Yes or No on Confidential References? Vote NOW!

Our previous Newsletter & Blog asked ISR members to tell us how they felt concerning the practice of secret confidential letters of reference. The response was extremely robust, with most participants in favor of doing away with this archaic practice. Apparently, confidential references have already become outdated and/or impermissible in many industries. Yet this requirement for secret confidential references is still alive and well in the world of recruitment agencies.

We invite YOU to participate in the attached Poll to state your opinion. Should we unite as an international educators’ force to boycott this practice? Or, should the status quo of confidential references, as currently required by all international teachers’ recruiting agencies, continue?

Following the Poll, please add your comments. If you, for example, voted YES to boycott this practice, please share with colleagues how you would accomplish this mission. And, as always, international educators, Thank You for your input!

Thanks for voting!

Click  Here to Go to  “Confidential Reference – What’s Next?”

40 Responses to Yes or No on Confidential References? Vote NOW!

  1. Daniel says:

    I echo the above comment. It’s so ironic that a website full of anonymous reviews of schools and administrators would be up in arms over confidential references. How about we put our money where our mouths are? (yes, I’m a teacher too)


  2. Anonymous says:

    Only if ISR users vote to boycott anonymous reviews. And I’m a teacher, not an administrator.


  3. Loretta says:

    Personally, I have asked the US government and 60 minutes to look into this issue and the entire international school industry. Stay tuned. These days it canserve as a good blackmail pipeline for getting future terrorists into the western world, no?


  4. Anonymous says:

    Confidential letters of reference can be abolished, but confidential references will never be abolished.


  5. Zahara Atiyeh says:

    My ex-partner posed as a potential employer and obtained reference letters from my previous employers. He thought he could use then to blackmail me. To his consternation, they were all good and his ploy backfired when I reported him. Confidential references have no place in an open and transparent system. Only people afraid of the truth wish to have closed references.


  6. Suede Oasis says:

    It’s difficult to disagree with this idea, I believe. Greater transparency would be better for education as a whole, so I think we should all be pushing for ‘open’ references. The references that I give for students who are applying for universities all over the world are visible to all the interested parties – university, student, parents, sponsor – so let’s extend the practice a little further.


  7. Denise Dewhurst says:

    This issue is also related to posts on your web site about schools and principals. Many schools and principals post their own versions that present counter claims to anonymous posts from authentic teachers. Perhaps you should examine the validity of your reviews and insist on all being transparent.


  8. Mark Beaumont says:

    The hiring organizations are unnecessary and counterproductive (except for the networking potential). The money spent during the fair ordeal to hire teachers is a waste of money not to mention the resources squandered just to provide a short hotel conversation (gotta’ love the greenness of it all -eh?). Boycott the whole wasteful process. We have skype (with video). We have brains. We do not need Search, ISS, COIS, etc etc etc! Personally, I plan hire teachers using a mix of resources including the data banks of these hiring organizations; however, as far as I can tell, the network potential is the only real value of these services. Unless you are running a top-level international school with potential terror targets or whatever other headache rich/powerful people bring, I do not believe that the overly regulatory and restrictive practices of background checks, fingerprinting, teacher certifications, education degrees, etc etc etc are really needed (not saying they are bad to have, but it is not required to be a good/safe educator). Please question the paradigm that schools are today; it is not a nice paradigm from this educator’s point of view.


  9. Power to the people says:

    Dear ISR

    I am very grateful to you guys for all you do. It’s the closest we have to advocacy in this game. So thanks.

    I was reading your poll about confidential references and I thought that perhaps another option here is to start an online petition at:

    It could later be formally submitted to ISS and Search, etc.

    You guys at ISR have the network to get something like this up and running. Once you word the petition as you see fit then email everyone in your listing and ask them to forward it on to all their contacts in the industry. I’m sure many would be willing to sign and spread the word.

    Power to the people.


  10. Anonymous says:

    So much of this industry is stacked against teachers. The removal of confidential references would be a step toward balance and fairness.


  11. Anonymous says:

    One way around the whole things is to tell the top dog that you need a generic letter for official purposes that states that you worked at the school for such and such a date and what you job duties where. The admin does not need to know what the purpose of the letter is. One you have this, make copies of it an you are all set.


  12. Anonymous says:

    I may well be wrong about this, but as far as I am aware, the practice of using confidential references is ‘illegal’ within the European Union – and what about states in the US? Within the EU an employee has the right to see what has been written about them. Also, I imagine that big name recruitment agencies must have some kind of legal business registration within the Union, most likely in the UK. If this is so, might it not then be useful for ISR to act by writing to the responsible employment body. Having a poll is one thing, but getting the law involved is surely going to be far more effective.


  13. Counselor says:

    I know an administraator who writes pooor references for the teachers he wants to keep, and great references for the ones he wants to leave.

    The current system is based on Orwellian Newspeak!


  14. Anonymous says:

    If an administrator is willing to write something about you, they should be willing to say it to your face. Otherwise, they are a weak administrator. Now the question is, should sites such as ISR exist for teachers to be anonymous? Until teachers have job security in the international teaching environment, I personally think that anonymity is needed for teachers since the power is skewed.


  15. Anonymous says:

    I have also struggled with this issue. I have a phenomenal track record, and have strong letters of reference from colleagues, board members, and the like. I have asked my immediate supervisor for OVER A YEAR NOW to write anon confidential letter of reference – they keep telling me they will, but they probably delay as they cannot stand the thought of replacing me. My position is a hard to staff position. I know for certain all of my other references are stellar, with the people giving the other references telling me what they wrote. However, this one person who does not want to replace me has refused to give me a letter (after saying they would) and I have NO IDEA what has been written at the agency. All of my colleagues find it rather odd that I did not get one interview or call with my track record….. the only explanation any of us have at this point is a sabotaged reference…. in fact, I have even talked to the board chair about this possibility (they then wrote a very strong letter for me to include as well. All this to say, I do not know what happened, but at the moment it is literally the only explanation available for the lack of interviews/ contact. I find it very disturbing. If someone is not happy with my service, I want them to tell me to my face (ironically this same person has advocated for substantial raises for me two years running due to my job performance)…. I feel like my hands are completely tied and there is literally nothing I can do.

    The sad thing is, I can see the value of these references, but then they NEED to be changed – for instance, if an agency sees five amazing ones and one bad one, perhaps they need to remove the bad one that does not fit with the other references. Perhaps we have to hold the agencies accountable for creating plans to cope with bad references. Perhaps we agree to references only on the condition that they let us know that we have one reference that is destroying our hiring process/ etc….. or that they are willing to contact the bad references and ask why it is that their reference does not align with the positive ones… there are many options, something MUST be done.


  16. Igogo says:

    ISS and Search do not let you upload a non confidential job reference so changing that would be a big step forward for teachers. They could give teachers a choice of either letter of reference. My current boss is vindictive, and being able to write a confidential letter of recommendation does give her too much power. She uses this power to punish teachers. Writing an open letter of reference would force her to be more conciliatory, knowing it would be read. In these International Schools,teachers are at the mercy of the administration with little to no recourse.


  17. labteacher says:

    The only argument ‘for’ reference letters is that we teachers do have ISR to voice out opinions anonymously. But it’s not a good enough argument. Complaining to ISR does not change anything. It has no power on my career, as do undeserved reference letters, and, in most cases complaints have little effect on the career of any admin I’ve seen criticized there.

    In an age when administrators have any number of digital options to review a teacher’s performance, I am very surprised that the closed reference letter is still in use. Even if we overlook the subjective reasons this type of reference is useless, there are many good practical reasons to retire it.

