and alienated the students who weren’t going to go to Ivy League schools — who couldn’t get in or who couldn’t afford it — and how that created the undertow of cynicism that some of them got caught in. And how that cynicism enabled them to feel justified with cheating, lying and using teachers to get what they wanted. We talked too about what education can mean and what it should mean. Years later, I received an email from the young man who asked me why I did become a teacher if it wasn’t to get him into Harvard. ( He went to Northwestern — not sure if he applied to Harvard — I hadn’t written for him) In the email ,he told me that he was thinking about becoming a teacher — that he remembered so vividly that day in class when I told them all of the reasons I became a teacher and what teaching them meant to me in my life — how teaching was a profession in which you could participate in social justice and social change through working with individuals and within systems – how it was exciting and meaningful work, how it was intellectually and spiritually challenging — and how it was about so much more than getting a selected few students into the best colleges.

It took me many years to understand Masterman. It took me even longer to resist being “Mastermanized” — accepting as immutable some of the values and practices of a competitive, high performing academic high school. In the ensuing years after the incident with the Class of ’03, I made it part of my mission as a teacher and a student advocate to educate my students about the process of college applications and the attaining of letters of recommendation. I would start in the 9th grade and discuss with students the importance of not alienating their teachers — that they were building relationships that would continue through high school. With my 11th graders I’d have honest and heartfelt discussions about fairness and the importance of honesty in the college application process. I would engage them in substantive inquiry about ethical behavior through the literature we were reading, the topics we were writing about.

And as it has, ever since that September 10 years ago when I first arrived at Masterman from Gratz, and even though I have retired, the requests for college recommendation letters have begun. I believe that I have a moral obligation to write for some of my students — particularly because so many of the teachers who have known them for years have retired. It will be a little harder to exact a promise of integrity from students I no longer teach. This time, I will have to go on trust and a faith in the lessons learned.

Marsha Pincus is a post-mid life woman, riding the Age Wave and writing for her life.

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