Things I Know 5 of 365: We need more letters of recommendation

We can’t always be happy. In fact, in the midst of our trials or others’ hardships it is not healthy to be happy. With a big movement in “positive affirmation” and “authentic happiness” currently in mainstream thought, it can seem that if we are not happy, we must be living our life wrong somehow.

Gloria DeGaetano

Striving for Dr. John Gottman’s ratio of 5:1 for positive to negative interactions is a lofty goal. A fairly positive person, I certainly have moments when I’m more likely to respond with snark than kindness.

This is why I love letters of recommendation. Even last fall, when I had to write for 20 academic advisees and almost as many English students, I thoroughly enjoyed the process.

Letters of recommendation do more than compliments. They ask us to sit and think about the positives of those with whom we have relationships and not only think of their positive attributes, but build context around those attributes as well. We’re shaping a narrative to show how the recommended has earned our esteem throughout our regular, mundane interactions.

It’s an ultimate act of reflection asking us to gather up all those moments of positive interaction that have likely gone unnoticed and put them in a story of merit.

I like to picture a world where people write letters of recommendation in the same way news programs produce celebrity obituaries – amassing an archive of letters and culling our experiences at regular intervals to keep them updated and ready for submission at a moment’s notice.

Perhaps it would look something like this:

To Whom It May Concern:

It is my pleasure to offer my recommendation on behalf of Patrick Higgins, Jr. Patrick’s dogged approach to his own professional development shines through in all aspects of the work he does on behalf of the students and teachers he serves. His creativity, dedication and thoughtfulness will make Patrick an invaluable addition to any organization fortunate to bring him on board.

I first met Patrick three years ago when presenting at an educational technology conference. Slotted to present at the end of the day, Patrick faced an uphill battle in engaging a crowd that was tired and already gorged on ideas. Equal to the task, Patrick organized his session in the way I would hope any teacher would. He asked his audience to participate, to move, to interact, to communicate and to listen. What could easily have been an hour and a half of lethargy and apathy was one of energy and thoughtfulness.

In his role working with teachers in his district, Patrick has continually impressed me as he reflects on his practice in his writings on his blog. Celebrating his successes, Patrick is also the first to admit his shortcomings and work to better understand how they can be prevented in the future. Throughout numerous posts, one sees how he constantly searches for new ideas to integrate into his own and ultimately improve his practice.

While Patrick’s blog may serve as a public gallery of his internal reflection, make no mistake – he is a creature of collaboration. More than once, an instant message or Skype conversation with Patrick has led to a discussion of the ideas one of us is working with. I can think of no conversation with Patrick that hasn’t included the pushing of my thinking or him welcoming the pushing of his own thoughts.

I would be remiss to conclude without including an aspect of Patrick’s character that is key in my estimation. Whether an informal conversation, a training session with a room of strangers, or speaking of his own family, Patrick approaches all whom he interacts with a genuine ethic of care and intent to understand. Of Patrick, a colleague once recently remarked, “He is quite simply a good person.” No more needs be said on the topic.

For all of the reasons above, I am honored to offer my recommendation on behalf of Patrick Higgins, Jr. He is a person of superb character, thought and professionalism.


Zachary Chase

Now you write one.

4 thoughts on “Things I Know 5 of 365: We need more letters of recommendation

  1. I absolutely love this. We all have positive things that we can focus on and this process really does work. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

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  3. Your sincerity here is so much better than the snarkiness that seems to happen whenever we talk about other people. It isn't so much that I like you being positive, it is that I like you being honest. Being honest about someone else as a way of recommending them is so much better than fluff or cryptic comments that don't really get at the importance of who the person is.I also think that the recommendations on LinkedIn could become a space for some of these things. I happen to like that arena for showing how networked the recommendations can be.

  4. Zach,Without getting into man-crush territory, the sentiment is unequivocally shared by me. I am humbled by the thought you put into this process and the depth to which you went back in our brief history. You've also opened my eyes to a few other possibilities here.What if we made this a regular part of our practice? Not necessarily in the full form that you used here, but in some other, more subtle way. So much of education as it is played out in the media now denigrates the work teachers like yourself do, and even though most of the teachers I work with are fairly immune to it, it has to wear on them. I know it does me. Small, powerful pushes like this one could go a long way towards maintaining motivation among a staff. I'll try to work that into what I do. This writing made me think of your students. It made me wonder about their memories of you when they are 35, or 45, and what you brought to them. Over the summer (I believe you were about to come home from S. Africa) I asked you a bunch of questions about how to help students write for real audiences. Your first point to me was that trust was the biggest piece to it. “How will they write for me in any capacity if they don't trust me?” You earn their trust by writing with them. I try to remember that and spread that wherever I go. I'll be sure to return the favor someday soon.

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