    TIME: Many administrators do not have or take the time to attend to this. At my last school there was one mid-level admin who got things done and had survived a number of regime changes. He wrote everyone’s letters then the proper admin just signed them. When I left he had to write 3 letters for me and complete 4 Search forms. I actually provided him with a list of my achievements since often no one remembers the good things a teacher does. And, after a teacher has left the school, should another letter be needed, it is almost guaranteed to go to the bottom of the admin pile.

    FAMILIARITY: Over a two-year period we had 3 Heads of School plus a number of mid-level turnovers. We couldn’t locate anyone we had worked for or who actually knew who we were! That year some of us were hired by other schools who knew about our situation and waived requirements for reference letters. But it is not a good beginning for a teacher when you get a new placement because the last one had such a reputation.

    TIMING: We always asked for reference letter early in the last year and right after we were involved in something special. Took the pressure of needing them at the last minute and took the focus off the fact that some of us were job hunting.

    Maybe the job seeker should volunteer to Skype in the classroom, submit lesson plans, etc. Find some other creative way to demonstrate their competencies besides these letters. Maybe it says something about the school that is hiring you if there is too great a dependence on reference letters. If I were a hiring admin I’d place little credence in these letters. No one asks for a reference from someone who’s going to say anything bad….


  18. Anonymous says:

    This is my 5 international school and I have worked at very reputable schools and until my last school always received glowing letters of recommendations. When my husband and I resigned last year the head of school was furious. He has a reputation for writing mediocre or just plain negative letters and if I hadn’t known this I wouldn’t have been able to pursue my current school further. I want to think that most administrators are fair but they hold way too much power and control and seem to rarely be held as accountable as teachers are.


  19. honour says:

    The administrators reading the references, be they open or closed, like all of us are aware of the possible abuse and are wise if they look at a package of references as a whole i.e. what parents, students, colleagues and line supervisors also have to say. It speaks volumes about the reference writer (head) and their competence and integrity if his/her reference is out of line with the sentiments expressed elsewhere.
    The best we can do is present as complete a reference package as we can and trust in the experience and integrity of the new administration to make their choice accordingly. I think a criterion referenced tick the box confidential reference goes a long way to making sure that reference writers answer to educational criteria rather than personal perceptions – also likert style scoring allows for strengths and weaknesses to be recorded fairly and thus leaves the reader a chance to make choices based on what the needs of their context are e.g. a very collegial working department might not be best served by someone who has excellent administrative and classroom skills but likes to work alone! A reference writer who has integrity (and you know who they are) will be honest with you and the new administration you are applying to and need not be feared.
    The problem comes when you unfortunately find yourself working for someone who is quite frankly incompetent and doesn’t deal in an honest and open fashion with you as an individual teacher under their direction – they write a reference built on inaccurate perceptions because they have never seen you teach or interact with parents and students i.e. they don’t have a finger of the pulse of their workforce. As a pervious writer said try to ensure that your future reference writers are properly apprised of your teaching abilities – not via paperwork but through time spent with you in your classroom and in your interactions with parents, students, colleagues. By the same token there is no need for us to fear the ‘secret’ nature of some reference systems if we know ourselves as teachers and have been open and honest about our strengths and weaknesses. One of the best things I’ve come across during a job search was a school that spoke of their PD opportunites as something they invested in in order to give staff opportunities to grow and develop – i.e. they recognised that we don’t all arrive being excellent at everything and they didn’t expect that to be the case. It was refreshing to hear this – they were clearly aware that we are people not machines and should be treated with dignity and respect.
    Administrators worth their salt know that success comes from building a great team and that the sign of a good leader is not how much the leader shines but how much the individual members who make up the team shine!


  20. Dr. Mary E. Leiran says:

    I don’t understand why prospective employers don’t request to see the yearly evaluation of the candidate rather than a confidential reference. The evaluation would give a much better picture of the candidate as a professional educator.
    Most references are “canned” as many employers fear a lawsuit for slander if they write something negative. Supervisors circumvent this by using the telephone (for deniability).
    Unless there is a moral issue, I think confidential references are passe.


