November 18, 2017

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What Does Your Boss Think About You?

SLJ’s survey reveals principals’ lack of knowledge about the role of school librarians

Tom Baltzer, a principal at Huntington Elementary School in Utah, is so gung ho about the media center that he can’t imagine the school without one. In fact, he jokes that the staff and district would rather get rid of the principal first. “I would be devastated. The children would be hurt, and the school would be hurt,” Baltzer says. The school’s librarian, Paulette Kelly, doesn’t merely play a supporting role in the school—she engages with each teacher and asks how best to work with them. With a high minority population and 62 percent of the students on free and reduced lunches, Baltzer says the need for a library is even more critical. He’s working with Kelly to renovate the media center and to make it the school’s showplace.

Of course, not all bosses are like Baltzer. School Library Journal recently surveyed 242 principals across the nation to find out how they perceive your role in the library media center. Although many school librarians complain they don’t get the recognition they deserve, eight out of ten of the principals surveyed say they strongly believe the media center plays a positive role in the overall value of the school. But when asked to back up that statement, only 47 percent say there’s a direct link between an effective media center and increased student achievement, and just 41 percent say the school library has a positive impact on students’ standardized test scores.

The low numbers clearly reflect the lack of knowledge principals have about the role of libraries and their ability to improve student learning. Gary Hartzell, a professor of educational administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, explains that expressing support for the media center is “the socially preferred answer.” But if you dig a little deeper, the truth comes out. “[Principals] think they should say that, but they don’t back it up with a budget or the appropriate staffing.”

Paul Flatley, a principal at the K – 3 grade Big Hollow School in Lake County, IL, admits there are “a lot of principals who feel they can do without a library because they would rather use resources on other things.” Those principals, Flatley adds, are under the misguided perception that classroom and public libraries are appropriate substitutes for the school library.

The vastly inconsistent views on the importance of media centers stem from a lack of knowledge on the part of principals, says Dwight Davis, a principal at Buffalo Community Middle School in Minnesota. Although Davis says that “the days of learning in an individual classroom are behind us,” he admits to being not fully aware of exactly how much the school librarian does each day. Given spontaneous requests for help and the many other demands librarians face on any given day, Davis says it’s impossible to quantify how many classes the librarian helps unless she tells him. “There’s a lack of communication,” he says. A case in point: only 26 percent of the principals surveyed say their librarians teach regularly scheduled classes in the library, a stark contrast to the average 13 classes per week that librarians say they teach (see “Got Clout?” May 2002, pp. 40 – 45). How could there be such varying accounts of something as obvious as the number of classes being taught? Because librarians and principals have different perceptions of what constitutes teaching, Davis says. Principals, for example, may think teaching involves bringing scheduled classes to the library for lessons on research methods, but they might not count helping classes with independent research.

Given this lack of communication, it’s not surprising that a paltry 37 percent of those surveyed say their school librarians familiarize them with current research on library media programs and student achievement, and only 35 percent say librarians inform them about current research on reading development. Stunned by the low figures, Hartzell says it should be a wake up call for the profession. “If that’s the case, then it’s a real failing on the part of librarians.”

School librarians should make it a part of their job to inform principals about what they do—from book selection and circulation to documenting how the library affects student achievement, says Sid Tanner, a principal at the K – 12 White City School in Kansas. “It’s their responsibility to let their principals know, and it’s my responsibility to make sure they do it,” he says, emphasizing the importance of a two-way street.

The message is clear: librarians must make themselves more visible by better articulating their mission and the impact they have on student learning. Only a little more than one-third of principals say their media specialists take a proactive role in the school. Flatley, for example, would like more feedback from his librarian on what she’s doing, although he recognizes the time constraints. He’d also like to see the librarian collaborate more with teachers on projects and get more students to use computers for research. Walter Phythian, who heads the Opelousas Junior High School in Louisiana, is another principal who says his veteran librarian is not as computer literate as he would like.

While Davis refers to his media specialist as a teacher and wouldn’t dare label her a “babysitter,” more than half the principals surveyed say the media specialist views her primary role as a “caretaker.” Principals are left in the dark in other areas as well. A little more than half say librarians work with classroom teachers as needed. The inference is that teachers either feel they don’t have a need for the librarian, or librarians simply aren’t making the effort to better collaborate with teachers.

Most principals don’t even acknowledge the need for special librarian evaluations. Regardless of the type of school, eight in ten principals evaluate their school librarian using a standard teacher observation form. “This says [principals] really don’t understand what the librarian does,” Hartzell says. “The standard teacher form doesn’t include the kinds of activities a librarian does and has limited application to the librarian. Teaching is only one part of what the librarian does.” Less than 22 percent use a special form to evaluate librarians and only one percent use the American Association of School Librarians’ rubric, which shows how little importance principals place on the recommendations of library associations.

The survey reveals that a disconcerting 45 percent of principals say the librarian is under the shared supervision of the principal and the district. What was the most cited criterion for evaluating the media specialist? An alarming 97 percent cite informal visits to the library as the most important, a serious problem because librarians have other responsibilities that are often overlooked and undervalued, such as collection development, weeding, cataloging, and collaborating with teachers.

There is some encouraging news, however. It looks like there’s no need for media specialists to
fear being replaced by the Internet: most principals recognize the continued need for a librarian’s skill set—from researching print materials to recognizing bogus Web sites. Despite the Internet explosion, 99 percent of principals say they strongly or somewhat agree that the school librarian remains essential.

Although 88 percent of principals say their teaching staff view the media specialist with “enthusiasm,” Tanner believes “we can do a lot more” to promote better collaboration between the library and classrooms. “Sometimes it’s a case of not knowing what a good library can do for you, so teachers are hesitant to ask for help,” he says. Only 15 percent of those surveyed have a formal policy requiring collaboration, and 81 percent have no policy at all.

It’s encouraging to know that a majority of principals choose to include media specialists on important decisions: 66 percent say their librarians participate as instructors in the staff development of teachers; 55 say they regularly attend grade-level or department meetings; 49 percent say librarians are involved in textbook selection; and 49 percent say they hold a seat on the school curriculum committee.

Roger Klimek, a principal at Gates Chili Middle School outside of Monroe County, NY, believes that alongside a successful librarian is a supportive principal. But if you’re not lucky enough to have one, don’t despair. He advises taking action to gain recognition—ally with teachers who support the library and make yourself indispensable.

“Work for it,” Klimek says. “Show them how you can teach kids to process information and become better learners.”

The Survey Sample

SLJ’s three-page questionnaire was mailed to 2,000 principals in mid-April. Almost half of the 242 respondents were in charge of elementary schools, and the remainder was evenly split between middle and high schools. Principals reported an average student body of slightly more than 700, with elementary schools averaging 450 students and high schools reporting an average of 1,100. About eight in ten school libraries have a full-time certified library media specialist, 19 percent have noncertified media specialists, and only two percent have certified teachers acting as librarians. Nearly all school libraries had technology support personnel available to them.

About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.

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