How References Work In Teaching: Insider Knowledge

A lot of teachers want to quit and find a new job, but don’t because of references. References are absolutely everything in teaching: one bad one and you will never work in teaching again. Even schools you have not given as references will be contacted for them, and there is a lot of informal, off the record referencing going on as well. Your reputation is everything.

I’ve written here everything I know about how referencing really works in teaching, based on my own experiences, and those of people I’ve spoken to. I’ve tried to focus on the questions I get asked the most personally, and I see getting asked the most on teaching forums.

It’s not true that you can’t give a bad reference, you can, as long as it is truthful, and you can prove that it’s truthful. Because proof is important, some heads will instead leave whole chunks of your reference out, which is often a big sign to your new place of work that there is something negative to be said in that area, but your old head just doesn’t want to implicate themselves. This is perfectly above board to do this, and to make that assumption because of it.

Even worse, it is possible that they will refuse to give a reference altogether, which works in the same way. In either case, it is highly likely that your old school will be contacted on the phone and there will be an off the record chat, where truthfulness and proof is not necessary.

Your new place of work will probably refuse you the job because of this, but will never admit exactly why. It’s very easy for them to simply say there was a better candidate, or pick a minor criticism out of your application or interview as the reason instead.

Your new school is perfectly within their rights to contact every school you’ve worked at in the past. I was a music teacher, and one place I worked at even contacted the conductors of all the orchestras I’d played in, including my student one. They can ask you if it is OK to contact them as an additional reference, in which case your refusal tells them everything they need to know. They can also contact them without your permission, for one of their ‘special chats’ as above.

Don’t be tempted to leave a school off your application form to get around any of the above, as your previous places of work can be determined from your tax records. These can be viewed by payroll and human resources.

Finally, as part of compromise agreements when you leave your old school, you may have been offered an ‘agreed reference’. This is a standard statement that you will see that is to be used in place of a reference in the future. The wording of this cannot change once agreed, and you can ask that it be changed before you agree to it. Whether your school do change it as you’ve requested or simply withdraw the offer is up to them.

When your new school requests this reference, this exact same statement will be sent out. Agreed references are usually very short and give no details away, other than the fact that you worked there, you completed all your duties and what your attendance was like.

It’s probably a good idea to tell your new school that they are going to be receiving an agreed reference before they request it, because you can spot them a mile off. Also, in this case you’re back in that same situation – the reference says nothing negative, but the fact that it is an agreed reference screams that something went wrong, and they can say what they want about you on the phone.

So in conclusion, if you suspect you will get a bad reference on or off the record, don’t try and cover anything up and be as honest as you can. The only way around it is to find someone who will employ you despite this.

Have you been having trouble getting another teaching job because of references? Do you believe that off the record talks have happened about you between heads? If you’re having problems in this area then please email me, I’d be very happy to give individual advice.


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