  21. Dorothy says:

    If he writes you a glowing reference and then says the opposite during the conversation it must surely raise questions about his integrity and call into question his honesty.


    • Simon Dweck says:

      Or it may suggest that the Head knows that you are a difficult / probelmatic/ confrontational person and does not wish to enter into a long and protracted debate with you about why he feels that you are not as good as you think you are!


  22. exteacher says:

    OK, confidential references on paper might be out. However, how do you know what your exboss will tell to your prospective boss in the direct conversation? One cannot forbide communication between administrators from different schools, can you?


  23. Trav45 says:

    It’s a moot discussion, because it’s not going to happen. Personally, I don’t really have a problem with it; most directors from whom I’ve requested references always give me a copy, anyway.

    And here’s the thing, even if you have access, and a positive reference, when a director calls to check up, all bets are off and the director can say anything. If they all know that what’s in our files is open access, they’ll just disregard that and deal directly with our supervisors, so, really, what’s the difference? Which, to a large extent, is what happens anyway.


    • Simon Dweck says:

      Trav you are absolutely correct. And in any case should you have a system of periodical review within the schoool, then generally you should know what the school is going to write about you. Otherwise ask for a copy of these and take them along to interview. Whilst they cannot be sbmitted as references it gives the interviewer extra evdience of what was going on at the school at a given time. If you get a bad refences for what ever reasion in the future it can sometime counter act this


  24. Dorothy says:

    If an Administrator hasn’t got the guts or integrity to give you a copy of the letter he/she has written about a teacher he/she shouldn’t be allowed to give it to anyone else. If the teacher is a dud then they should be told so. Of course this could also work the other way as I have known of Directors who wrote glowing references to get rid of a teacher when they didn’t have the courage to refuse to renew their contract.


  25. Leona says:

    In my personal opinion, the head line is confusing: Yes or No on Confidential References? It should say: yes to boycott Confidential References. I would not be surprised if many people click the wrong button, it ALMOST happened to me.


  26. Harry King says:

    Anyone who has followed the freedom of information act, and in particular the CIA documents that were de-classified from 2003 to 2008, keeping information from all parties can have negative consequences. I know some of you may be thinking that is an analogy that is way overboard, but on a personal basis what is more important than your livelihood.

    A simple solution is to have schools address the response to both the inquiring school and the person the inquiry was written about in the same e-mail. I think most schools on the planet have e-mail and use that as a primary means of communication. The problem is policing the policy. There would be nothing to prevent a school from writing a vanilla response and then contacting the school by phone or separate e-mail “saying what they really think.” Although under those circumstances the integrity of the school giving the double reviews could be questioned by the new school. Schools could set up a process of policing themselves, but we have all seen how well that worked with the mortgage market and investment houses after deregulation.

    The US judicial system has sharing of information built into its system because some very smart people knew that was required for fairness and sorting out the “truth.” Basically, I feel sharing information with all parties involved is “good.” The basic problem I see is policing the policy,


  27. FranYo says:

    I vote a definite YES for international teachers to band together and reject the practice of requiring “confidential” references. If we ALL reject this practice for Search & ISS, I believe that we can effect change within our profession. It really is, as the intro to this poll says, archaic and unprofessional in the “real” world of any industry.

    Why should there be such secrecy in reference? No one HAS to write a letter. There is no reason whatsoever that a person, one who honestly cannot say positive things about your work, can not refuse to write a recommendation. They can say to you a.) I have not observed your work, b.) I do not have the time to write a letter, or c.) I don’t feel that I can be positive in my approach to writing such a letter. Simple, truthful and to-the-point. But at least there’s communication! At least you know clearly what their stance is and work with it.

    I had such a director who disliked me (for reasons outside of my work ethic) and squirmed a “I don’t think so” when I asked him for a letter. I was mad, but afterwards glad he just laid-it-on-the-line. Instead, I asked for and received letters from the school counselor, my immediate principal, and, most importantly, the President of the Board of Directors. I received glowing, detailed letters of my accomplishments at the school. At the next recruiting fair? No one ever asked me for a letter specifically from the Head.

