Recommending Rahul: writing references for fledging teachers

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Rahul is keen to secure a job, any job it seems – well at least that’s how it feels every time a reference request pings into your inbox.  Secretly you wonder where on earth he’s finding the time to fill in so many applications – the last time you went through that process it seemed to take the best part of your half term and more evenings besides!   Alongside your slight frustration that all Rahul’s energies are currently seemingly being expended upon the application process rather than his lesson planning, targets or marking, there is the small matter of what to say in his reference.  How do you convey that his progress as a beginning teacher?  How do you complete the many different pro-formas asking you to rank him, in terms ranging from needing development to outstanding, against the various attributes and skills of a teacher?  How can he hope to compare to established teachers who have had more time and opportunity to demonstrate these things?

In this situation the experienced mentor will fall back on the word ‘potential’ to provide context for their judgements and assertions. 

Just how ‘good’ is Rahul?

As when making judgements about whether the beginning teacher has met the Teacher Standards at the end of the training year, it is important to keep the context of their endeavour in mind.  For most, they have made the journey from complete teaching novice to competent practitioner during the PGCE year and have been building foundations upon which to continue their development into NQT and RQT and beyond.  For many they are on the precipice of fulfilling their potential as a fledgling teacher just as the PGCE year comes to end.

In my work as an HEI Educator I regularly visit departments populated by our former students, and it is such a pleasure to witness how most have gone on to flourish as teachers once they embark on their careers and grow in confidence as they establish themselves in their school.  Recently, I was very touched to hear of the progress of one of our alumni who had a ‘solid’ but unremarkable PGCE year and yet has gone on to be a shining light as a history educator, not just in their school but in their region too.  It was a joy to hear to enormous potential being fulfilled and pupils and colleagues benefiting as a result from the rigorous historical opportunities this teacher brings to the classroom.  Having this future perspective in mind is really important as we seek to write a reference which truly represents Rahul, even with all his PGCE student foibles. 

What should your recommendation look like?

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It often feels impossible to complete the highly detailed pro-forma references sent by most schools in relation to the student teacher.  How can we possibly comment on their abilities as a ‘proven creative leader’, as one such form asked me just last week?  Indeed, even to comment upon their teaching ability, lesson planning or marking can really only be done in the context of their potential as a beginning teacher; it is very tricky to a tick a box which may then place them in direct comparison with a more established colleague.  Indeed, it is also vital that the ITE year provides time and space in which students can make mistakes, learn from them and embed their theory into experiential practice, and not have these mistakes come back to ‘bite’ them at reference time.

Commenting on what Rahul CAN DO, rather than what he CANNOT YET DO, seems to be a much more suitable way of approaching this dilemma.  To this end I would so often find myself responding with N/A in many of these boxes, that we choose to provide a long hand free-form reference which does describes their potential, explains what we have seen so far of their burgeoning abilities as a beginning teacher in the classroom, outlines the experience they have gained and comments on their professionalism and understanding of the discipline and subject knowledge required to do the job.  All the time the emphasis is upon them being a beginning teacher, who needs to continue their development through the induction year and support of NQT.  They should be ready to ‘hit the ground running’ as an NQT, not an established teacher with 10 years’ experience under their belt; they still have much to learn.

It is also important to consider the potential of the student outside their placement context.  Did Rahul arrive from his first placement with a glowing report which he’s failed to truly ‘live up to’ on this second placement?  It is a disquieting but useful experience to ask the question if this is more about where he is, rather than who he is or the stage of the course he is at.  Not everyone suits every school and it is vital for Rahul’s sake that, whilst we do not massage his reference to suggest he offers the fully formed teacher ‘package’, we do reflect that he has potential which could be fully realised in an environment other than our own.  Similarly, whilst Rahul might not be the right fit for your school and would not be considered for a job in your context, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be a valuable colleague in a different team or a different school or area.

Recommending Rahul?

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So can how can you recommend Rahul? Usually the mentor’s reference is considered the ‘most important, credible source for providing… information about applicants who have just completed student teaching’ (Halitin and Royce, 1995, 373). Consequently, factually framing his potential is key.  Supporting Rahul to find the right position where he can achieve that potential and make a positive contribution to the lives of pupils is clearly our goal.  Supporting him to employment also affords the critical opportunity to get him refocused on his ITE year; if nothing else so he can concentrate on that marking and your in-box can stop pinging!

Halitin, T., & Abrahamson, R. (1995). Written or Oral Job References for New Teachers? Perceptions of Superintendents. The Clearing House,68(6), 372-373. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30189111

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