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Who Owns A Teacher Recommendation? Or, What Happens If A Teacher Changes Her Mind About You?

Teacher recommendations are vitally important.

In my presentations to students and parents, I often liken teacher recommendations to the myth of Santa Claus: teachers know whether you’ve been naughty or nice, and they’re sending their lists off to colleges to let them know their opinions. So if you want that recommendation to be a good one, you need to make sure that your teachers have high opinions of you.

But who owns this recommendation? Once you ask your teacher to write the recommendation, can the teacher rescinded it if you suddenly turn naughty? Or can the school where your teacher works overrule your teacher’s decision to rescind the recommendation?

An article in today’s Inside Higher Ed brings this issue to light. A student at Stoughton High School in Massachusetts publicly displayed a swastika on school grounds. Obviously, this offended a Jewish student. Arguments ensue. School disciplines the student. End of story? Not quite.

professor teaching classA teacher who had written a recommendation for the young man who displayed the swastika decided that this was grounds for her to rescind her recommendation for the young man to attend college. She contacted the colleges on her own and told the admissions office that her recommendation was no longer valid.

More arguments ensue.   The parents of the boy complain to the school. The school disciplines the teacher.

But again the question: who owns the recommendation? The school? Or the teacher?

One thing is clear: if the young man waived his right to see the recommendation, then by law, the recommendation really is not his. He has asked the teacher to give her unvarnished, honest opinion of his intellect, his accomplishments, and his personal character. And this last bit is important in this case, it seems to me. What does his insistence on displaying a swastika say about his character?

Personally, I cannot say. I do not know the boy, I do not know the reasons for which he displayed the swastika, and I certainly do not know his conscience. I also believe in the fundamental right of freedom of speech, no matter how ugly that speech may be. I probably would have defended the boy’s right to display the swastika, even at the risk of offending the majority of the school population. And I’m guessing that the Supreme Court would agree with me.

Nevertheless, who owns the recommendation? What are the rights of the person who has been asked by the young man to reflect on the boy’s character as part of the exercise for college admissions? The boy has the right to his freedom of speech. But so does the teacher.

So what’s my advice? I don’t have much, except a reminder to students that Santa Claus is watching them as they apply to colleges. Students need to choose the teachers who will write recommendations for them very carefully. And if they decide to exercise their rights to free speech, they need to recognize that not everyone in their lives will agree with their speech, and that speech – – no matter how free – – can have consequences.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant and College Admissions Expert

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