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When students navigate academic transitions or apply for internships, summer work or scholarships—sometimes even babysitting jobs—they often need a letter of recommendation. This type of letter, used to assemble a full picture of an applicant’s capabilities, strengths and professional promise, is often written by an adult who knows the student well and can vouch for their character through personal experience. For a student who is deaf or hard of hearing, the teacher of the deaf who works with them may be an ideal fit.
Why Ask a Teacher of the Deaf?
“Teachers of the deaf [TODs] experience their student’s disability in a way that most people do not,” says Jan Gatty, EdM, MED, EdD, director of child & family services at Clarke. “TODs understand how students who are deaf or hard of hearing process information; they understand the neuropsychological effects of even a mild hearing loss, including the fatigue. They understand the work that the student puts in.”
Additionally, letters of recommendation generally fall under two categories: character reference or academic reference. A teacher of the deaf can offer either perspective.
“[Teachers of the deaf] are able to write letters of recommendation that are authentic and comprehensive, supported by experiences they’ve had both as educators and as observers of the student’s character—in terms of their temperament and ethics, for example,” she adds. “These letters can be powerful in both their support of and advocacy for the students when they are received by institutions of higher education or future employers.”
What Should a Letter Include?
While the goal of each letter may be different, this overview provides a general outline of what a letter should include.
- Provide Background
Identify the candidate and explain what they’re applying for. Describe how and how long you’ve known the candidate. With their permission, include information about their hearing loss diagnosis and hearing technology. Describe your professional role and the nature of the relationship. (For example, “I met Oliver in 2017, when he entered Oakwood Middle School. Oliver was born with bilateral severe to profound sensorineural hearing loss and uses cochlear implants to access sound. I was assigned to his educational team as his teacher of the deaf, providing push-in/pull-out one-to-one services with both Oliver and school staff. I support Oliver to communicate with his teachers and peers using Listening and Spoken Language (LSL).”)
- Explain Academic Strengths & Accommodations
Describe the candidate’s academic talents, strengths and performance in school and ways they have benefitted from accommodations to increase accessibility in an inclusive school environment.
“Supporting general statements with examples of very specific observations or anecdotes strengthens the recommendation greatly,” notes Jan.
Demonstrate the Student’s Activity in the School Community
Explain the characteristics that make the candidate an asset to the school community. Describe their participation in sports and extracurricular activities, like club membership, leadership roles or musical pursuits. You may also describe the accommodations that make these extracurricular activities successful—and fun—for the student.
Explain the Student’s Unique Character
What are the personality traits that make this candidate the right choice for the role? (e.g., leadership skills, empathic, confident, emotionally intelligent, good sense of humor)
“The TOD usually knows the student’s frailties, vulnerabilities and their strengths,” says Jan. “As such, if they can talk about what’s difficult for the student, and how they address these challenges—that’s excellent. For example, ‘I’ve seen them in a group, and they can be slow to warm up socially. But they’re very observant, so when they do initiate an interaction it’s usually very successful.’”
Offer a Clear Endorsement
Include a very clear endorsement of the candidate (e.g., “recommend,” “highly recommend,” or “recommend without reservations”) for the position or opportunity.
What Should a Letter NOT Include?
Avoid generic statements that could be said about anyone.
Be careful about voicing concerns or reservations in writing. If you need to provide more context about any particular point, offer to provide more information along with your contact information and best way and time to reach you.
Half-hearted, out-of-date, artificial sentiments. This leads to another crucial tip…
Don’t Be Afraid to Say No!
“Don’t agree to write a letter of recommendation unless you know the student very well and have interacted with them in a variety of settings,” advises Jan. “This usually results in a short reference with very little detail, and the recipient may think you’re withholding something about the candidate.”
If you can’t remember much about the student, can’t be enthusiastic and specific about their achievements, or if you feel you don’t have the time to devote to a thorough, careful, articulate letter, it is best to politely decline the request.
Work with the student or their family to determine to whom, specifically, the letter should be addressed.
Keep the length between one and two pages, single-spaced.
Be sure your letter is on formal letterhead and is dated.
Conclude the letter with your signature and your full title.
And finally, be sure to share your letter of recommendation with your student. “I recommend setting aside some time to review it with them,” says Jan. “You’re teaching them how to talk about and promote themselves. They can learn a lot about themselves—and self-advocacy—from your recommendation.”