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Reference Work

For the first time in my teaching career, I am teaching only 12th-graders. What a huge distance of growth and maturation a student covers in his high-school years, and yet how vulnerable a senior can be! I share a bit in the anxiety of my students as they approach the launch of their university careers, partly in how I prepare them through coursework, sometimes in how I help them outside the classroom, and often in the work I do recommending them for college.

I have been fortunate to work always in schools that respected my choice to write, or not to write, a reference for a particular student. I understand that in some schools the teachers do not have this fundamental choice granted them. One principal grumbled one year when I refused to write a reference for a reprehensible little horror in my senior English class, but he stopped short of commanding me to write it. Students and their parents should see that choice as properly belonging to the teacher, and the parents should see that their students work and act in a way that will lead teachers to give them good references. Administrators should support this relationship.

Regrettably, I have not always been so fortunate as to avoid having to work with a dishonest college counselor. One year, after a colleague and I caught the counselor forging our names to recommendations we had not written for a couple of our students, we told the students that we would only write directly to the universities they applied to, requiring them to give us addresses and pre-stamped envelopes. When at last the forger-counselor left our school for browner pastures, I went back to posting references through the office.

Some counselors, though not criminals like this, “edit” teachers’ letters once they are turned into the office. I think the best way to ensure that teachers write good letters for their students is to show them how to do so, and then get out of their way. It also removes the temptation to “edit” out negative comments.

(If a student asks a teacher for a reference, the teacher should be honest with the student if he cannot write a good one.)

Having said all these negative things about counselors I must quickly report that my favorite “teacher” in high school was my own counselor, one of many good ones I have had the pleasure of working with. One must also note that the paperwork burden imposed on a college counselor by a class of students applying to ten or fifteen universities each is monumental. Though nightmares like the Common App breakdown this year seem more frequent than they should be, in general, IT has helped counselors manage this paperwork burden.

Where are the simplicities of yesteryear? I applied to three universities. Amazingly, these simplicities are occasionally to be found even now. One student of mine knew exactly which university he wanted. He applied to it and no other, and he was admitted. Maybe more such thinking would simplify the burden.

For, getting back to myself, even when minor editing has been made easy by word-processing, one still has to aim a letter at the intended audience. British universities? American? Other? Sometimes different approaches are required of me.

One reason that I do my best for the process in spite of the way it consumes time and attention is that I like the feeling that the universities soliciting these letters actually pay some attention to what they say. It suggests that there is a personal element, an element of thought in the process—that it is not a process at all, but a judgment.

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Just after writing this posting I ran across an article about colleges that deny admission or retract offers of admission to students after discovering compromising material about them on the internet. The chief offenders seem to be presenters of material on drug or alcohol binges and vicious comments about others, particularly teachers. The article also mentioned action against the holders of obnoxious email addresses. (One year we advised a student to adopt a new email address for his admission material since his old one was horrible. I was not fond of him and would not have minded his keeping the horrible address, but a teacher is nothing if not selfless….) In another place I have written about the need to teach young people to cultivate a proper sense of audience in order to inoculate them against e-rubbish. What will happen when their essays are graded by machines that can be gulled, or when they are not assigned essays at all? I think we can already see.

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