“Out of all the 50 letters of recommendation that I wrote, I was happy to write all 50, and I think that each student deserved a great letter of recommendation,” said Erin Smith, a Berkeley High School Biology and Integrated Science teacher, “(but) at the same time it’s a ton of extra work that I can’t do during school.”
For many BHS junior and senior teachers, writing letters of recommendation for students is a lengthy process. It’s also one that some students rely heavily on to get into colleges. But for different teachers, writing a letter can range from between 20 minutes to an hour.
Some teachers require more student participation than others, in the form of writing assignments to teachers that describe their own experiences in classes. “I integrate aspects of a student’s senior profile, in-depth questions I have them answer in writing and looking at past assignments they’ve submitted, particularly final projects. Sometimes I speak with their present teachers for updated input,” Academic Choice (AC) history teacher Angela Coppola wrote in an email.
Letters of recommendation, in some cases, are more important to college admissions than other factors, like a student’s GPA or standardized test scores. Instead of numerical values to represent a student’s capabilities, a teacher is able to convey through words what a student’s strengths are, “in ways that are so much richer,” according to Masha Albrecht, a math teacher at BHS.
Being written by a third party, letters of recommendation allow colleges to determine how a student would perform in a school environment much more authentically than other components of the application.
Teachers also end up writing a different amount of letters in total every year. “Last year, I did about 27 letters, but this year I put a cap on it … at 14 letters. Then I did additional letters in the spring, so I did about 20,” said Ann Sperske, a BHS history teacher and teacher leader in Academic Choice. Some teachers have been writing this amount of letters of recommendation for many years at BHS, and others have written even more.
However, for all this work that teachers put into writing these letters of recommendation, there is zero compensation in terms of pay or extra time off to write.
“Students who we have need somebody to write a recommendation so they can get into college. So compensation would be wonderful,” said AP Biology teacher Glenn Wolkenfeld, when asked if writing letters of recommendation should be a paid process. “But, I spent the vast majority of my career doing this as just a part of service that I provide to the public as a public school teacher.”
“It’s ridiculous. Our jobs are already so overwhelming, and then this is laid on top of it by well-meaning students,” Albrecht said. So when students ask for letters of recommendation, “it’s very awkward to say, ‘No, I don’t want to because I’m not getting paid,’” Albrecht explained.
Additionally, ever since the school eliminated extra hours they used to give to teachers to write letters, it has only become more difficult for teachers to do this work. “The more that letters are required of us, the more time it takes and I can’t do it during the school day,” Sperske said. “So I ended up doing it on the weekends, because it’s the only time I have to try to get things done.”
In response to the lack of compensation for teachers, many have organized in order to get some form of compensation. “I was tasked as a teacher leader with being part of a committee to investigate ways that we could get compensated,” Sperske said. “This committee started out pretty big, about 13 of us, now there’s a core group of seven of us that remain. We wrote a grant to the Berkeley High School Development Group (BHSDG), and pitched it to them as being equity focused and a necessary component.”
This committee has been meeting several times throughout the year on Wednesdays at lunch to represent the extra work teachers are doing. The committee is still waiting for a response from the BHSDG to award this grant, which would be significant for those writing letters of recommendation. It could provide a decent amount of money in place of in-service credits. These in-service credits essentially give teachers seniority, which is what teachers are currently getting for writing letters of recommendation.
Other teachers are responding in a different way to this issue, some limiting the amount of letters they write, and others refusing to write letters at all. “I didn’t write letters this year,” Coppola wrote in the email. “The school did not bother to find us money for a stipend nor a sub day.”
“I was glad to jump in and say I’m not writing letters either,” said Albrecht, when she had found out that some teachers were refusing to write letters. “We didn’t talk to each other. That was the problem. There were some teachers that were acting very bravely and I didn’t even know about it.” In other words, many teachers were refusing to write letters, while other teachers were unaware of actions like these.
However, this can have adverse effects on both students and other teachers. “If one teacher says no, that might feel like a political statement, and in some ways, it is. But what that does is it puts more pressure on the other teachers who are still writing recommendations,” Wolkenfeld said. “I know that I’ve had to do more recommendations because other teachers have decided for whatever reason they want to do less recommendations.”
This difficult situation has left many within BHS seeking compromises between administrators, teachers, students, and others within the community.
“I would love to see (organization among teachers) happen, in a way where students aren’t hurt or affected by it,” Smith said.
“Really what we need is some kind of collective situation where everybody feels good about it,” Wolkenfeld said. “But the fact is that it takes time.”