Referential treatment: Getting the most out of your references

James McCrostie


While rushing to perfect their cover letters and polish their resumes, job hunters often forget how to make the best use of references. Some applicants even seem to think references don’t matter much, mistakenly believing that schools rarely contact them. Schools that care about what kind of teachers they hire, and thus the ones that tend to be worth working for, do contact references.

Before including anyone in your list of references, make sure to ask the person first. One school manager that I know contacted a reference for a teacher with a solid resume only to hear nothing but negative things about the teacher. At the end of the conversation the manager asked why the teacher had listed her, but the reference had no idea as she was never asked. Making a request by email is easier, but doing it by phone or in person will help one notice any reticence or red flags.

Also, give some thought to who you ask. If you’re applying for a job in Japan and have Japanese teaching experience, try to include a Japanese supervisor on your list. If possible, customize your list of references for each position just as you would your resume.

After getting permission from someone to be included on your list of references, don’t forget to let them know every time you use them as a reference. Give them a copy of the job ad so if they are contacted they can speak about your strengths as they relate to the position. Keeping in touch with your references will not only help them stay up-to-date with your situation, but also helps keep your list of references up-to-date. I was once embarrassed to find out someone I listed as a reference couldn’t be contacted because he had quit his job as a tenured English professor to do missionary work in the wilds of Kyushu.

In terms of when to send references to prospective employers, it’s usually best to refrain from enclosing lists of references, or even worse actual letters of reference, until they are requested.

If a school requests letters of reference make sure they’re recent. Think twice about submitting any letter over a year old. While it may take more effort on your part to get fresh letters, most hiring managers prefer up-to-date letters of reference to testimonials that are several years old.

If possible, read over any letters of reference before mailing them. You know your skills better than anyone else and you may be able to request a second draft if your reference missed anything important. Plus, it never hurts to proofread the letter for typos. A colleague of mine once received a letter of recommendation with another teacher’s name on it from an overworked and absentminded supervisor.

Finally, it’s never a good idea to list a friend or officemate with a fancy made-up job title as a reference. The English teaching universe is smaller than you think and the ability to look up your references on the internet makes it that much smaller.