There was always one group of individuals that demanded the most respect in my family—teachers. Truth be told, my mother has worked as an elementary and middle school teacher my whole life. My father is an adjunct instructor at our local community college. My brother and I were taught from an early age that all teachers were the ultimate role models.
Once I graduated high school, I started to realize that my parents were onto something. Sure, there were things I needed to learn when I got to college. But I arrived at college with important lessons about integrity, character, and fairness from my teachers back home that grounded me during trying times. I learned from them how a silly little passion of mine like public speaking could turn into my biggest strength as a professional. That’s the power of a teacher.
Looking back on high school, I wish I would have reached out to my teachers sooner—and more often—than I did. I was not the first or last kid to only speak to my history teacher once in four years. That one conversation was in the fall of my senior year when I asked him to write me a letter of recommendation for my college applications. Did I really think that was the best approach?
Honestly, I didn’t know any better. I nervously walked up to him one day after class with my classmates still milling about and asked him without much thought or preparation if he would write a recommendation for me. I even mispronounced the thing I absolutely loved and wanted to study in college: rhetoric (yes, my 40-year old self still cringes when I say the word). But that fall day I pronounced it as if it had the same emphasis as “rhetorical” like “rhetorical question.” But, he didn’t laugh at me—he didn’t even flinch when I mispronounced the word. He just said kindly, “Of course, Sara. Happy to do it.”
After years of working in college admissions and reading literally hundreds of thousands of letters of recommendation, I know how important those letters of recommendation are. I now work at this tremendously impressive and inspiring all-girls high school outside of Philadelphia where I stand a little taller than my 4’11” ½ inches allow me to do when I’m not at work. I stand taller here because the faculty and the students make me want to work harder. On the surface, the school is shockingly different than my high school. But one thing is consistent—the teachers have a deep respect for their craft, and sharing it with engaged students is the ultimate high for them.
Oftentimes, students only seek out teachers if they're struggling academically. Only a rare student reaches out to a teacher they respect simply because they're fascinated by the subject matter they teach, want some advice about their future, or hope to discuss a particularly interesting topic that came up in class. Stereotypes may deem this student a "teacher's pet" but really this is what an engaged student does and should do well before senior year of high school. Teachers’ hearts melt when you do this because it means you see education not as a means to an end, but as a beginning.
As the school year ends, students are focused on going to prom, taking final exams, and enjoying the warm weather. Before the end of the school year, I challenge every student to reach out to one teacher in high school. That one teacher can be a:
- role model
- even a recommendation for your college applications
It's never too late to reach out. I still seek out role models in my life, but I’ll never forget the role models I could have had back in high school if I had just put myself out there.
I’m all about sharing secrets when it comes to the admissions process. They shouldn’t be secrets really—they should be public knowledge. So, here it is—teachers you have built relationships with outside of class write the most powerful, meaningful, and extraordinary letters of recommendation for college. It makes sense, right? When they see you interested in other things besides the grade, they start to see the real you.
"Teachers who know you outside of classroom offer the most powerful letters of recommendation." TWEET THIS
I’ll never forget one phone call I received when I worked at the University of Pennsylvania in the Undergraduate Admissions Office. The teacher and wrestling coach of a student on our waitlist contacted me about the young man he had taught and coached for four years. He told me that no one from their high school had been admitted to Penn in decades. He went on to say that we needed to admit this young man from our waitlist because Penn needed more kids like him. He described this young man’s story and background—none of which had come through in the student’s very humble application. The teacher, on the other hand, brought me to tears.
I had never had someone truly go to bat for a student like that. And, boy, did it leave an impression on me. Later that day, I walked myself into the dean of admission’s office with this young man’s application in hand. I delivered an impassioned plea about why we needed to admit the student off the waitlist. And, just like that, the dean wrote in red pen, “ADMIT.”
That’s the power of a teacher.