“What Do YOU Want in Your Letter of Reference?”

“Dear ISR: Asking for a letter of reference seemed like a standard request. The expectation was that my principal would actually be flattered to reflect on my work at the school. So, when my request was met with, “Why don’t you write your own letter and put it in my box? I’ll rework it and get back to you,” I was disappointed that my years here had gone completely unrecognized by my boss.

Perhaps he lacks the knowledge/time/interest to compose an insightful, professional letter of reference. Or maybe I’m too sensitive. But once I got past my initial reaction, I could see I had been presented the perfect opportunity to promote myself and (hopefully) land a job in a better, more academic and exciting school. I want to make the very best of this!

Being a newbie to the international teaching circuit (this being my first position) I’d like to ask seasoned overseas educators to offer some advice on what sort of things I should include in this letter of reference.

My current school has no curriculum–it’s an ‘everyone does their own thing’ sort of school. I don’t think I want that in my letter of recommendation! Nor the fact that most of the students cannot speak enough English to follow simple instructions or commands. I want to make my contributions and time here shine, while not pointing out the obvious flaws of the school. Any advice? It would be greatly appreciated. And once again, Thanks ISR!!”

15 thoughts on ““What Do YOU Want in Your Letter of Reference?”

  1. Wow! Reading this topic I feel as if I could have written it. Your scenario matches mine to a “T”. Maybe I work with you?…

    When asking others to write letters of recommendation I have given specific words or topics that I’d like the writer of the reference to include. Usually I add this to the end of the request (e-mail). Sort of a suggestion or place to start. I emphasis in my request the specific language used in job postings or have in the past provided an example of an old recommendation for the reference writer who I feared might not otherwise meet my two weeks in advance deadline.

    On another note, the department head I work with is always offering advice that I try and double check. How long are letters of recommendation valid? Is two years or 4 years too long to hold on to letters?


  2. What goes into a letter of reference?
    1. The facts about the position, employment, and school.
    2. Mention of contributions made by employee as he/she worked for the school.
    3. Superlatives and compliments! “We’re sorry to see him/her leave our school.” “We gladly hire him/her if he/she ever wanted a position with us again!” “He/she has been a great asset to our school.” “Great teacher and co-worker.” Etc.

    If a letter of reference is perfunctory i.e. just a matter of routine and duty and showing no interest, without those superlatives and compliments, the letter is worthless. Headmasters and recruiters read what is missing from a letter just as much as what is written.


  3. International teaching certainly has its risks as one may work at schools that have garnished anything from brilliant to dismal or outright totally unknown reputations.If returning to ones own country and applies for a teaching position, then one may be either glorified, villified or slipped under the radaraccordingly.
    A suggestion for administrators and principals is to briefly outline staff retention data so that should teachers only stay a year or less then this is not necessarily seen as soley a lack of commitment on th teacher’s behalf.
    I am acutely aware that in the international circuit many ‘good’ schools are highly suspicious of candidates who have only been at their previous post for a year.If they were to know however of a dismal retention rate at the previous school they may well shift such suspicions and possibly even congratulate the candidte for lasting that long.
    Similarly, should one come from a school with high staff retention rates, then one might feel bound to explain why one is leaving hastily. In matters such as illness, bereavement, sabbaticals, specialisation or other significant milestones any well intentioned school should be most understanding.
    Another consideration which I should post in a separate category is that in a profession predominantly represented by female staff yet with a disproportionate amount of males in upper management, one may be at the behest of a sexist regime or ‘old boys’ network.I say ‘may’ as this is not always the case.
    Please check your qualifications, experience and ideologies and do consider the ramifications of subservience when applying for other positions. Consider too that while one may be prospected for another school, you too are prospecting it.


  4. What about getting letters from colleagues and students? As an administrator and former teacher, I realize that over half of all international adminstrators range from poor to horrible. Be proud of yourself and your work!


