Sunday, October 25, 2009


The honor code for the United States Military Academy is a model of clarity.

"A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do," it says.

When the lines are clearly drawn and it's simple to recognize lying, cheating or stealing, a West Point cadet should know what to do. But what about when the act in question falls into a decidedly gray area? How does a cadet make the call? And to what extent should a prospective cadet hold herself to the same standards?

One of my readers is the parent of a young woman in exactly that situation. My reader's daughter is a high-school senior applying for admission to four U.S. military service academies, for which purpose she has solicited letters of recommendation from a number of teachers she has had - necessary because each academy requires letters from both English and math teachers.
The daughter's junior-year math teacher recently retired, and the new math teacher deferred to her predecessor, rather than write a recommendation for a student whom she really hasn't had in class yet. That was fine ... at first.

The retired teacher wrote one hard-copy letter. The other institutions require electronic recommendations, however, so he is on the list to recommend her to the other three academies.

"Today she received an e-mail requesting a $20 check from this teacher who is not `agile' on the keyboard," my reader writes. "He asked that the check be made out to his daughter for formatting and writing the letter."

My reader feels that there is something amiss with his request, but she's wondering how to handle the situation ethically and, ideally, to make it a bona-fide "teachable moment" for her daughter.

Adding to the problem is that she has little time to ponder the issue: The deadline for recommendations is Nov. 1.

If he finds the technology too baffling, the former math teacher would be well within his rights to decline the request to write an online recommendation. No teacher is obligated to write a recommendation for a student. In fact, if a prospective recommender did not think highly of a student's academic work, she might be doing him a favor by declining - though that's not the case here.

Regardless of his intent, however, it is inappropriate for him to request any compensation for writing a recommendation for a former student. If my reader's daughter forks over the $20, whether to the former teacher or to his daughter, a reasonable observer might conclude that she was buying a recommendation, rather than receiving it on the merits of her work. My reader is right to be uncomfortable with the situation, and right to worry that it might not pass muster with any military academy's honor code if it were to come out.

The right thing for my reader and her daughter to do is to explain these concerns to the teacher and ask him to forgo the $20. If, out of concern for his daughter or for any other reason, he doesn't see it this way, they should thank him and find another teacher to write her math recommendation. Perhaps, under the circumstances, the new teacher would be willing to talk with her predecessor and write a recommendation combining both viewpoints.

It may be hard to find a new recommender on such short notice, but it's a worthwhile effort. It's not too soon for her daughter to be living up to the standards of the academies she seeks to join, and this experience should be helpful to her in considering future gray-area situations that may arise.

The retired teacher didn't ask me for advice. If he had, though, I'd have told him that, if he's having trouble with the online technology but wants to write the letter, the right thing for him to do would be to seek assistance from the school. Quite likely, someone in the guidance office would be willing to help him input his recommendation and/or give him a tutorial for future reference.

As for the school, the guidance office should make clear to all teachers that asking for compensation for recommendations, regardless of the rationale for the request, is unacceptable. A teacher asked for a recommendation can fairly say "Yes" or "No," but not "If ... "

Incidentally, speaking as one who has written his share of recommendations, it's perfectly all right for a student to pay for postage for a hard-copy recommendation, ideally by providing a stamped, addressed envelope for that purpose. Postage is steeper than it used to be, and some teachers end up writing dozens of recommendations. The commitment of time and attention is enough - no recommender should have to foot the bill to send a letter, although many of us end up doing so.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I take it an attached scan of the hard copy letter wouldn't suffice? I would think that would be even more valid than something typed into an email...