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Whitewash in a 2.0 World: The End of Open Letters of Recommendation

By Nigel Winnard

In days gone by when the world was young, and people communicated by letters and faxes, the “open letter of recommendation” was a common sight. Appended to eager applications, this glowing testimonial of pedagogical virtue gave comfort to school directors, brought light to the darkest recesses of the hiring process, and ensured that all was right with the world. Except that it did not.
The open recommendation was, is, and always will be an untrustworthy whitewash. Far from securing a best fit for candidates and recruiters, it served only to muddy the waters. After all, when was the last time you saw a bad open recommendation? “Mr. X worked with us for two years and every day that passed was one day too many.”
At best, they provided a clandestine set of arcane expressions that school heads learned to decode at Director College... At worst, they were—and maybe still are—tissues of lies masquerading as professionally respectable assessments of an educator’s talents.
It is high time we consigned this outmoded practice to history.
Recruiters have a vast and increasing array of tools at their disposal to learn about an applicant’s suitability for their school community. Web 2.0 has not just flattened the world in our teaching, but also in our networking as a global community of educators. The age of the open letter of recommendation is over, yet somehow they live on. They cling to life, and in so doing they encourage the spread of misinformation and veiled innuendo.
In a 2013 survey of school directors by the Academy of International School Heads (AISH), only one in four write open letters of recommendation without reservation, with almost half refusing to write them at all.
The majority view seems pretty clear: open letters of recommendation are an outdated practice and ought to be discontinued across the profession. Those colleagues who feel compelled to provide them cite legal imperatives and/or pressure to maintain positive morale in their schools as the main reasons for their decision to continue.
As long as we perpetuate the writing of such letters—because we want to give teachers “gold stars” or because we insist on requiring them in our recruitment strategy—we will continue to muddy the waters when it comes to sharing professional information. We need to move away from veiled comments and coded allusions, towards well-written, evidenced, and confidential reference letters.
Better yet, we ought to evolve past generic and unfocused letters altogether. It should not be beyond us as a global community of connected educators to develop clear guiding statements on what should be covered in a comprehensive professional reference.

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04/17/2014 - Biker Bob
As a school administrator I have found the act of even reading open letters of recommendation to be, in most cases, not worth the effort. Those few open letters that I do find insightful are from administrators that I personally know and hold in high esteem, but I would contact them directly for a confidential reference regardless, like every other reference a teacher supplies.

04/10/2014 - Anony
I agree with Ulysses, but would add that such a subjective thing shouldn't impede a person's right to work. I know of one former headmaster who was under stably offended /angered by comments made on Facebook that were more public than that teacher intended. That teacher was a young, intelligent, and outstanding teacher.

An extremely opinionated and biased individual, I wonder if that headmaster would remember the positive attributes of that teacher when writing him/her a confidential evaluation /recommendation.

Search associates already has an online database of candidate evaluations that are both tabular and narrative (as described by JK). Any subscribing employer has access to any and all candidates' evaluation data. All it takes is one headmaster /supervisor with an axe to grind to essential blacklist someone.

Search Firms specializing in international schools like ISS, Search Assc., and TIE wield tremendous power to impede a person's right to work as they are relied upon exclusively by so many international schools for staffing.

I urge employers to speak directly with supervisors rather than allow such biased data to do so. I also urge search firms to come up with a system in which a past employer can refute another past employer's negative evaluation of a candidate or something to that effect to protect candidates. .

04/10/2014 - Shawn
As a teacher who will seek further teaching employment in the future my concern is that "confidential" recommendations will remain closed to the teacher to whom the letter is written about. My understanding is that these confidential letters are not available to the potential employee/teacher to view and reflect upon. I have heard from a number of fellow teachers about one concern of not securing the teaching position they sought was that it may have been due to the confidential letter that had been sent to the school or recruiting agent/agency. Having confidential letters unavailable for the teacher to read may create uncertaintly and take away the opportunity for the teacher to reflect upon how he/she is viewed as an educator. Furthermore, if confidential letters are available for the teacher to read, the transparency we deserve and expect will remain.
04/09/2014 - J.K.
Develop a standard form letter, or email response template with check-off criteria that administrators could mark [ ] yes [ ] no for qualities possessed by the teacher. With the first response being; Would you hire this teacher again? [ ] yes [ ] no if "no" why not ? _________

make it simple to fill out in an electronic format that can be emailed to those requesting it.
04/09/2014 - Ulysses
Interviewing the candidate should be the most important factor in the hiring process. Responsibility ought to be with the school looking for the best fit. It is altogether a failure to uphold school's responsibilities by asking an administrator living a different set of needs and values to make the choice for the International school.

Furthermore, asking if the candidate would be rehirable is really unfair. So many variables may play a role in that yes or not answer. And, what if the administrator truly has a dislike for the teacher? Then, the teacher would never know the real reason for not being interview.

In conclusion, it is the responsibility of the interviewer to find the best fit candidate for the position.



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