DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have been a high school English teacher for 15 years, and while scores of students have asked me for letters of recommendation, I’ve noticed a burgeoning trend.
Several students have not just asked for a recommendation for college or a summer program, having faith that I will indeed speak well of them; they have asked if I could write them a “good” letter of recommendation.
This newest request mentioned a handful of flattery toward me and then asked if I could not speak as well of the student, that I let him know so he could ask someone else. And this request came via email; the student did not even have the decency to ask in person.
I would like to respond to future requests of this nature, but I don’t want to extend rudeness back. Were he to ask without the flattery and request that the letter be good, I would happily do so.
Now, I want to tell him I cannot do it, as his request seems to somehow go against a moral grain. It seems insulting on top of that. Would it be better to say that I cannot fulfill the task and ask future students of his ilk to ask someone else, no reason given?
GENTLE READER: Not many people are looking for bad letters of recommendation. The problem is one of trust, which is not, as you have noticed, flattering.
The shrewd student would, when asking for the letter, have also requested a copy “for his records.” The shrewder student would have said how much a letter of recommendation from you would mean and asked if you felt able to give him one – heeding any hesitation on your part.
But as a high school English teacher, you are used to being the only adult in the room. You are also, Miss Manners trusts, used to the awkwardness and insecurity of teenagers. She would therefore recommend that you save your dander for more egregious behavior and provide letters – or refuse to do so – based on whether you feel you can give the student in question a letter that truly recommends.