  5. Fellow teacher,

    Leave this school as soon as possible or at least continue looking for a better or more professional administrator. Many administrators today (not all of course) are lazy, money / opportunity mongers, and not serious or knowlegable enough about the real responsibilities of school administration. They don’t realize or know that their position is one of LEADERSHIP! What are they doing there if they can’t provide proper leadership. Administrators would do themselves, students, communities, and staff a big justice to get intricately involved in educational achievement. One good way of doing this is getting involved with staff growth and development. Most administrators don’t seem like they could be good business persons who know their business partners. Together administrators and staff have to ensure student achievement. How could an administrator responsibly do that if s/he hasn’t working with staff enough to write a simple detailed reference letter? SHAME ON YOU! Do your job! Carry your weight! Be responsible. Stop being a slacker. Get administrative professional development. Stop making excuses. Get a stronger work ethic. Commit to your job and stop embarrassing people, schools, and communities because you can. Stop making it almost impossible for sincere and serious teachers to find good and reputable schools to teach in, and having to do research on . ( I am sorry ISR. I am not trying to put you out of business/service. You provide invaluable service because of service others are not being resposible for). It’s about time administrators are more accountable, so they can write good reference.letters. A nice written letter from some administrators may mean not mean much to you, because of who wrote it. To the contrary, a letter written by a good administrator for your hard work is something to be personally treatured and valued. Suppose a teacher can not write a good reference letter for his / her students for the same excuses that administrators can’t write a decent letter. The same applies to responsible and involved parents who should be able to give good teacher refernces. Let’s devote more time to getting better administrators, so we can have better schools, better students, and professional reference letter for good service. Also, positive information about your work should be constantly updated and inserted in your files. What responsible teacher / employee would not want to work harder; have their accomplishments discussed, recognized, and put into their files (basic organizational business and management skills); have their accomplishments to contribute to staff / school development, making teachers more school and community professionals and partners; etc.


  6. As an administrator who has hired teachers, I think you might stress which subjects you have taught, the ages of the students, that you are experienced in working with ESL students, and that you are the type of teacher who can research a topic to extend and enrich it creatively (if you are). Without a firm curriculum to guide you, it might be advisable to note that you are willing to follow the adopted curriculum of the school into which you are hired.

    Do you sponsor clubs?
    Have you thought about asking parents for comments about your teaching as they see it on a survey and adding these as “testimonials” to your cover letter or references?


  7. I do not know if this is normal, but I certainly asked both teachers and students to do this when they asked me for letters of reference in the pass. I say “just jot down a few important things that you want me to include”. It does help me tailor the reference to the application also makes sure i remember things which may be very important to that individual but perhaps less significant or totally forgotten for me. As the respondent said it also helps them promote themselves.


  8. although I agree with much of what has been said, and it is the start of an interesting topic, given that the op asked about what to write I will start that ball rolling. Here are some things that I have appreciated reading in letters of reference:
    – professionalism
    – specific (brief) examples of how you’ve achieved whatever skill you are highlighting ex. demonstrates his commitment to student success through blah blah and blah
    – regret at the possibility of losing you to another school, and the confidence that ‘our loss will be their gain’
    Since your school has no curriculum, I think it would be fair to write that you have built up your own curriculum setting high standards and clear expectations or something like that.
    – communication with parents and peers (teamwork)
    Basically anything that you can be called out as an example or role model for. If you have only been at the school for a short while, something like: in the short time * has been here he quickly gained the respect of students and peers. that kind of thing.
    Also, you might want to do it point form so that it doesn’t sound anything like the way you write since you will be giving in a cover letter as well.


  9. Responding to Jim Pastore, “and knowing that teachers see themselves differently than we do as administrators”, no truer words have ever been written. That is because most international schools I have worked in, the administrator/s have more important things to do, seemingly, than to find out what really goes on in the classroom beyond what complaining (usually poor performing) students, parents, and colleagues that lower themselves to be informers/lovers of bad news, have to say about you. Some administrators seem to love hearsay (heresy?) and reward it well. Most international schools I have worked in have ineffective, unfair teacher evaluation practices, mostly designed for efficiency rather than effectiveness or recognition of innovative/positive classroom practices. So why not let the teacher write their own letter! On the flip side of things one school I worked in invested heavily in cognitive coaching training which was the most fair, helpful, positive, supportive process I have ever been a part of in education. This school changed its complete ethos through this kind of professional development and teachers helping teachers. The only mandate was that all teachers participate, no exceptions. I had a chance to really grow as an educator as did my colleagues. Then this administrator reached out to at least ten other teachers including the teacher him/herself to find out what really goes on in your classroom; armed with this information both written and verbal reports, the letter of recommendation was written conjointly and more fairly. Nothing worse than letters of recommendation that are written based on how well you’ve played the right set of school politics even though that is what you are often forced to do if you want to keep your overseas professional life going from administrator to administrator.


