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9 Saying "no"

I made a list of 100 things I should do that scare me. In 2020, I plan to complete all 100.


I usually don’t have much of a problem with my commitments. Sure, I absolutely overcommit, but I’m lucky in that a lot of the projects I commit myself to are fairly flexible or even optional (i.e., I can push writing aside for a period of time if things get too crazy; I can delegate many of the tasks for the kids’ choir I direct; grading is very important but has few absolute deadlines, etc.). I’m also a fast worker and writer, so I can get through a lot in a short amount of time.


Every year, I get between ten and fifteen requests for letters of recommendation. I’ve done so many of them that at this point, after a 10-15 interview with the student during which I write an outline, I can often knock out the letter in about a half an hour. And it’s a good letter.


Letters of recommendation are also monstrously unfair, seeing as they’re colleges taking advantage of millions of hours of free labor on the part of teachers, but I don’t really care. I honestly don’t mind doing them: it’s a huge help to the student, I get to learn about the kid when I interview them, and if I wasn’t okay with doing huge amounts of free labor I would have found a different line of work.


The tough thing is if a student asks for a letter, and I’m the wrong person to write it.

The vast majority of my students have at least an adult or two in their lives who have seen them shine in their element. Not nearly as many can actually identify which adults those are.


But I recognize that requesting a letter of recommendation is pretty terrifying for a kid. So even when I get a request from a kid who obviously had no great love for physics, it’s hard for me to be honest and tell them I’m the wrong person.


This time, I did. It wasn’t as hard as I had imagined. I could honestly say to the kid that it was not a matter of intelligence or talent, but a matter of the fact that he was able to quickly identify someone else who had seen him studying something he cared about.


Not bad, and I’m thinking I’d be more comfortable doing this again in the future, especially because I’m really doing the kid a disservice if I don’t help them identify a better person to write the letter. Level 2.

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