One night at 11:30 the phone rang, waking me up. It was one of my all-time favorite students and she was sobbing. At midnight her online application for a desperately needed scholarship was due and the librarian, who had promised to write a letter of recommendation, hadn't done so. If she sent me the link and password, would I write one? She wouldn't ask except the librarian wasn't answering her phone.
My eyes stung and watered as my computer screen lit up in the dark office. I quickly read the scholarship description to find what they were looking for, wrote the best letter I could, edited it hoping to God the internet didn't crash and I didn't confuse "it's" with "its," and sent it off. At 11:50 my student called me to tell me it had gone through. I told her to try to get some sleep and let me know when she got word.
She won the scholarship - almost two-thirds off the tuition of a prestigious Ivy League school, her dream school and one she couldn't possibly have attended without financial help. The tale of the eleventh hour letter ended happily and my husband and I got a free night of babysitting - definitely the best thank you I've gotten for a letter of recommendation.
Writing letters of recommendation, acting as references and filling out the numerous forms necessary to help a child move from point A to point B in our society are all invisible and underappreciated parts of a teacher's life.
Acting as a reference is a part of any managerial position and teachers are, in a sense, managers of large staffs. Secondary teachers have 150 students, and those students change every year. I don't know too many employers who supervise 150 new employees every year and know each employee well enough to write thoughtful letters of recommendation, but teachers do it every day.
According to this census document, 2,055,900 recent high school graduates were enrolled in college in 2009. Each student enrolled represents, on the low end, one letter. Add to that number letters written for "back up" schools, scholarships or employment. Then, add to that the fact most teachers write letters for more than one child.
Every time you see a teenager working a cash register, bussing your table or bagging your groceries you're looking at evidence that somewhere a teacher sat down and wrote the best letter she could. Think of your local university. Think of its enrollment. You should be thinking of letters, lots of them, because not only did teachers prepare those students for university, they also wrote the letters required for each student to get accepted.
Letters of recommendation are part of the job that's not invisible at all, if you know where to look.