10/13/21

Recommendation Letters

by Jessica Hanson

For teachers, this is the peak of recommendation letter writing season. As seniors apply to college, we are feverishly working to convey what makes each individual unique, what they will bring to their next learning community, and the contributions they made in the years we’ve known them. I admit, though, that while I love reflecting on my former students, their strengths, and the relationships we built, I am much less fond of the actual letter writing process.

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That said, this year I’m writing one additional, non-solicited recommendation, for my own 12th grade daughter. Yes, she has teachers writing her official college letters, but I want to let her know what I see in her as well. Because at their best these documents remind people (or sometimes, sadly, show them for the first time) what others see in them - their character, their endearing quirks, and their heart - things I believe they need to hear much more frequently than they usually do. And this is true not just for students in schools but also for adults at work, in relationships, and in life. 

Research has shown that people need 3-6 positive comments to offset each piece of negative feedback they receive. In schools, where students are judged (by themselves, their peers, their teachers), this means we need to explicitly and intentionally ensure we offset unfavorable interactions, not by heaping false praise on folks but by genuinely knowing, appreciating and acknowledging what individuals bring to the table. This is how we build educational communities where students feel seen, heard, and safe enough to take risks. This is how we actively work to silence the hyper-critical impacts of comparison culture our students live in.

Thus, while I may not enjoy writing recommendation letters, I do enjoy sharing with teenagers what I see in them. And as a parent, I want to ensure my daughter knows what I see in her. With a letter she has a way to remind herself, as many times as she needs to, that she is empathetic, wry, resilient, a poet, a fierce champion of others, a master punster, and very much loved.

So I ask, who will you write to today?