Students sit on a banner and work on their laptops outside Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley
College students study outside the Bancroft Library on the UC Berkeley campus. File photo: Kelly Sullivan

Every fall, as hundreds of Berkeley High seniors rush to apply to college, one of the key steps is acquiring a letter of recommendation, or maybe two. Teachers almost always say yes, writing from 10 to 60 letters each year.

But this year, due to a conflict over whether and how Berkeley teachers will be compensated for letters of recommendation, some teachers turned more students who asked away, and at least two teachers turned students away outright.

A resolution is now on the horizon, but the conflict left seniors applying to college stressed, parents frustrated and some teachers, who took on additional burden, overworked.

“There’s definitely students who don’t have letters,” said Ian Segall, the student director on the Berkeley school board who has been pushing the district to resolve this problem since the start of the school year in August. “For the early deadlines, the hurt is felt and the impact is felt from failure to address this earlier.”

Kori Austera, a math teacher at Berkeley High, agreed to write 20 letters of recommendation this year, the maximum she thought she could do justice to.

A Berkeley parent tried out substitute teaching. Read about his experience.

“I had to say no to some fantastic students who I care about deeply,” Austera during public comment during a school board meeting Sept. 7. “We’re so proud of our former students who head off to college. Just please remember that behind all those acceptance letters, there are many hours of writing letters of rec.”

In prior years, Berkeley High teachers could ask for a substitute teacher to cover their class for every 10 letters they had to write. (One letter usually takes about an hour.) But Principal Juan Raygoza ended the practice due to a substitute teacher shortage that began during the pandemic.

In October 1981, teachers of New York City’s Stuyvesant High School made the front page of the New York Times by ending a 24-day refusal to write letters of recommendation. The teachers were asking for more time during the workday to write the letters, which, at an hour per student for dozens of students, they could not complete without investing evenings and weekends.

“Teachers love their students. The last thing they want to do is hurt their students, yet they’re hurting their students,” said a parent who blames the district for failing to address this problem sooner and asked not to be named so as not to embarass her daughter.

Her daughter is a standout student, a varsity athlete and a musician with high marks. Two weeks before the Nov. 1 deadline to apply, she realized she needed a second letter of recommendation from a humanities teacher for an elite school. Her history teacher turned her down. Partly as a result, she decided to delay her application to the school until January.

Teachers say they’re not supported as duties pile up

The school district and teachers’ union took up the recommendation letter issue during contract negotiations. 

After several months of debate, they didn’t reach a final conclusion. But the contract did create a working group at the high school to create a solution. In his recent email, Raygoza said he was exploring “funding options that would make it possible for teachers and counselors to receive pay and/or sub coverage for writing.” 

Berkeley Unified also agreed to give an in-service credit for every hour a teacher spends writing a letter that is not otherwise compensated. (This isn’t much of a boon: It takes 30 in-service hours to equal one semester hour, and it takes at least 24 semester hours for teachers to move up on the pay scale.) 

Those commitments were enough to get many teachers back writing letters again, but it didn’t leave much time before the Nov. 1 deadline. 

In response, parent Anna Weinstein asked district leaders to issue a disclaimer on students’ college applications explaining why some students couldn’t get the requisite two letters of recommendation. 

We “urge BUSD to take immediate action—within BHS or as part of an emergency measure at the next school board meeting—to mitigate the damage being done to college-bound seniors who are experiencing an unanticipated shortage of AC Humanities and other teachers available to write college recommendations,” she wrote in a letter, co-written with another parent. They have yet to receive a response.

“We recognize how important it is for students to receive [letters of recommendation]. We also recognize the importance of compensating teachers for the time that is involved in supporting students’ post high school goals in this way,” Raygoza wrote in an email to the Berkeley High community Oct. 20.

Many teachers say this is just one of many responsibilities that they are expected to take on without compensation or being given enough time to do them.

“I’m too burned out to do more than I’m already doing, considering I do work on the weekends,” said history teacher Angela Coppola, one of a handful of teachers who refused to write letters outright. In the past, Coppola found taking days off to write letters stressful, requiring that she write plans for a substitute, and disruptive. The days off also cost her money, since she would otherwise have cashed in the unused paid time off when she retired.

Science teacher Sydney Aardal didn’t say no and by early September, had already agreed to write 38 letters, which meant entire weekends writing, on top of grading and planning. “As a teacher who does not say no, I find I get asked by many more students,” Aardal said. “I want to help my students to get all the opportunities that they want. However, the time that is required is overwhelming.”

“There can’t be an expectation that teachers do extra duties that pile on hours and hours and hours onto their workload,” said Segall, who was disheartened to realize that “within a school that I love so dearly, that we aren’t supporting the people that hold up the institution.” 

Segall was also frustrated that his earlier attempts to get the issue solved before application season was afoot were brushed aside and that it took months of significant pressure from teachers to move toward a resolution.

Now, Segall is hopeful that the problem will be resolved in time for the Jan. 1 deadline for applications.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...