How will we save our profession? This is the question that I’ve been struggling with more than usual lately, as I plan for two days of Professional Development with the librarians in my district. I feel obligated to provide them with tools and inspiration to preserve their jobs and, more importantly, the invaluable contribution we make to our students (my own seven year old among the 80,000 kids in our city’s school system).
It’s going to be harder than ever to be positive. And as I reflect on it, maybe that’s a good thing? Maybe a little fear will light the fire under those among us who so easily slip into complacency about what it is we do–blissfully getting up each morning to go a job we love, not questioning that it might not be there tomorrow, next week, or next year. The fact is, with no way to get a firm count, we’ve had many school librarian lay-offs this past year. Many others had to reapply for a newly titled position with different duties. And more than ever are now serving multiple campuses.
We also had many successful battles won–librarian cuts were threatened, but positions were preserved in many districts–Austin, Dallas, and Keller among them. However, we know that the war is by no means over. This year gives those of us still standing a moment to regroup, to restock our troops with fresh supplies and reinforcements.
What can we use to shore up our defenses? Four things:
1. Our teaching certification. This is the primary thing that sets us apart from the amazing paraprofessionals many districts are replacing us with. But stop and assess yourself. Do you know what STAAR, EOC, CCRS, RTI, or ELARS mean? What about the new requirements from the state for gifted students? More importantly, how will you support these in your library program? Do you find yourself bored and tuning out when these things are addressed in mandatory trainings you must attend? Or worse, do you find yourself working on something “library related” or even asking to be excused? I’m certainly guilty of that occasionally. But now more than ever we must attend, be attentive, and offer our unique skills as they fit in the context of state mandated curriculum and assessment. If we don’t know what the teachers know, and can’t speak their ever-changing language, our teaching certificates are just a piece of paper sitting in a file somewhere.
2. Our librarian training. While most of us in school libraries spend much of our time on the business of purchasing, processing, and mainly circulating books, we must remember that we offer a unique service that we know is needed in our schools–we are certified teachers who are trained to integrate information literacy across the curriculum. These days there are reading experts and even technology gurus on almost every campus–and we should be their partners. However, the one thing that we do that no one else brings to the table is teach information literacy. It is our professional jurisdiction. It cannot be taught by uncertified staff and it is not in the training of the technology experts. If you question that this is important, read TEA’s College and Career Readiness Standards or Social Studies Curriculum, or the English Language Arts Standards–you will find information literacy embedded throughout. Most content teachers are not well-versed in modern research practice, and need us to help guide their students through those standards. We are the only faculty member with this unique training, and we need to be contacting teachers asking to help them teach it. If we are not seen using those skills, no one will think about us having them.
3. Our attitude. Librarianship is a service profession. We have to remember that if we’re not providing outstanding customer service, our customers will go elsewhere. I know in my own district, principals were asked who they could afford to cut from their staff in order to save money. Some, I know, felt sheer panic when librarians were mentioned. Others probably thought, “well, she seems like a nice lady, but I don’t really see a lot happening down there.” A few probably thought, “That would be a relief! She always complains.”.
Be honest with yourself. What would your principal think? Does he/she see you as indispensable to the school? In my position, I overhear many discussions where my program director is counseling librarians who have angered their principals over things that should have never been at issue. Worse even is when the principal calls him, and he is at a loss to defend the librarian.
For example, are you being made to do before school hall duty? It’s hard to pop up and say, “but I’m needed to keep the library open to students and staff before school,” if you’re being seen visiting in the teacher’s lounge, in the office, or even still in the parking lot at this time. Your actions speak for you.
What if you’re asked to help tutor? Take it as a compliment and opportunity. Remember, you are a certified teacher, and a paraprofessional couldn’t do this with the skill that you can. Do say, “Is there a way we can keep the library open to drop-in students so they aren’t denied access?” then suggest how that be accomplished.
The bottom-line here is, are you someone seen as part of the problem, or part of the solution? Be careful about aligning yourself with the complainers, the ones who are the first to call the union when there’s a problem. Instead be the one who helps find solutions, offer to help where you might have thought, “but that will weaken my role in the library.” Just make sure that it is doing the more complex things that can showcase your skills as an information specialist, as much as possible: campus webmaster versus junior class sponsor, for example.
We have heard of districts in the state where librarians weren’t seen as effective, and were cut because of it. If someone has to cut you, make it hurt!
4. Our community. When things got ugly in Austin ISD last year, the librarians fought for their positions, and won. Not alone, but with the help of the community. Parents and civic minded people spoke up about how important libraries are to their students’ education.
Last fall, TLA and TASL launched a toolkit for librarians to use to communicate with parents about the importance of school libraries. Customize these for your school and get the word out about the services you provide to students and parents. Use the presentation on the K-12 databases to ask the PTA to help raise money to bring them back on your campus if your district or school cannot fund them this year. When we have spoken to parents at the Texas PTA conference in years past, we are always saddened by how many didn’t know about these. Now that the legislature has cut these, we have a new opportunity to ignite interest in the community by asking for help with funding.
If athletics, music, or art were on the list of cuts, would parents in your community speak against it? Of course they would! Make sure your parents know what you do, understand how libraries educate the whole child by teaching a love of literature and the information literacy skills that are needed to be successful in today’s digital world. Parents are much more powerful advocates for libraries than librarians are.
Have cuts already set things back for your school or district? Don’t assume it is over. There were threats made all over the state that never happened. In some cases, jobs were reinstated before, or even after, pink slips were issued.
Finally, as you use these tools to restock your supplies for this year, remember what it is that made you leave the classroom and come to the library. This summer, as my director and I screened candidate after candidate for the 15 openings in our district, I couldn’t help but feel both worried and re-energized. Worried about these fresh new faces choosing to enter our profession, newly graduated from library school, who, as one candidate told us “had drunk the koolaid.” Were we doing them a disservice hiring them in to a profession that is facing such threats? I felt re-energized at the same time thinking of my own first year in the library, ready to do all I could to be the instructional resource, champion of literacy, technology integrator, and overall go-to-girl when something needed doing.
If you are feeling more discouraged than you should, think of what is lost to this generation of our students if our profession shrivels up and dies away. You are the one who must fight and win the battle to keep librarians in schools. But you are not alone! If find that you need another sip of the koolaid, visit the AASL, TLA and TASL websites, rejoin the school librarian listservs and stop to read them occasionally. Read great bloggers around the state like Top Shelf, and Shelf-Consumed. Follow those amazing librarians like Joyce Valenza and Buffy Hamilton on Twitter and Facebook. Find funding to attend TLA this spring in Houston–it’s always refreshing to get away and bond with others in a climate of learning. Don’t forget it’s an AASL Conference year as well, if you can find money to travel out of state.
And remember your first day as a school librarian–so full of promise and excitement! May this year hold that for you all over again!