You’ve been asked to write another letter of recommendation for a teacher colleague. You want to be supportive but are already behind on so many other things. Fortunately, you can write a great letter of recommendation for a teacher (or other educator) quickly. Let me show you how.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve written hundreds of letters of recommendation during my time in education. As a teacher and principal, I’ve written letters for students searching for jobs or applying for colleges and scholarships. As an administrator, I write letters of recommendation for student teachers and other educators looking to move to another school.
Having worked in education for almost 20 years, I’ve built quite a network of people who ask for new and updated letters. I’m always glad to support good people on their next steps, but it can become quite overwhelming at certain times of the year.
To stay sane, I’ve developed a template and process to quickly write high-impact letters of recommendation. I’ll describe it below and you can download the template near the end of the post.
Ways you can use this template and process:
- Teacher writing a letter of recommendation for a student
- Writing a letter of recommendation for a student teacher
- School principal writing a letter of reference for a teacher
- Teacher writing a letter of recommendation for a colleague
- Writing a letter of recommendation for administrators
- (I actually think this works for most job types, but I focus on education!)
I hope this helps you and those you are recommending!
Table of contents
- Keys to Writing An Effective Letter of Recommendation For a Teacher / Student
- Writing the Letter of Recommendation
- Putting it All Together – An Effective Letter of Recommendation For A Teacher
Keys to Writing An Effective Letter of Recommendation For a Teacher / Student
In addition to writing a lot of letters, I’ve read thousands more for administrative, teacher, and paraeducator positions. I thought I’d mention what works well, and what doesn’t based on both my personal preferences and those I’ve seen from other readers.
Here are some things to keep in mind while writing your letter.
Your Relationship to the Candidate
State how long you’ve known the person and in what capacity. It’s best if you’ve worked directly with them.
Keep It Tight / Structured
I’m a big believer in the 1-page letter. It doesn’t matter how many amazing things you have to say if you lose the reader. Most are skimming anyway.
One page. Broken into short paragraphs with what you want your reader to remember in the first sentence.
This will be enough for those who read carefully. It also allows skimmers to form the impression you want.
Focus on Important Qualities
Three. That’s my number. Pick the three most important things you want a reader to know about the person you’re writing the letter for. If these align with something specific the hiring team is looking for – even better.
When someone requests that I write a letter, I often ask “Is there anything specific you’d like me to consider highlighting?” Often, this will give me 1 – 2 of the focus qualities and my experience can give me the others.
Give specific, work-based, examples of how the candidate demonstrates the focus quality. Don’t just say they “form strong relationships.” Describe an example or be specific about how.
What To Avoid
Writing Letters for Friends
Don’t write a letter for someone in a professional situation unless you’ve actually worked with them. Most hiring teams won’t be convinced by a friend’s recommendation, and some will actively discount the candidate for submitting such a letter.
If you’re friends in a professional context, and you’re willing to tell your friend where they need to improve – then go for it. If not, just pass.
General Descriptions Without Examples
Saying someone is a “good guy” is of course a waste of everyone’s time. I’d argue that saying someone is “good with kids” an “effective teacher” or “passionate about equity” are equal wastes if you don’t include specific examples that show they are those things.
If you can’t provide specific examples, you aren’t helping.
Writing a Letter For Candidates You Don’t Believe In
This is a tricky one. There can be a lot of politics and pressure around references. Remember though – any reference you provide is connected directly to your professional credibility.
I think of letter requests in three tiers.
Those I’m fully confident in and thrilled to write a letter for. Done!
Those I’m lukewarm on. In some cases you can avoid these, in others it’s probably wise to recommend. I’ll discuss later how I navigate this.
Those I don’t believe are qualified or ready for the position. Do not write letters of recommendation in these cases. Just don’t.
But, you should be fair – be honest with the requestor about why and what they’d need to change. Example phrases I’ve used (all honest in the circumstances):
- I’m sorry. I don’t have enough knowledge of your practice. I’d be glad to schedule an observation to see if I can offer my recommendation.
- I believe teachers need to build strong supportive relationships with students. I’ve seen you use shame often as a management tool. I can’t offer a recommendation until that changes.
- This scholarship asks for demonstrated commitment to service. I’ll have to decline because I’m not aware of your involvement in anything beyond athletics. If I’m wrong, let me know and I’d be glad to reconsider.
Writing the Letter of Recommendation
Here’s the formula I follow to complete quick and effective letters of recommendation for teachers from a principal. It’s five simple parts, and it works for just about any letter. Even better, once you get comfortable, you can quickly tailor it to be personal and powerful for any candidate.
I’m going to assume you know to date, open with a greeting, and close with a signature. They’re in the template, too.
1. Preparation – Before You Start
Before you start writing, take a moment to identify the three most important things you want to say about the person. If they’ve provided you suggestions, you can review and select or reject those for inclusion.
