Do references matter?

One of the very first articles published on this blog deals with applying for a teaching position and provides a few tips for increasing your chances of landing a job. Today I’d like to expand on that post and focus on another important component of the hiring process.

Do references matter?

I have worked for four different educational institutions and talked to many other potential employers here in Colombia. When it comes to references, there seems to be a variety of approaches. Some schools ask you to fill out an application form and attach reference letters, others don’t require them. I know for a fact that one language institute called my previous place of employment before inviting me for an interview; some schools offered me a job without checking my references at all.

In general, I think that reference letters are pretty useful and it doesn’t matter if you plan to teach English in Colombia, Vietnam, or Italy. When a school receives a number of applications, having positive references may tip the scales in your favour. You are a complete stranger to the person tasked with hiring a new teacher, so showing them that there is another human being willing to say a few nice words about you certainly won’t hurt your chances of getting the job.

Asking for a favour isn’t always a comfortable situation, but I’d like to emphasise that there is nothing wrong with asking for a reference. Obviously, you should talk to someone who actually has something positive to say! Most people are happy to give references and some schools even have templates for them, so I recommend that you ask for a reference letter when you know that you’re going to look for another job. Waiting a couple of years before requesting a recommendation letter from your previous boss definitely isn’t a great idea.

What should you do if are about to start your teaching career and have no experience at all? When I was applying for my first teaching role, I attached a reference letter from a non-teaching job that I had held when I decided to get into TEFL. Yes, the letter wasn’t exactly relevant, but at least it gave the schools an idea about my personality and attitude.

Another option that is worth exploring is getting an academic reference. After successfully completing my CELTA and Delta courses, I asked my tutors for recommendation letters. The tutors provided me with references related to my course performance and I feel very happy about having those documents in my professional portfolio. Teacher trainers who work on reputable courses are usually well-known in the ELT industry, so supporting your job application with such a letter should help you make a good impression.

I’d also like to stress the importance of being honest. There is absolutely no need to make up stuff and lie on your job application. I can’t believe that I’m writing this but I’ve actually been asked by a random stranger from the internet to provide him with a fake reference. You see, having an ELT blog has some downsides too.

I know that this post is just stating the obvious, but I think it’s important to remind teachers about the usefulness of references. If you feel that you have a good professional relationship with your academic manager or tutor, ask them for a reference letter. The worst thing that can happen is that they decline to give it to you, which wouldn’t be the end the world. More importantly, if all goes well, you’ll get a document that may contribute to your career progress, and I believe that it makes sense to pay attention to every little thing that could help you achieve your goals.

4 thoughts on “Do references matter?

  1. Great post, Martin! I know as a manager who receives applications, we don’t hire someone unless they have a solid reference. I will say, though, that we generally call references rather than expect written letters. We much prefer to have the informal manager-to-manager chat. This was we avoid the trap of believe a fake letter, as you mention.

    What I loved about your post, though, is how you push teachers to get references from trainers on courses as well as their managers. If I see a list of references, I see that some of them are trainers or DoS’, I already get good vibes. I would go so far as to say that even experienced teachers should be doing this.

    I would add that it is important not to burn bridges. Again, probably something that makes sense, but many teachers forget this in their last month of working, choosing not to carry out all their duties as they should. These last few months are what the DoS or academic manager are likely to remember.

    Thanks for sharing, Martin!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment, Jim. It’s great to read about your approach to checking references in your role as a manager. I also completely agree that teachers should stay professional until the end of their contract even if they know they’re going to leave the job. The ELT world isn’t that big, so teachers’ poor attitude may come to bite them in the future.

      These things are obvious to us but it seems to me some teachers aren’t really aware of them. It may have something to do with the fact that many see TEFL just as a temporary job in an exotic location. What’s great about your Sponge Chats is that you keep promoting the idea of having a long-term career in ELT, and of course that means treating it as a serious profession. Looking forward to your next blog posts and videos!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post and great advice. However, I find written letters don’t carry much weight, but having their boss listed on every position they have had (whether teaching or not) shows the caliber of a candidate, and they are comfortable with us calling. Written letters I never look at, considering that honestly, they could easily be faked.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great point; it’s necessary to actually talk to the people instead of just relying on the information provided by the candidate. Thank you for commenting on the blog post!


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