Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Recommendation Letter: a Fine Balance Between Non-Fiction and Creative Writing.

Receiving a good letter of recommendation is as close as one can come to attending their own funeral. The letters are full of fine praise and adulation, at times unfounded, that make the subject of the letter feel like they can walk on water. As my daughter's physics professor summed it up, he said he would tell the truth about her as much as he could, then he would, "Lie like a rug."

I write a fair number of these letters for seniors as they apply to college. Some are easy to write. When you really know the student and especially if you really like the student, the words flow off the page and it is hard to limit yourself to a length an overworked college admissions officer might care to read.

Other times they are hard to write, especially when you don’t really know the person, perhaps they are new, or have only taken one class with you their freshman year. And like the minister at the funeral of a lapsed parishioner or worse someone whom they have never met, you are left struggling to fill a page with nice things about someone you can barely remember. 

The best letter of recommendation I ever wrote was also the most fun, and the easiest. A friend of mine Tweeted this blog about writing letters of recommendation for students and the blogger encouraged trying to insert a little levity into the process. It reminded me of a student I will call Marty, one of my favorite students who I knew well and his letter.

Anytime a student asks for a letter they need to provide a transcript and fill out a short bio sheet that lets me know things I might not otherwise know. Things like what clubs they belong to, the sports they played, how they help little old ladies across  the street or maybe they rescued orphans from a burning building. 

Perhaps because we did know each other well, when Marty returned his bio sheet, the content was minimal. The last question on the sheet asks the student to tell the reader something unusual or interesting about themselves. Marty simply wrote that he had a dog named Ollie. The letter I wrote for him follows:

To whom it may concern,

I am pleased to write this letter of recommendation for Marty _________. It has been gratifying to have had Marty as a student for much of his high school career. Marty is a fine young man and he is someone who others, not so fine as himself, can aspire to. Marty has a well earned reputation as being kind to young children, the elderly and dogs. 

Marty especially likes dogs. And dogs like Marty. Often Marty will come to school and tell us elaborate stories about his dog Ollie. He will hold us spellbound while he regales us with tales of heroism and derring-do that he and his dog Ollie engage in when they are not at school. Often these stories involve dangerous dealings with terrorists, anarchists, socialists and communists, just the type of people Marty is not. The type of people who do not like dogs. According to Marty, he and his dog Ollie have foiled many a plot by these type of people who would turn America into a godless, if not dogless country. 

It is in his dealings with dogs that Marty displays his considerable leadership qualities. There is no question, in anyone’s mind, including Ollie’s, about just who is in charge. Through his kind yet firm direction Marty has taught Ollie to roll over, sit up, shake hands and bark when told to. These skills will serve Marty well when he leaves the protected enclaves of public school and enters the real world. 

Because of the respect that Marty accords dogs they return the feelings in kind. Dogs will come and congregate around Marty from miles around. Often we will see Marty crossing the high school campus with a long retinue of dogs following him. This canine entourage ranges from the haughty purebred to the lowliest mutt. But they all display their love and affection for Marty with their enthusiastic and joyful tail wagging and yelping.

It is hard not to overdo my praise for Marty. I am confident that when Marty graduates from high school he will easily find his place in this world and I am equally certain that the dogs of this earth will be better for it. If I have any small criticism about Marty it involves cats. He hates cats.

Sincerely yours,

Todd Miller

Apparently Martys mother was shocked at this letter. I did provide him with a more conventional follow up letter extolling his accomplishments, intelligence and character. He was accepted into a four year university, though I never learned  which letter he submitted. I hope that who ever read what he did send had the good sense to be a little skeptical though, because both letters had the marks of fiction in them.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

If you haven’t got something nice to say, then say it in the faculty room.

I have more interest in Andrew Carnegie the steel industry baron turned philanthropist than Dale Carnegie, the self help author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” But even though making steel interests me more than winning friends, it’s Dale  who I have been thinking about lately. The basic tenet of his philosophy was that it is possible to change other people’s behavior by changing your own and how you interact with them counts toward accomplishing that. Now when you think of this, it isn’t exactly rocket science but as teachers I wonder if we think about it enough. 

When my first principal gave me a tour of  the building before school started we walked past the long and narrow burrow that was then the faculty room and he advised me to stay out of it. I should eat my lunch elsewhere he suggested. I wasn’t  sure why, but he hinted that being in there wasn’t helpful for a beginning teacher. I immediately found that for lunch I wanted to be away from the kids and in the company of adults, so I ignored his advice. But I came to understand his sentiment. 

I have worked a wide variety of jobs before becoming a teacher and I have my eaten my lunch in all manner of places, in a shack behind a saw mill, perched on a workbench in a boatyard, standing on the slime covered deck of a fishing boat, and sitting at linen covered tables in a restaurant after the customers left. And while the language in many of those places would make the average school teacher blanch, I remember lunch time as being a generally positive moment to relax and take a break. Of course there would be complaints about the weather, the boss, the lack of fish...  but overall there was a sense of common purpose and camaraderie.

On the other hand, the  lunch room my first principal advised me to avoid, and our fancier lunchroom now is never profane, maybe it would have helped if it were, but it is generally filled with a more soul destroying  sort of conversation. It is filled with the language of frustration, negativity, complaining, and criticizing, language my father called “bellyaching” This language is aimed at the administration, advisory, the block schedule, the heat, the list is long, but most insidiously a majority of the language is aimed at our students. And it goes on day after day. I am as guilty of it as anyone, teaching is a stressful job and everyone needs to vent, but too much of this kills the very attitude that is required to be able to handle this stressful job. 

Once I heard the late Andy Mackie answer a question about what life is all about, he quickly replied “Life is 99% attitude,” then he paused and thought for a moment and finished “and I forget what the other part is.” If we want our students to have positive attitudes we need to model positive attitudes. And that is hard to do after hearing for most of our duty free lunch  how bad certain students are and then having to face the same students five minutes later.

My father disliked Dale Carnegie, and being a voracious and open minded reader, I am sure he read Carnegie’s famous book. He was a small business man himself and thought the glad handing of the salespeople Carnegie trained artificial, manipulative and obsequious. He wasn’t a very positive person himself, but on the other hand he also didn’t cotton to whining and in his honor I want to stop.

So I am going to start small, I am inviting anyone who wants to have a bellyaching free lunch to join me in the wood shop on Wednesdays. Just like Math Monday and Physics Friday (in my class anyway) how about whineless Wednesday?

Why the wood shop? Well, first of all, it is away from the kids, just because I am sick of complaining about them, doesn’t mean I want to hang out with them either. 

Second, it has a thermostat and a clock and they both work. I can also set up a table if you don’t want to sit on a workbench. 

And third, why not ? In the six or seven years I have taught woodworking there are teachers who, as far as I know, have never set foot in there, and it’s a pleasant space that smells nicely of wood and honest work.

Everyone is welcome, teachers, administrators, EAs, secretaries, just leave your troubles at the door. I may end up eating alone, and that is fine, I don’t mind my own company. We won’t have a secret  handshake to get in, How about you just knock three times in the hallway, not the ceiling, like in that sappy song from the seventies?

In case you have forgotten the words you can find them here.