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S/he’s Deceitful, Uncooperative, and Argumentative, Yet Calm and Enthusiastic

December 4, 2009

School districts must be hiring. I’ve had several frustrating requests recently for recommendations. Why frustrating? I find it difficult to characterize the complexity of people in an online format—many recommendations come to me via email these days—and I sometimes find structured phone conversations to be just plain odd. I got a phone call last month from a school district inquiring about a former student. In addition to the usual questions, the caller asked me to describe the student’s character as a learner in a single sentence. Yikes! One sentence to describe someone as a learner and off the top of my head without time to think about my response. Not easy. Try doing it about yourself, much less someone else, especially when you feel the weight of a possible job for someone hanging on the thread of your words.

Fortunately the student’s work had been uniformly—and memorably—excellent and this was relatively easy. Plus, I can speak as long a sentence as I can write. Remember the labyrinthine sentence? I gave the caller one. The interviewer followed up with a question about what kind of teacher I thought the student would be. After I provided that, he explained that the district asks the “learner“ question too because “we find that people teach who they are and we emphasize learning in this district.“ Gosh, really?

At least when I’m on the phone with someone, I can ask for clarification. The recommendations I really dislike are sent to me via email. You might think that this would be easier since you don’t have to write a letter and don’t have time to think too much about your response. But that’s part of the problem, there’s no room to express yourself. You have to choose from what’s provided, not what might be best to describe someone. For example, I was provided with a list of words and asked to choose the five that best described the candidate. I avoided the ones with negative connotations, but then I began overthinking. If I note that someone is calm and then check enthusiastic, is my response suspect? Does one word cancel the other one out? Patient was missing and that’s what I’d really have liked to have checked instead of calm. I agonized over this.

And here’s another thing. My computer will time out in email and my response won’t get sent and there’s often no way to save what I‘m working on with these electronic forms, so I have to act speedily. Another challenge is the word/character limit on some responses. This is not Twitter, for gosh sakes; this is someone’s career and wouldn’t you want to get adequate, accurate, and thoughtful information? Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804 and he said that men have become tools of their tools. He’d never seen a computer. I wonder what he would think about all this truncated communication.

I have also been surprised to learn from students that job applicants are still being asked the question so old it’s become a joke: What three words would you use to describe yourself? I tell students to be prepared to answer this just in case because I’ve heard several horror stories from students who blurted out response words like “disorganized“ and “timid“ and “a bit impatient.“ These are not useful traits for anyone, much less potential high school or middle school teachers, to confess to and once an answer’s out, it’s difficult to retrieve it gracefully. Still, isn’t it time for new questions? Hmmm. Like, maybe, how would you describe yourself as a learner in one sentence?

What three words would you use to describe yourself to a potential employer? I’d suggest being prepared to answer this and some version of the greatest strengths and weaknesses questions. Even if you don’t get asked, they’ll force you to think about who you are in the context of a particular job or internship opportunity.

I’d be glad to give him a recommendation if he wasn’t such a jerk.
• Overheard in the hallway, 2006

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