The Day Monsieur Said Non

In 11th grade, I needed three stellar recommendations that I could send off with my college applications. I felt confident that I would receive solid letters from two of my former English teachers, but then I was kinda stuck. There was no way I could ask any of my math teachers. I mean, I had enjoyed Geometry, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it; my Algebra teacher had retired two years prior; and I wasn’t on good terms with my homeroom teacher.

Monsieur gives me the finger.

Finally, I decided to ask my French teacher.

I’d been in his class for two years. I was reasonably interested in the material (kinda); I liked him a lot (that should count for something, right?); I did my homework (sometimes); and I tried not to laugh too much. Yes, I decided, Monsieur Stephenson would be the perfect person to write me the outstanding recommendation that I was seeking.

You can imagine how shocked I was when he flat out said no.

“Think about your performance in my class,” he said. “Do you give 100% ? Do you take everything seriously? Do you show me that you want to be here? Do you do anything extra?” He pushed his hair back with the palm of his hand and sat up straight in his chair. “Think about the answers to those questions and then you’ll understand why I can’t write you a letter.”

He did not say he was sorry.

Fast forward 25 years, and here it is, recommendation letter writing season.  Like frantic homing pigeons who have been lost for an awful long time my former students are returning to me, asking me to write all kinds of letters: to get into four-year colleges, to enter the military, to give to potential employers — so I find myself thinking of Monsieur Stephenson a lot.

Mr. Stephenson in the 1980s

When Monsieur refused me that day, he gave me a big dose of reality. It is not enough to simply show up: a person must do more than make a good impression.

Many of my former students think that because they liked me – that because I was kind to them and they passed my class – that they are entitled to strong letters of recommendation.

However, the best letters of recommendation are not just about “passing the course,” but about work ethic and character, growth and potential.

I am strangely grateful to Monsieur Stephenson for refusing to write me that letter, and I see his wisdom in holding up a mirror before me and having me take that proverbial good hard look at myself and the choices I had made that brought me to that day.

I even understand that his mediocre letter could have prevented me from getting into the college of my choice.

Students need to think carefully and be direct in asking any potential letter writer if that person can produce a strong letter of recommendation on their behalf.

If a student cannot find a professor or teacher, they may have to get creative and look to coaches, neighbors, religious leaders, perhaps someone who has witnessed their involvement in community service.

I learned more than just French from Monsieur Stephenson: as teacher now, myself, I have learned how to be selective about whom I consider writing letters of recommendation; after all, they are time-consuming endeavors, unpaid labors of love.

Having said that, I am happy to write one for you – if you deserve it.

Anybody refuse to write you a letter of recommendation? How’d you take it?

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© Renée Schuls-Jacobson 2011. All rights reserved.

30 thoughts on “The Day Monsieur Said Non

  1. I’ve gotten all the recommendations I wanted, and they have been glorious. Had I actually tried getting them in high school, though, I can assure the result would not have been the same.

    I spent my three years in high school trying to get out of high school, so that probably only the one teacher whose identity you already know would have written me a recommendation. Yet I got some gorgeous ones from the community college and then from the university (for law school), when they were more greatly needed.

    Actually, now that I think about it, one of my law school profs never did get back to me with any response whatsoever. Other folks in the class said he pretty much never emailed anyone back for anything, which is an unfortunate situation when you’re looking to jump schools in Japan and can’t possibly just meander on in for a chat!

    Law school, like high school, was for me not a period from which I was apt to get a lot of recommendations. *cough* I’d pegged that one for a certainty given our interactions in and outside of class! Dude did hate his email, though.

    1. Once in college, my recommendation became glowing — but prior, I was not known for being particularly academic.

      I’m really glad Monsieur sad no to me.

      I hope other teachers don’t just write lame letters out of a feeling of obligation. Colleges are so competitive these days, I’d rather tell a student no than write a weak letter.

    1. Hey Craig! I did! I posted this about one year ago when I only had about 15 followers! There were very few comments! I figured since it is that time of the year again and students are starting to think about this, I would re-post.

      I figured giving teachers a head’s up that they don’t have to write recommendations for sucky students could be a liberating message! 😉

  2. I’ve never had a problem getting letters of recommendation. I’ve been scared to ask people for them, scared about what they would say in them, and scared of the reaction of the person reading them, however. I’m not the best employee, so I really hope that I don’t have to ask anyone from work for one…

    1. Eric, you are so snarky, I am sure you are a great employee! But you are right, it can be scary to ask for recommendation letters. I know I was terrified. Probably somewhere down deep in my gut, I knew I was not worthy. I was just surprised by the actual refusal.

      It was a great lesson for me.

      I think it was the first time I realized that teachers DO differentiate between their students. 😉

  3. Renee, this is a fantastic post–well-written (you inspire me) and well-stated. I think it would be a great handout to entering HS freshmen and useful for a discussion of the topics “work ethic and character, growth and potential”. I am going to give a copy to HS contacts I have.

    As for my experience, the advisor for the school newspaper I was on caused this dilemma for those of us who needed a rec. letter: it would most likely be a great letter but one possibly covered with coffee stains…worth the risk.

  4. I hated school. It seemed so full of unnecessary busy-work. I grew up in a small town where all the kids when to one school. The atmosphere was chaotic and, at times, dangerous. Imagine being shaken down daily for your lunch money and/or items off your lunch tray. Imagine theft and drugs sales as a regular occurrence. It was neither an encouraging or great atmosphere in which to learn.

    That said, I wish I had been more tenacious and tried harder despite all that. I might have been one of those kids looking for college recommendations from my teachers. As it was, I graduated and immediately joined the workforce. By the time I hit my late 20s, I realized I hated the kind of jobs a high school diploma could get you. I went to college and tried very hard. I was fortunate enough to receive scholarships that covered all but a fraction of the costs.

