Ethical Educator

A Nuanced Recommendation
School Administrator, January 2017

Scenario: The superintendent occasionally is asked by a teacher or principal to serve on a doctoral dissertation committee at the local university, where he serves as an adjunct professor. He has come to know one advisee as a conniver who uses his intelligence to manipulate people who don’t know him. The superintendent wonders how to respond to his requests for letters of recommendation for positions in neighboring school districts. Is the superintendent obliged to find some good points to share?

Shelley Berman:
Neither administrators nor professors are obliged to provide a reference if they don’t know an individual’s work well enough or don’t feel comfortable recommending that person. In this case, the superintendent has the option of responding that he lacks sufficient knowledge of the individual to provide a meaningful reference or that he has concerns that make it difficult to provide a strongly favorable recommendation.

He also has an opportunity to discuss his concerns with the advisee. This conversation could be a valuable turning point in helping the individual understand that certain behaviors may compromise the quality of contribution he can make in his work with others. This kind of honest, yet difficult, dialogue requires sensitivity, diplomacy and thoughtfulness so that the advisee perceives the feedback as supportive and actionable. It also requires openness on the part of the superintendent to the possibility that he may be making an inaccurate judgment about the individual. If the advisee accepts the feedback, he can make changes that may enhance his career success and provide some basis for a positive reference. On the other hand, if he does not respond well to the feedback, his reaction clarifies why a reference from the superintendent would not serve the advisee well.

If the superintendent feels it necessary to provide a reference, he can be honest about the positive qualities he has observed and about those areas where he lacks sufficient information. Often, references are as illuminating in what they don’t say as in what they do say.

Sarah Jerome:
The superintendent has two obvious options. The first is to decline the request and be frank with the requester as to why he is declining the request. The second option is to provide a letter of reference enumerating whatever positive points the requester has, but withholding an actual recommendation.  

Readers of recommendations are often very discerning and recognize a letter of reference that is withholding a recommendation. And often, the neighboring district administrators will call to speak in person to the superintendent, which allows for further explanation. The superintendent also may also want to share the letter of reference with the teacher/principal, thus allowing the person to see that the superintendent is not providing effusive, enthusiastic endorsements and recommendations.  

The superintendent has a responsibility to be honest with both the requester and the neighboring district.  No one wants to inflict a weak teacher/administrator on a neighboring district through a false or inflated letter of recommendation. In fact, the blunt honesty with the requester may provide that person with a growth opportunity to reflect on his behavior, change his ways and drop his conniving and manipulating ways.

Maggie Lopez:
A letter of recommendation is a professional courtesy that we are afforded by our colleagues indicating support for our work and our character. The superintendent is not obligated to write a letter for this individual if he does not feel he can support his candidacy for other positions. The superintendent has worked with this individual through dissertation process and has obviously observed some behaviors which he does not condone. The fact that the superintendent is questioning the request and whether he can respond to it, is an indicator that he does not have real enthusiasm for supporting this advisee’s request for reference letters as he seeks positions.

A letter from a superintendent, typically carries strong influence in the hiring process. Follow-up reference calls to the superintendent should the individual become a finalist, could create a difficult situation for both the superintendent and applicant. Though he could focus just on the positive aspects he observed when he served as his dissertation adviser, ultimately he may be asked the question, “Would you hire this person?” It appears the superintendent’s answer may very well be “No” in which case it would create a difficult situation for the superintendent who has written a letter of support for someone he would not himself hire, and the advisee who thought the reference letter indicated support.

Mario Ventura:
The request for a letter of recommendation by a less-than-deserving advisee draws focus to an ethical dilemma that many educators can unexpectedly find themselves in when one’s dual professional roles cross paths.

In this scenario, the superintendent serves in two roles -- one as a school district superintendent and a second as an adjunct university professor. Careful consideration should be given to potential conflict that may arise between the two professional roles. As a school leader, one of the responsibilities of the superintendent is to support the advancement of qualified leaders. The responsibility of an adjunct professor is to promote the learning of doctoral students. The conflict lies in the student wanting to take advantage of the professor’s second role as superintendent. Though the superintendent has knowledge of the advisee’s poor character, there is limited knowledge of the advisee’s professional experience, abilities and skills. Supporting the employment or advancement of a less than qualified individual is unethical and could tarnish the superintendent’s reputation. Therefore, superintendent should not feel obligated to comply with the request.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Maggie Lopez, a retired superintendent in Pueblo, Colo.; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz.