Mr. Miller, an African American Literature teacher, stands at his lectern while he takes attendance. High school students sit in the foreground.
English teacher Alan Miller calls roll at Berkeley High School in August 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Berkeley teachers who write their students letters of recommendation to get into college can now receive either time off or additional pay. 

The agreement between the teachers union and the school district, signed in late May after months of deliberation, is one of the first of its kind in the area.

The agreement accounts for additional work done by teachers that typically goes unpaid and resolves a conflict that left some students scrambling to find recommenders last year

“It respects the work that our teachers are doing and the work that really the district expects us to do,” said Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers.

Every year, teachers of juniors and seniors get anywhere from five to 50 requests for letters for recommendation for college applications, scholarship programs and internships.

In most school districts, teachers write these letters on their own time, working weekends or holidays. Berkeley is now part of a small number of districts, like Palo Alto Unified, that compensate teachers for letter writing.

Meyer said BUSD is the only district he is aware of to offer the option of time off, and he expects that “many districts will probably follow our lead.”

In past years, teachers could ask for a substitute to cover their classes for every 10 letters they had to write, but Berkeley High Principal Juan Raygoza ended the practice due to a substitute teacher shortage. In response, some teachers decided to write fewer letters and a couple turned students away outright.

The district and the teachers union couldn’t reach an agreement in time to sign a new contract in October and it took another seven months before a memorandum of understanding was signed on the issue.

In the meantime, some students panicked. Two parents concerned about their children’s college prospects sent a letter to the high school asking that a note be added to their applications explaining why students were not able to get the two requisite letters.

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,” the letter read. Their request was not granted.

The new agreement codifies the previous arrangement in the teachers union contract and gives teachers the choice between a day off for every 10 letters with a limit of three days off per year; in-service credits, which slowly accrue into additional pay and benefits; or compensation. Teachers writing at least five letters will be able to bill each one as up to 45 minutes of work.

The teachers union contract also already includes pay for teachers for some other types of additional work, like summer school curriculum development or involvement in student programs that take place outside of school hours, like Puente, though these sorts of compensation opportunities remain limited in scope.

Shoshana O’Keefe, who teaches computer science at Berkeley High, said the new agreement gives her the time she needs to write high-quality letters worthy of her students.

“I love doing something to help them get into the college of their dreams, so I get really emotional,” O’Keefe said. “It’s a very intense experience, but I also am usually already really drained.”

Next year, O’Keefe plans to take advantage of the agreement and take a few days off for letter-writing, rather than using time she would devote to her family on three-day weekends or winter break. “I hope other districts follow our lead,” she said.

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,...