Expectations that Berkeley High School, or BHS, teachers write large numbers of letters of recommendation for students has given them an increasingly overwhelming workload, as first reported by Berkeleyside.
Berkeley Unified School District used to provide teachers with one day off for every ten recommendation letters, which are a routine part of the college application process. But the district no longer provides this compensation due to a substitute teacher shortage that began during the pandemic.
“Colleges typically require two letters of recommendation, specifically from core subject teachers,” said Ian Segall, a BHS student and school board director. “Sometimes with parents and students there is a sense of entitlement, believing the teacher needs to do this for a student to get into college and the teachers are saying they’re overloaded with their own work.”
Following this year’s contract negotiations, the principal has been given the authority to create a committee to determine compensation for letters of recommendation, Segall noted.
Teachers don’t yet know what this compensation may be, Segall said, adding that it will be up to one hour per letter.
“Teachers just want to be recognized for the extra duties that they are doing,” Segall said. “Thanks is due, and they want to be compensated whether that’s with a day off or compensation based on letters.”
Segall said this is an issue all over the country, but different districts address it differently. The extra duties that teachers take on are often included in teachers’ union contracts, according to Segall.
Now that substitute coverage of classes is not ensured, parents and students are concerned they will not get the letters they need for their applications.
“My understanding of why the practice of sub days stopped this year is because our administrative team believes it has (allegedly) never been allowed and wanted to find a more ‘official’ way to offer compensation,” said BHS teacher Amanda Toporek in an email. “The mess in the interim is that we have not had a system this fall.”
Toporek noted that some teachers receive more than 30 requests for letters of recommendation each year, and that a “very small” number of students have been turned away. This year, several teachers did not write any letters due to the lack of time off, she added.
District spokesperson Trish McDermott said in an email that students are not being turned away when they request letters, though some have been encouraged to work with counselors to choose different teachers to ask.
She also noted students can ask for letters as soon as the spring of their junior year and should request them as early as possible.
In an Oct. 20 message to parents and guardians of BHS students, Principal Juan Raygoza said he is working with teachers to look into funding options that would allow for substitute coverage or payment for teachers writing letters.
“The District, the teacher’s union (Berkeley Federation of Teachers or BFT), and BHS continue to be committed to supporting teachers in writing letters of recommendation for students,” Raygoza said in the message.