What should you do when someone you work with asks you for a recommendation letter or reference for an educational leadership role?
Reference checks are essential to the hiring process, because they vastly increase the amount of information available to the hiring team. In interviews and application materials, candidates have full control over what they share. If there's something a hiring team should know about a candidate's past job performance, good or bad, only references can provide a third-party perspective and convey this information.
Being asked to provide a reference catches many educators off-guard, so it's important to anticipate your own feelings and possible reactions, so you take the most appropriate course of action.
Here are three common reactions leaders face when asked for references and letters of recommendation:
- Feelings of betrayal
- Fear of losing a great person
- Being unsure about whether you can, in good conscience, recommend someone for a new role
In each section, you'll find detailed guidance on how to react to your own feelings, and how to act ethically in complex situations.
“They're Being Disloyal!”
People typically need references because they're planning to move to a new position in another school or district. When someone signals their intent to leave, this can create strong feelings about loyalty—or rather, disloyalty.
Is someone being disloyal when they seek out new opportunities? Are they betraying you and your students?
Some leaders mistakenly believe that the educators they hire should be loyal to their particular school or district forever. While the school year and annual contract are important tools for creating stability for students, it's a mistake to expect individual educators to be loyal to a single organization for their entire careers.
Instead, professional loyalty is to the profession. Our students and colleagues will always change from year to year, so it's not as if there's any real sense that “we're all in this together, and always will be.”
Change is inevitable, and people's growth and development are a good thing. Just as we don't want our students to stick around forever—we want them to progress to the next grade level, and leave when it's time—we don't want staff to stick around longer than they should out of a misguided sense of loyalty.
This is a tough one for many of us, though, because we see plenty of examples of great educators who never move on—who continue to grow as professionals while remaining in the same position.
But it's important to realize that some people must leave and seek new opportunities elsewhere if they're to fulfill their calling as educators. There are simply not always enough opportunities within a given school or district.
Educators owe their loyalty to the profession, not to any one organization—and it's a two-way street. So if you're asked to provide a reference or letter of recommendation, don't see it as an act of disloyalty on either person's part—see it as part of the inevitable and necessary movement of people to the opportunities where they can best serve students and fulfill their professional calling.
“But I want to keep them!”
I was taken aback the first time I heard this from a candidate, but I continue to hear it on a regular basis:
“My boss said she won't write me a letter of recommendation, because she doesn't want to have to replace me.”
At first, I thought it was a joke. “Ha ha, yeah, I'm sure you'll leave big shoes to fill” was my reply—but the candidate was completely serious:
“No, she really does not want me to leave, and she told me she won't give me a good recommendation.”
Let me be clear: this type of sabotage is deeply unethical.
If you withhold a well-deserved recommendation, simply to prevent someone from leaving and to save yourself the trouble of replacing them, you are committing a type of professional fraud.
If you believe someone is making a difference for kids, you don't get to hog them. Support them in pursuing their dreams and maximizing their impact.
Are you creating more work for yourself? Potentially, but you're also opening your school to the possibility of an even more amazing opportunity to bring in the right person for your current needs. It may be hard to imagine anyone else being as good in the role—but you'll also have a chance to re-envision the role and the impact it can have on students.
Leaders who withhold references are acting in a petty and shortsighted manner that doesn't even serve their own students. Educators who want to move on, but can't, are unlikely to be at their best after being rebuffed. And they're likely to leave anyway, even if it means going without the benefit of a good reference.
“I'm Ambivalent About Recommending This Person”
What if you're not sure whether you can, in good conscience, provide a glowing recommendation?
It's simple: speak the truth. Don't say someone is great when they're merely good, and don't say someone is good if you're really looking to dump them on someone else.
But don't save your honesty for a confidential reference check or year-end recommendation letter. Give feedback directly to the person as soon as it occurs to you, or as soon as you're asked for feedback.
Rising stars in our profession will often ask directly for feedback:
- What opportunities should I be taking on?
- What are my blind spots?
- What could I be doing better?
If you see that someone has ambitions that might take them beyond their current role, and you anticipate feeling some reluctance, get curious and ask yourself: “What would I need to see this year in order to give this person my best, most glowing, no-hesitation recommendation?”
Now, this is where it gets tricky, because if you remain in the educational leadership profession for any length of time, you'll inevitably come across aspiring leaders who are moving up faster than you did. It's natural to think “Whoah, they really need to slow down and get more experience.”
We all tend to think that our career trajectory was right for us, so a similar path must be the best course for everyone else, right?
Every educator is on their own journey, and every situation is different. Sure, most 2nd-year teachers are not ready to become principals, but the reasons they're not ready—and the next steps they should take to become ready—are unique to each individual.
If your only feedback is “Keep doing what you're doing, for a longer period of time,” you're not thinking about what skills and experience the person actually needs to be ready for the next level.
Giving Feedback While It's Still Useful
If you don't feel comfortable giving someone a strong reference, that's a clear signal that they deserve more specific feedback, while there's still time to act on it and address any shortcomings. Don't wait until you're called for a reference check—give specific feedback now, while it can still benefit your students.
It is unlikely that simply gaining additional years of experience, doing the same work in the same role, will have much value for an educator's future work at a higher level of leadership.
Think about a 2nd-year teacher who has expressed interest in becoming a principal. Personally, I was always annoyed at people who seemed too eager to move on to a new challenge too soon.
But let's interrogate this sense of annoyance a bit: what's wrong with a 2nd-year teacher aspiring to the principalship?
Let's first be clear that “It took me longer” and “I had to put in my time and wait my turn” are not good arguments. Many of us had to wait longer than we wanted due to circumstances we wouldn't wish on anyone.
But there's a legitimate reason to want someone to gain more experience before you recommend them for a promotion: skills and experience.
In most cases, 2nd-year teachers aren't very good yet. This is a profession with a steep learning curve.
But teachers deserve useful feedback whether they're planning a career move or not. They deserve the specific feedback that will help them grow so they can serve their students more effectively.
So if you feel that someone doesn't yet have the skills or experience they need to move to the next level, don't just tell them to hang around longer. Putting in more time has no magical power—and we've all seen teachers who get a little better in their 2nd year, only to stagnate at that level for years afterward.
Give people the feedback they need—now—to earn your enthusiastic endorsement in the future. You'll be doing your current students a favor, and you'll be making a long-term impact on the profession.
If you know someone who aspires to a higher level of leadership, you can share this link where they can download my 52 practice interview questions for school leadership candidates.