If you are struggling to find three, here are some ways to think about and identify three things:
- job-related characteristics (examples – talented instructor, skilled with data analysis, experienced organizer)
- specific areas of knowledge (examples – trained in a specific curriculum, worked in a PBIS school, uses an evidenced-based practice)
- professional characteristics (examples – committed to equity, driven to improve student outcomes, avid reader of research, inclusive in decision-making)
After you identify the three, make sure you have specific examples to back each. Then, rank them in order of importance. Your first characteristic should be the candidate’s strong point OR something that is incredibly important to the position for which they are applying. If both – great!
Now you’ve got all you need to write this letter.
2. Establish Authority As A Reference
You want the reader to believe you are qualified to offer a reference on the candidate. You can quickly prove this in two ways.
First, use your school/district letterhead if possible. You’ll want to check your school policy on the use of letterhead. If you can use it – do it. It’s a quick simple step that tells a reader at a glance that you are legit.
Second, your first paragraph should clearly establish that you know what the person is applying for, and that you’ve got enough knowledge to serve as a reference.
In the first paragraph, name the position, or at least job type.
It’s my pleasure to offer a reference for <Candidate Name> as a middle school social studies teacher.
I’m thrilled to write this letter of recommendation for <Candidate Name> as a district administrator.
Then, describe your relationship. Name the time you’ve known the candidate and in what capacity.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with <Candidate> for the past seven years. During that time, he taught 3rd grade and I was the building principal.
I’ve watched <Student> standout in the math department for the past three years. I had the pleasure of teaching her in three advanced math classes.
This paragraph can be boring, but it provides critical information that some reviewers expect to know immediately. You can liven it up by adjusting your descriptions, but always include position sought when possible, time known, and relationship.
3. Most Important Quality
After the opening paragraph, lead with an impactful sentence naming the candidate’s most important quality. This sentence is probably the most critical in the whole letter. EVERY reader will see this sentence, even the skimmers.
Ms. XYZ has the greatest impact on student achievement of any teacher I’ve ever supervised.
Jazmin is the most driven student I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching.
I’ve never worked with a principal who connects with families as frequently and authentically as Principal LMNOP.
Once you’ve hit the opening sentence, then follow-up with 2 – 3 more backing it up. It could be a specific anecdote, or more detail on how the individual demonstrates the characteristic.
Her students increase their average reading level by two full years in the time they’re with her. She assesses constantly, provides ongoing support, and makes them believe they are readers. It’s truly incredible.
In every class, she gives her all. For example, she once missed a week of calculus due to a family illness. During that time, she independently located and read online sources about the subject the class was studying. Then, when she returned she made up every assignment and helped tutor another student who was struggling with the concept.
Then close with the result of this quality if it wasn’t included in the descriptor.
4. Repeat with Qualities 2 and 3
Do the same thing with each of the two remaining qualities you’ve identified. Opening sentence names the quality, then 2 – 3 sentences with specifics. Close with result.
These are separate paragraphs, contained capsules of information, that add to the visual flow and support skimmers.
You’ll find a flow that works for you. I prefer to lead with the most important job-specific quality, then discuss specific knowledge, and finish up with a bigger picture personal characteristic of aspiration.
Do what works for you. Just keep it short and tight.
5. Summary Close
In the closing paragraph, I do two things. I tie it all together while reiterating my points. Then, I offer my recommendation again, while providing contact information.
Tying it all together looks like this:
<Candidate Name> is <quality 1>, <quality 2>, <quality 3>. These will serve her well as <position and location.>
Ms. James is a skilled reading teacher, strong communicator, and committed to ensuring all students achieve. These qualities will serve her well as the reading specialist at Johnson elementary school.
Then, I close by reiterating my recommendation and providing contact information. The basic format looks like this:
Raymond has my highest recommendation. If I can provide more information, you can reach me at <phone number> and <email.>
Here is where I differentiate a little bit, and provide a subtle signal to readers. Remember those three levels of confidence I expressed earlier?
If I’m fully confident and passionate about the recommendation, I use words like “highest” and “unreserved” recommendation. I want this person to get this job.
If I’m less confident, but still willing to write the letter I simply say “has my recommendation.”
As I said before, avoid writing a letter for someone you aren’t confident in. That said, sometimes it happens or needs to be done politically. In that case, I leave out the statement of recommendation, but provide the contact information. Be aware though, that it’s unfair and potentially dangerous, to tell a candidate you are recommending them and then contradict yourself in a follow-up. It is far better to be honest and transparent up front.
Putting it All Together – An Effective Letter of Recommendation For A Teacher
Here’s a visual representation of those five steps.
If you’d like a blank template that lets you easily follow the five steps and include all available information, you can download it here:
By using this approach, you’ll write high-quality letters of reference that are efficient and help those you’re supporting be selected for the next steps.
Time efficiency and supporting others? Exactly what we educators need!