How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation

Jim Kallieris
Jim Kallieris
Coordinator of Language Acquisition; M.S. in Education
Young woman smiling and sitting on a couch opening a letter.

A great letter of recommendation may be the single most important means to the end of landing your dream teaching position or a spot in your desired graduate program. While you might think that all letters of recommendation are the same, there are some preparations that you should make in order to get the best possible letter of recommendation to land that dream job or acceptance.

Who You Should Ask

Whether it is your first teaching position, the start of a new educational journey, or you’re just looking for a change of scenery, it is crucial that you ask the right person for a letter of recommendation. If in fact it were your first time looking to start a teaching career, a good place to begin would be with a trusted university professor. Pick a professor with whom you identify that knows your work habits and passion towards being an educator.

Let’s say you’d like to enter a master’s program or are looking to land a classroom position. If you have had prior experience working with children, it would be a good idea to ask that employer for a letter of recommendation focusing on your interactions with children and their parents. If your other work experience did not involve working with children, then perhaps ask your employer to write about your initiative, leadership, and work ethic.

Most likely your best references and recommendations would be from relevant undergraduate classes or your fieldwork during your student teaching. Your cooperating teacher and university observer would be the perfect recommendations, as they will have observed your actual teaching and the learning that took place because of it.

If you are already a teacher or a paraprofessional (teacher’s aide), then you should ask a colleague that knows and has witnessed your instruction. This could be a co-teacher, social worker, speech-language pathologist, or any other certified staff member who knows your effectiveness while teaching children.

Most importantly, you must ask an administrator who has directly observed your teaching. This could be the building principal, assistant principal, or even district administrators such as the curriculum director, bilingual director, or superintendent, if any of these professionals have observed your instruction. It is best to have at least three letters of recommendation when searching for a new teaching position or when applying to a graduate program.

When to Ask for a Recommendation

The timing of when to ask for a letter of recommendation is just as important as who you will ask for the letter. Again, if you are seeking your first teaching position, it would be appropriate to ask your cooperating teacher, university professor, or even the building principal or assistant principal if s/he observed your instruction during student teaching. You should ask these people prior to finishing your fieldwork, knowing that a good letter of recommendation takes some time to write. A good timeframe for someone to complete a letter of recommendation would be three weeks. For this reason, it would be perfect timing to ask for letters of recommendation when you have a month remaining in your student teaching experience or a few months before the application deadline of your desired graduate program.

If you are a current teacher who is looking for a new teaching experience, you need to be up front with your building principal and inform him/her as soon as possible. Your search for a new teaching position impacts the building staffing, and principals begin planning for the following year’s staffing as early as January. Giving the administration ample time to find the most qualified teacher for the position you are leaving is considered as professionalism. Leaving an administrator in a pinch to find a teacher in a short period of time is considered unprofessional and may impact the quality of the letter of recommendation s/he writes for you.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

A little preparation goes a long way when asking for a letter of recommendation regardless of whom you are asking to write it. As stated before, professors, teachers, and administrators need time to write you a quality letter, as they are busy with the daily business of being an educator or administrator.

The best way to take some of the work off their plate would be to provide a bullet-point list of the accolades that you would like the recommendation writer to include in the letter. The bulleted list could include any clubs that you have led or participated in, sports you have coached, and/or any awards you have received due to your academic or social achievement. Anything that you believe an admissions office or recruiting school district would see as “going above and beyond” what was expected of you in your previous position or while studying to be a teacher would be appropriate to add to this bulleted list. This is your time to toot your own horn, so to speak. Don’t be afraid to share these accolades, as they just may be what get someone to read your letter of recommendation over someone else’s letter.

How you ask isn’t as important as who and when you ask for a letter of recommendation. However there are a few pointers that might be helpful in navigating how to ask. First, and most importantly, just be you. Share your story as to why you are seeking a new position or graduate school experience. Be honest. Speak confidently. And if you are asking your current employer, make sure to share how much you have enjoyed your current position and how it has led you to who you are as an educator today. Make sure not to ask when the professor, colleague, or administrator is visibly overstressed or too busy. And finally, thank the writer for supporting your career as an educator.

*Updated January, 2021
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