  10. Asking the teacher for a brief recap of what they have taught over the years they have been at the school, and what additional contribution they have made is reasonable; asking her or him to actually write their own letter is not.
    As a seasoned administrator, I have had many, many requests for references. Sometimes they have been from teachers who have been at the school longer than I have, and I want to make sure that everything they have taught and done is acknowledged. However, one component of the letter is my personal impression of them, and only I can write that.
    I would reject any suggestion to write the entire letter yourself, but give your principal a draft that shows what you have taught and contributed, and say “I hope you will add your own personal comments about my work”.


  11. That’s a disgrace! Your own principal is really saying- ‘You want a letter? OK, you do all the work, draft and compose a letter, I’ll sign it because even after all the contributions you made the school, I have not taken sufficient interest in you as a fellow professional, nor can or will I accord you the respect or level of thought to compose an original, supportive 200-300 word letter on your behalf.’ Yes, you have every right to be disappointed in your principal. I think Jim Pastore (January 19) has the right idea….


  12. I write the letter then give it to the teacher marked DRAFT for them to read. I ask that they make sure that I have not, by accident, made any mistakes or left anything out…I do this out of respect and knowing that teachers see themselves differently than we do as administrators…I also focus on anedotes to tell a story about the teacher as a professional and person who I know and thus i “need” the teacher to “help” me get the details just right.
    if I am willing to write a reference, then I think I have a right to expect the teacher to help me out to show them off in the best most professional manner. yes, I have made a few errors in writing hundreds of recs over the years…but I do truly appreciate that the teacher and I can do what is right- if a teacher has done their best then they deserve my time and care.


  13. I am often asked to write a letter of recommendation. I also don’t know what the next assignment is looking for so I have to ask the candidate to tell me what needs to be highlighted in the letter. It is simply easier for me to ask the candidate to write the letter (or alert me to the important points) and let me embellish on it. It’s not that I don’t know the candidate. Rather, I want the letter to be as pointed as possible toward his/her next assignment.


  14. This has happened several times to me and I loved it because your administrator usually doesn’t really know what your strengths are especially if s/he seesh you teach once a year and then sometimes for only a part of a block. It is a great opportunity to bring to light what you love about the way you teach. Go for it! If he reads it, edits, and signs it, he will support it … and maybe even think he saw you doing those things when he recommends you to the next administrator!


    1. I see some merits to a principal or adminstrator allowing a teacher some autonomy over her/his reference letter though feel that it is spiritual poverty/lack of good will not to offer some positive feedback where it is due.
      Sometimes schools do not wish to see their staff members leave, thus are reluctant to support them in their future endeavours.They may see the departure of staff as a ‘slap in the face’ and indicative of their own short-comings as a desirable workplace.I once worked at a school which was mainly pretty positive and supportive but whose principal stated she would not give references to her ‘wonderful staff’ as this indicated they were wanting to leave.
      I left the latter school as just before the renewable (up to the administration to decide at the end of the year) contract expired was offered a better resourced, better paid and closer to home position.Also the services which I offered were going to incur a substantial fee increase for the parents/guardians and I was not at all comfortable about that.
      Healthy schools generally will give credit where it is due and fear not recruiting replacements.Do remember that the reputation of a school is informally advertised via a reciprocal relationship between teaching and administrative staff.One, as a teacher, is responsible to make sure one exemplifies a good ‘face’ for the school and indeed your own self but so too are all staff members.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.