    Of course, that led to me figuring out I could be a receptionist with or without a college degree…but that’s another story.

    Your posts are always so thought provoking. 😀

  5. Wow. A great lesson that was not lost on you.

    I was the over-achiever in high school, so I got all the letters I wanted. What taught me a lot, however, was not winning the presidency of the student council. I had all the experience, etc, but lost to a cool (and intelligent) slacker who’d now be one of the people I’d actually like to talk to at a high school reunion I’ve never had. It taught me nothing is a sure thing. Nor should it be. It also taught me sometimes it’s best for over-achievers to sit down and shut up. 🙂

    1. As an under-achiever until I hit college (where I actually looked myself in the mirror and said aloud: “Okay, from here on out, this matters), I am happy to be your surrogate.

      Except that now I am an over-achiever, too.

      I’ve been reformed.

      Sorry. 😉

      But you are right, nothing is a sure thing. And people can change.

  6. I always appreciate your honesty Renee. You share such genuine and well written learning moments of your past that so many of us can identify with. Thankfully I had such beautifully written reference letters they were humbling. I credit that to my amazing english teachers who presented me with opportunities that helped me break out of my shell, improve myself and my writing, and never kicked me out of their room when I just wanted to chat or share something I was working on. That meant the world. I hope I can live up to their standards. I try to always remember that when my team at work comes to me with concerns or just needs to chat for a bit and feel appreciated. Wouldn’t you know it, the one thing I got called out for in my leadership review was for caring too much! I can be too much of a life coach, and it makes it harder to drive sales when I know what they are all dealing with at home. Yet again, a stark cry that I’m so in the wrong field, but for now it pays the bills. *shakes head*

    1. Hi Jess! I am sooo excited to (hopefully) get to work with you more closely in the upcoming months! You are such a great writer: truly the best testimonial to all those teachers you had way back when.

      I was such a slacker, I only did well in English — and I needed current letters. I couldn’t ask my freshman English teacher for a letter. She’d only known me for one year. And my sophomore English teacher left to pursue a career in writing! So I was stuck. (Hell, I’d been thrown out of homeroom!) That said, I did learn a lot from that interaction. Thanks for paying me a visit. 😉

  7. Oh how I dread rec letters. I wrote a few and always hated the chore. Then I decided to never write them unless a great student asked. Still I fall behind and that becomes the last thing on my list for weeks. The last time a student asked me I told her that she was making my life less fulfilling and that I hated doing them. I never heard back from her now that I think of it.

  8. Wow, that is a powerful story! I can’t imagine anyone these days turning you down 🙂 I’ve never had anyone say no, but haven’t had to ask for too many, so I think I’ve been lucky!

  9. Great post, my friend!

    As an English teacher who labored long and hard to “connect” with my students on a personal level, I was bombarded with requests for letters of recommendation each fall.

    For one, my students assumed it would be well written. Also, they thought I was a pushover. Which I was.

    Because they liked me and I liked them, they assumed I’d bend over backward to write glowing reports of their ACADEMIC performance in my class.

    For years I struggled to find something positive to gush about many a mediocre student. Eventually, I grew frustrated and started saying things like, “I’m going to be honest in this letter. So do you STILL want me to write it?”

    Many students replied with something along the lines of, “All my other teachers hate me.”

    Hmmmm. That should have told them something right there. And me, too, I suppose.

    Eventually I began teaching seniors exclusively (120+ of them) and in an attempt to keep myself from going insane, I told students on the first day of school that I would not write any letters of rec because I wouldn’t have known them long enough to give an honest assessment.

    Occasionally, when I was lucky enough to get close to a really super-fabulous student, I’d offer to write something for him or her on the down-low.

    In this way, I saved myself many hours of disingenuous work and could write letters that actually meant something.

    The learning curve was long and slow for me…but I got there.

    Good for Monsieur.
    And at least you learned to say, “Non.” Oui?

    1. Julie:

      So interesting as this would be my progression and realization as well. And now that I teach at the college level, only a few come back to find me — but there are a few good ones with whom I stay connected, and I am happy to write them recs.

      But I would never agree to write something unless I new I could write something stellar. Stellar is easy to write!

      And oui. J’ai appris à dire non! Not bad, right? 😉

      (I learned how to say no!)

  10. Hmmm…love your post, Renee, is funnily thought provoking! When I finished my second undergrad degree and found myself looking forward to an illustrious grad school career, I needed two sealed letters of recommendation from former professors. So, I asked the one that really liked me, and a really nice push-over. Which now I wonder, since they were sealed, and I didn’t get in, what did they say?!? What did that nice old lady write, since I couldn’t read it? It must have been liberating for her to say exactly what she thought knowing that if the envelope were unsealed, the graduate admissions would notify her and the letter would be invalid. Maybe all letters of recommendation should be closed since many people feel the pressure to only say nice things?

    1. It’s a good point. Beyond high school, I don’t think recommendations ever have to have that level of secrecy. That said, I never write recommendations for a student without giving that student a copy of the rec. I want them to have a copy of it so they can use it for other purposes beyond that one singular instance. They seem to appreciate it.

      If I can’t say great things, I probably shouldn’t be the one writing that recommendation. 😉

  11. I was an over-achiever like Leanne, so the idea of a teacher having to tell a student “no” never really dawned on me. It’s probably not easy for a teacher to be brutally honest like that, but what a great way to teach a life lesson.

    I’ve had to write a few letters of rec for the teens I work with in soccer. It’s not easy, but so far all that have asked have been deserving. 🙂

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