    I usually make a practice of specifically inviting into my classroom (for something special to observe) an administrator from whom I want a letter of reference. I get them early, within the “honeymoon” period of my employment. After I have the successful lesson or experience for the admin to observe, I ask for an informal letter of reference while still in the “glow.” I add that I know it’s early, but like to accumulate reference as the year proceeds (and I do). I also save every, single positive note from parents, principal, head of school in a file at home. You’d be surprised how impressive these hand-written notes are for a new school interview! If you do any far-reaching projects such as organize a fair, or coach a team w/ regional playoffs, or take students to MUN, or produce a class play, be sure to personally invite as many admin as possible. Thank them publicly for coming and make THEM shine along w/ the students. You’ll get your letters of recommendation! Oh, yes you will!


  28. jane says:

    will we do away with confidential school and director reports too? again, ask for an open letter of recommendation from the school, then present it with your application. i have worked with search and your associate is able to view the references and tell you if there is a problem. if there is a conflict with the open letter and the confidential references, you can address the issue with the school.

    just to play devil’s advocate…. what tool can help schools avoid the “dodgy” teachers????? because we all know they are out there and they are no fun to work with!!!!


    • Anonymous says:

      Jane, are you a teacher? WHY? are you using all lower case letters? My point is, I can be an administrator and say, based on your inability to use capital and lower case letter correctly, you should not be a leader in a high school.
      Ridiculous? Yes. What is a “dodgy” teacher? There are good and bad apples in every work place. But this is not what we are talking about.
      International administrators absue their power on so many levels. Including picking a young woman for a job because she is more sexy than a woman who is obviously more qualified. Perhaps younger teachers have not had enough experience to know about all the “dodgy” administrators who hold our futures in their hands. I know you were just playing Devil’s advocate but the school should have classroom evaluations on the teachers. Based on the school’s criteria, if the teacher does not suit the needs or philosophy of the school, they should remove the teacher. Not make it a personal and slam the teacher so their future is destroyed. In fact, maybe its as simple as personality conflict among the faculty? Just my opinion


      • Simon Dweck says:

        Your comments are unbelievable and symptomatic of the paranoia attached to this web site.

        It also suggests that as a colleague you are difficult to work with and willing to undermine the management who appointed you if they do not agree with your way of thinking This is all about weeding out teachers who are completely unable to perform their duties and the above examples are reasons why references need to remain confidential.

        If you have nothing to hide performed your role well then there is nothing to worry about. Employers are not stupid and will gather several references. If one suggests that you were a bad teacher and three others suggest the opposite it is reasonable to think that there was an issue at that school or with that person and this can be discussed in an interview.

        If all your references are bad , then I am sorry but there is no smoke without fire… a bit like this site when you have several anonymous reviews all saying don’t go, it is likely that there is something up with the school.

        Finally even if you do ban confidential references this wont prevent school leaders talking to each other and making a private verbal reference to another Head so it defeats your purpose of increased transparency anyway.


        • Weebil says:

          Simon, I agree with you.

          The real problem is that there are many terrible teachers (still a small percentage – but a sizeable one in numbers) on the International market who have few ethics and are not afraid to play games at everyone’s expense, and to the detriment of learning.
          Another problem that arises from this (especially when the teacher has an unlimited contract) is that an administrator writes a flowing reference to get rid of an unsuitable member of staff. It becomes clear quite shortly after starting a new job that the administrator was clearly lying.
          As an administrator (when in that role), I have always supplied open references to staff at any time. I have refused to do so for some teachers because I felt that I could not write positive references for them, and there was no supervisory reason to do so – another reason to question why they would ask me and way?
          After more than 25 years in teaching, for the first time, I may be asked to write a reference for a teacher who has been nothing but a nasty, virulent person, uncooperative to other members of staff, staff and students, and has not honored their contract. I will feel obliged simply to write the dates they served and anything that they did satisfactory from their contract. Any other administrator will be able to read through the shortness of the reference and draw their own conclusions.
          Possibly more frightening is the number of teachers who will be employed without an administrator taking up any references (that’s a big warning sign in itself).


