Through the powerful use of words

Published 4:15 pm Thursday, June 9, 2011

By JASON MAYFIELD / Guest Columnist

Camps, colleges, careers all require different tasks. Some take those people with good grades. Some select those with creative gifts. Some accept those with little talent at all, sort of like spring training for the Chicago Cubs.

All stops of life, though, require a letter of recommendation.

The unique role of educators gives them plenty of chances to give the thumbs up or thumbs down on student pursuits. For the most part, the job of writing a letter in support is fairly easy, the challenge coming only when students are all vying for the same thing.

This year, six of my students requested letters of recommendation to the same department of the same school. I believe in all six, but I knew all six wouldn’t make it in – just simply a numbers game. I struggled over how to write letters to support all six while trying to help the school evaluate all six before I gave up. Without distinction, I wrote the strongest letters I could for all six and left the deciding part where it belonged – the school.

I’ve always wondered about the importance of recommendation letters, whether anyone takes the time to read them or whether they’re a formality and a shadow of a bygone era when a person’s name and position carried a certain merit. Recently, I was reminded of the power of words when I was asked to write a letter for a student in trouble. In that case, rather than simply fly through the motions with phrases like “exceptional student,” “hard worker” and the like, I had to figure out for myself how strongly I believed in the student. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the supportive words to come to mind. I wrote with the fierceness that faith fosters, and I’d like to think I played a role in that student winning a much-deserved second chance.

Words are powerful. With them, I’ve been able to pay for college, win grants for my classroom, discover lost wins for the University of Alabama’s early 20th century baseball teams (another column). Moreover, I’ve been able to nominate fellow teachers for awards they’ve won.

I’ve been able to teach words to students, how to read them, how to write them. The relationships we build in the classroom make it easy to go to bat for them when they need it.

Jason Mayfield is a gifted instructor at Columbiana Middle School.