Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sincerely Yours


This is the first year in the past twenty five or so years that I have not written a college recommendation letter. That's why a small feature in my local paper caught my attention this morning. It's an ethics advice column where people write in burning questions and get some self-appointed expert's opinion. So here's the deal. A high school English teacher is asking if it's unethical to think about asking for payment for doing as many as 20-30 recommendation letters a year. He notes how time consuming it is and that it seems as if a few teachers get the most requests for these increasingly crucial passports to college admission. The Dear Abby of ethics, a man, tells him that it is, of course, unthinkable to request payment or any compensation for this necessary part of his job. He cites a slew of examples to illustrate his wisdom. Doctors have to tackle after-hours tasks and many other folks in helping professions routinely go beyond their working hours. It simply comes with the territory, he concludes. Then the columnist, in a most condescending way, concludes with the lines " It might console you to consider that you have only yourself to blame: If you weren't a good teacher, you wouldn't receive so many requests. You could strive to write more efficiently."
I get that writing original, first-rate letters of recommendation comes with the territory. I concur that a handful of teachers write most of the letters. What disgusts me is that so many "ethical" people can't see the equity issue here. Unlike doctors and others in the helping professions, teachers don't get paid what they are worth. Unlike most other professions, English teachers, especially very good ones, have a non-stop paper load that is both time and energy consuming. They should be compensated in some form to write recommendations. Not from students or their parents. That makes no sense. But from the districts that employ them. It doesn't always have to be monetary; not that there's anything wrong with it. It could be time, or some other way to relieve the constant burden of paper grading, lesson planning, parent conferences, meetings, pre meeting meetings, support groups, faculty meetings, department meetings, emergency meetings, preparation time, and phone calls. The madness of college admission has forced many creative, inspiring, innovative teachers to abandon some of the things that bring joy to the classroom simply to meet the time restraints that come with wearing so many hats. I wonder if the overall quality of teaching would improve if true compensation were given for accurate hours of work?
I never declined a request for recommendation letters. I may have suggested that perhaps I might not be the best choice, but if a student of mine wanted assistance with college admission, I helped. Of course, I would tell the truth, it's only ethical. My curriculum was designed so that I could cite specific examples of student work and potential. I'm forever thankful that computers have replaced typewriters. That saves hours. But please, good recommendation letters are time consuming. Pay teachers for their work. Sincerely yours.