  29. Sam Walker says:

    While I appreciate the need for confidentiality in administrations, there is legitimate concern when admin can exert undue authority or abuse the power differential to their advantage. Instead of seeing this issue only in a binary world, could we not see that there is a place for confidentiality and also time for full disclosure? I would be very happy to allow for a fully confidential letter remain confidential with the caveat that said letter would become publicly accessible after a year. That way, this allows for the legitimate concerns requiring confidentiality, but mitigates against the abuse that may be part of a hidden agenda.


    • Sharon says:

      Well put. I like the one-year policy. I do see a place for confidential letters. It’s always a challenge for administrators to sort through which personnel are simply being passed from one school to another (I have worked with them and still do) and which ones are truly worth their weight in gold. Confidential letters fulfill that role but at the same time they shouldn’t have the power to ruin it either.


  30. 2xaround says:

    I particularly liked the comment from last week in which the poster outlined how he always gets a non confidential letter before asking for the confidential type. He then includes the non confidential version in his recruiting package. Should someone try to send a crappy letter of reference he has the good one right there in his packet. This makes the school look not very good and keeps him safe. If we all started asking for non confidential letter well in advance of needing the confidential version we could all engage in this practice.

    I’m not sure how we could boycott confidential letter except by simply sending away our non confidential version and and not asking for a confidential version. This may exclude us with ISS and Search and others.

    I am strongly in favor of doing away with confidential letters as I was shafted by a principal that wrote a seething letter about me, probably because I wouldn’t date her, seriously!!! There are many non professional types on the international circuit and I just happened to be working for one of them. I did eventually get that letter out of my file. It cost me a year of not being hired for any positions. Once that letter was gone I was fine.

    Why should some grudge holding B—- be able to wield the ax over my career?


  31. Anonymous says:

    There are many outmoded practices that cling perniciously on in the world of education -especially international education. The references method is just one of them that belongs to a century past which ironically we in education keep espousing needs to be looked beyond and into the next “the 21st century”.


    • Nick Marriott says:

      I have heard of confidential references being used devisively, although I have not knowingly been a victim of this. I in fact voted No to the abolition of confidential references because I start to wonder what other means school administrators / managers have at their disposal for judging the suitability of candidates (incidentally, I am not a school administrator myself!). Every system has its potential for misuse, and I am not a fan of the ‘sample lessons’ as a means of gauging a teacher’s skills, either (is a teacher not valued for his or her relationships with students: how many of us would teach a full-on lesson to a group of students in a new class we’ve never taught before, ignorant of their needs and personality traits, for example?). Even the evaluation tick-list system is open to devisive practice. At the end of the day, we as international teachers take a gamble on the school – after all, we relocate our family thousands of miles to another country to a school we’ve never visited, have little idea of the pros and cons of the school and the country, and are usually stuck in a contract for two or more years lest a penalty be imposed. School administrators also must have a hard time choosing suitable candidates, I admit, but they at least can be rid of dud teachers once the probationary period has ended (which seems mostly to be one term). As usual, the odds are stacked against the vulnerable teachers. Organisations such as COIS, FOBISSEA and Search should be obliging member schools to sign up to the Bill of Rights advocated by the International Schools Review!


    • anonymous says:

      I taught college- and university-level courses in the U.S.A. before joining international secondary education 7 years ago. In college and university recruitment and human resources services, confidential references were archiac and long-forgotten.

      I will not request confidential references. If a recruitment firm will not accept or place me because of this issue, I do not utilize that recruitment firm. It lacks transparency, at best. See various comments below for “worst-case scenarios”…