What’s in a Recommendation Form, and What’s Not

A student recently asked if I would serve as a reference for her application to Teach for America.  I said yes, as long as she understood my reservations about the organization, which she does.

The online recommendation form has a familiar format; first I filled in contact information, then I was asked to define the comparison group I had in mind, and then came attributes with buttons for me to select categories, each followed by a box in which I could add text.  The actual criteria, however, gave me pause.  After the jump, you can see the entire form.  Notice (a) how “Achievement,” “Critical Thinking,” and “Influencing/Motivating” are defined; and (b) how far down you have to look before you find the words “teaching” and “students.”

On the following checklist, please evaluate the Candidate against the criteria provided, using the  Candidate’s peer group you specified above as a reference point. Please be as specific as possible in your explanations.

Rankings:

  • Truly Exceptional: Top 1-2%; one of the top few that I’ve encountered in my career
  • Outstanding: Top 10%
  • Above Average: Top 20%
  • Average: Top 50%
  • Needs Development: Lower 50%
  • No Basis For Judgment

Achievement  Candidate achieves ambitious, measurable results.

[Select one of six rankings]

Please explain what led you to give this rating, as well as any reflections on the following questions:

  • To what extent have you seen this candidate demonstrate authority or leadership of a group? Please explain the situation and any outcomes.
  • How have you seen this candidate set goals and work towards them? What were the results?

Perseverance  Candidate persists through obstacles and remains optimistic in the face of challenges.

[Select one of six rankings]

Please explain what led you to give this rating, as well as any reflections on the following questions:

  • What was the greatest challenge this individual faced while under your supervision?
  • How did he or she approach the challenge?
  • What was the outcome?

[Text box]

Critical Thinking  Candidate makes accurate linkages between cause and effect and generates relevant solutions to problems.

[Select one of six rankings]

Please explain what led you to give this rating, as well as any reflections on the following question:

  • Describe how the candidate approaches problem-solving. Please provide specific examples.

[Text box]

Organizational Ability  Candidate plans well, meets deadlines, and works efficiently.

[Select one of six rankings]

Please explain what led you to give this rating, as well as any reflections on the following questions:

  • How does this candidate manage his/her time and balance competing priorities?
  • Has this candidate ever missed a deadline? What were the circumstances and how did the candidate respond?

[Text box]

Influencing/Motivating  Candidate effectively adapts communication strategy and style, depending on audience; convinces others to think or act in a desired way.

[Select one of six rankings]

Please explain what led you to give this rating, as well as any reflections on the following questions:

  • To what extent have you seen the candidate use interpersonal skills to motivate others, especially those who may not initially agree?
  • To what degree is this candidate aware of how his/her actions are perceived by others? Please provide any specific examples.

[Text box]

Building Relationships The ability to build relationships and work effectively with people from diverse backgrounds.

[Select one of six rankings]

Please explain what led you to give this rating, as well as any reflections on the following questions:

  • Please describe how the candidate approaches building relationships across lines of difference (i.e., socio-economic, racial, political, religious, or other). Please provide specific examples.

[Text box]

Ability to Improve Seeks feedback and implements changes to improve and develop.

[Select one of six rankings]

Please explain what led you to give this rating, as well as any reflections on the following questions:

  • Please describe the most critical piece of feedback you have given the candidate. Please detail the circumstances and the candidate’s response.
  • How does this candidate handle failure? Please provide any specific details.

Integrity/Professionalism/Maturity  Candidate is always honest and ethical; assumes responsibility for mistakes; acts in a respectful, mature manner toward supervisors, co-workers, and/or fellow students.

[Select one of six rankings]

Please explain what led you to give this rating, as well as any reflections on the following questions:

  • If you have worked or supervised this candidate in a teaching setting, please provide comments regarding his/her ability to lead a classroom of students towards a learning goal.

[Text box]

Concerns About Candidate

Considering that this person may teach in the nation’s most challenging schools and will be responsible for making significant academic progress with his or her students, do you have any reservations in recommending him or her?

  • No, I have no concerns in recommending this person to teach.
  • Somewhat, I have some concerns in recommending this person to teach.
  • Yes, I have concerns in recommending this person to teach.

If you selected Somewhat or Yes, please explain.

[Text box]

Overall

[Select one of six rankings]

Please share any additional thoughts about this candidate that you would like us to consider.

[Text box]

By clicking the signature box below, I understand that I am signing this Online Recommendation Form and confirming that all the information I have provided is an honest and accurate assessment of the candidate. Misrepresentation of any sort on this form is grounds for non-admission or dismissal for the candidate.

Recommender’s Electronic Signature

What have we learned here?  That TFA defines Achievement as achieving “measurable” results, Critical Thinking as solving problems, and Influencing/Motivating as convincing others to “think or act in a desired way.” When we finally find “teaching,” we see that to teach is to “lead a classroom of students toward a learning goal.”   No mention of planning lessons, adapting plans along the way as necessary, listening to students for understanding or misunderstanding, responding to the inevitable surprises, communicating with parents, deciding when and how to differentiate instruction, using formative assessment strategically, recognizing potential learning disabilities, developing strategies for helping ELL students, collaborating with colleagues and administrators, or understanding where today’s “learning goal” fits into this week, this month, this year, and this student’s educational career.

Critical thinking, perseverance, and integrity are essential to good teaching, but they are not effective proxies for the other essentials.  We will not close achievement gaps (and the news on that front is not good) until we insist that all students have professional teachers who have access to high-quality professional development throughout their (long-lasting) careers.

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About Priscilla Bremser

Professor of Mathematics Middlebury College
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