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.

Review: The Owl Factor

I enjoy reading ELT blogs because it’s really interesting to find out what those working in different teaching contexts think, and one of the websites I find thought-provoking is EDCrocks. Its author André Hedlund deals with topics such as neuromyths and questionable marketing strategies, which is great to see; I think it’s very important to draw attention to such issues in the industry. When this prolific blogger announced his first book, I knew that it would be worth reading, so I decided to get the ebook version from Amazon.

Review: The Owl Factor

The Owl Factor: Reframing your Teaching Philosophy is not your typical ELT book. Hedlund goes beyond this area and writes about education in general, so I believe that even those who don’t teach English at all may find it relevant. I’ve read quite a few books in the past few years as part of my professional development and it wasn’t always an entertaining experience, but I’m happy to say that this one was enjoyable to read thanks to the fact that it doesn’t focus on just one specialised area.

The author makes a strong start in the prologue when he demonstrates how the book was influenced by Greek philosophy. I have a soft spot for Greece, a country in which I lived for four years, and reading about it brought back some nice memories. He also invites the reader to imagine Anthony Hopkins playing Socrates, which would undoubtedly be a great casting decision. More importantly, the prologues stresses the importance of dialogue and emphasises that progress can be achieved without expensive gadgets. When I read that passage, I immediately thought of the Dogme approach, and it was nice to see it mentioned in one of the subsequent chapters.

Even though The Owl Factor includes a lot of references to philosophy, it’s not necessary to be an expert in this field because everything is presented in an accessible way. There are a lot of ideas related to the nature of teaching and learning, and I’d like to comment on a few key points that caught my attention.

I completely agree with the author when he talks about the role of knowledge. Common sense dictates that English teachers should be proficient English users who know how to teach. Unfortunately, some schools are happy to employ unqualified teachers who comply only with the first requirement. Of course, everybody has to start somewhere and it is perfectly normal not to feel confident in your first teaching role even after obtaining a relevant foundation-level qualification. What I really like is that Hedlund warns against getting stuck at that stage and not progressing beyond the initial training, which is a pitfall that new teachers need to be aware of. He recommends that teachers should continue learning instead of just relying on intuition.

A lot has been written on teaching methods, and I was happy to note that The Owl Factor doesn’t promote a particular way of teaching. Something that works in one teaching context may completely fail in another one. The author highlights a few advantages of student-centred approaches and at the same time says that teachers should be more than entertainers whose main goal is to make sure that their students have fun in the classroom.

Hedlund keeps referring to science and includes a lot of examples; my favourite one is this amazing experiment testing Galileo Galilei’s theory related to gravity. I absolutely love watching TV shows featuring Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sir David Attenborough, and other presenters who try to popularise science. Again, it’s not necessary to have an expert knowledge of natural sciences when teaching English, but being aware of the most prominent theories about the universe may certainly help you prepare engaging lessons and participate in conversations on topics that may come up.

In addition, The Owl Factor includes a few fables used to support the author’s ideas. He is a very good storyteller and his book is easy to read. There were just a few issues with the tables accompanying the text; some of them were a bit confusing due to their formatting. I have no idea how converting books to the digital format works, and I’m sure everything looks perfectly fine in the physical book, but I used Amazon’s web-based Kindle Cloud Reader with its default settings and found some of the tables a little untidy.

When it comes to content, I feel that Carol Dweck receives too much space in the last section of the book. There is nothing wrong with mentioning her work, but I thought the author chose a one-sided approach. He talks about negative consequences of Socrates’ work and the idea that he might not have been a real person, and even points out that owls may not be as wise as we think, but Dweck’s growth mindset is accepted uncritically. Angela Lee Duckworth’s ideas are promoted in The Owl Factor as well.

To be honest, I prefer to err on the side of caution and at the moment I’m not ready to introduce terms such as fixed mindset or grit to my teaching practice. Even though they appeared in successful books and TED talks, there are some serious doubts about their classroom application. I hold a more sceptical position than the author, but I’m open to changing my mind once more relevant evidence emerges.

It’s important to emphasise that The Owl Factor isn’t a run-of-the-mill academic text full of hedging and passive voice constructions. The author explicitly expresses his thoughts, and there are a lot of personal anecdotes and references to pop culture. I find that refreshing because the book provides insight into his beliefs on education, which in turn makes the readers think about their own teaching philosophy. It provides plenty of food for thought, and that’s exactly what one expects from this kind of book.

As much as I like ELT literature, I have no problem admitting that I decided to read most of it mainly because I wanted to get my Delta. The Owl Factor: Reframing your Teaching Philosophy is a title that can be read for pleasure, and educators interested in philosophy and science will most likely enjoy reading it. I think that self-publishing a book is a pretty cool move, so if you like André Hedlund’s blog and other activities, this is a nice opportunity to support his work.