One of the most pleasurable parts of my job is being able to write letters of evaluation for each of the youth in the mentoring group I work with. The idea didn’t come to me because I had an immediate desire for “assessment.” To be honest, I got into this line of work partly because grading and putting numbers on people are activities that don’t appeal to me. The letters of evaluation grew organically out of the spectacular results from the first workshop I ran with the group. Technically, I can’t say that the youth “exceeded my expectations,” because I had gone into the mentoring group without any points of reference at that stage of my program development, and I barely knew anything about anyone in the group. But they certainly bowled me over with their level of engagement and with their ability to grapple with concepts that I had learned as a college undergrad.
If you’re an educator you’ll understand me when I say I was flying high from the experience even the day after. I couldn’t stop thinking about their projects, so I opened up a Word document and just started writing to each of them. I tentatively emailed them to the program coordinator just to make sure that it was appropriate to send them the letters, and she responded with absolute glee. She said that most of her young clients have never received letters in the mail, so getting an envelope with their name on it and a typed letter inside would be thrilling. And what’s more, it will mean a lot to have an adult engage seriously with them on an individual basis. And indeed, the letters thrilled the youth, thrilled the mentors, and thrilled my clients at Fostering Change for Children (who run the AdoptMent mentoring program). It was a no-brainer to make them a regular part of my workshops with them.
I thought I’d share the process behind each of these letters by identifying the elements that go into them:
1. I type them so they look “official.” (When I have the budget, I will put them on letterhead.) I watched a video once that showed the room of a high schooler in foster care who plastered his walls with whatever certificates and honors he received. He said that it made him feel accomplished and reminded him that he was capable of achieving his goals. His story moved me and stayed with me, and I make my letters look professional just in case anyone wishes to keep them as badges of honor.
2. I begin with “Dear [name]:” This is part of making the letter feel official, and also to remind the reader that s/he is valued. I read somewhere that when youth in foster care hear their peers and the adults around them address them directly by their name, it boosts their self-esteem. One of the signs that a program is well-run is if an individual is greeted by his/her name upon walking into the room. It isn’t immediately intuitive to think that saying, “Hi, [name]!” rather than, “Hi, good to see you!” would make that much of a difference, but I choose to stay on the safe side with the developmental psychologists and make a conscious effort of addressing people by their names as often as possible without making it awkward.
3. My first sentence always thanks them for participating in a certain program/workshop. Again, I want to make it official. But this is also to show my appreciation to them. I really am grateful when people sit in a room after a long day at school and/or work, and allow me to give their brains a bit of a workout and ask some personal questions. It’s truly an honor and a privilege to be let into a young person’s life.
4. The first paragraph gives them my overall impression of their work. This is part of the affirmative process of mirroring: This is what I saw you do, this is what I heard you say, and based on that, this is what you are like. It’s validating to know that other people notice your efforts and value them. If they demonstrate remarkable growth from their last project, or if they show consistency in a certain strength, I make that connection explicit to show that I’ve been paying attention and care about how they’re developing.
5. In the second paragraph I begin engaging more closely with each of their major ideas. This shows them that they are critical thinkers, that they have ideas and opinions of their own, and that an adult cares enough about them to take them seriously.
6. Taking their ideas seriously sometimes means challenging the ones I don’t necessarily agree with. It’s important not to get so caught up in the desire to be accepting and positive that you suppress your best instincts and let certain ideas or opinions that make you uncomfortable slide. If a young person’s views on gender roles in the home seem limited and antiquated, let her know. Do it gently and respectfully, but explain to her why it doesn’t sit well with you. As an adult entrusted to work with these young people, my role as a guide will always trump my desire to be their cheerleader.
7. In addition to suggesting an area for improvement, I like to ask a question or pose a small challenge for them. This isn’t “homework,” but a little nugget for them to take away and chew on.
8. I thank them again if they opened up about something uncomfortable or arrived at an epiphany about themselves after being nudged in their presentation or group discussion. It takes a tremendous amount of self-reflection to arrive at these insights, and even more courage to share them in front of a group.
9. I don’t shy away from big words. “Meeting students where they’re at” does not mean dumbing down my language. If I need to use a word they might not have seen before, I give them enough context clues so they don’t immediately have to resort to a dictionary to get through the sentence. They usually read these letters with their mentors, so they also have that resource to turn to. It reinforces the idea that they are serious thinkers and is also a great opportunity to build vocabulary in a meaningful context.
10. I underscore the most important ideas in the letter. Many of the young people work with get overwhelmed by a lot of text, so I write in short paragraphs and highlight the main points to give them something to focus on. I should add that these letters are no longer than 240 words, and are often much shorter.
11. I always close my letters with “All the best.” “Sincerely” never feels sincere to me, and I mean it when I wish them the very best in their endeavors.
12. I sign my name in ink on top of a dotted line and my name in type because this is how I close all my official correspondence.