July 23, 2017

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Building Bridges and Restoring Jobs | Take the Lead

Susan K.S. Grigsby

Being a school librarian can be isolating. We are often the only one in the building, and we frequently run our libraries without clerks or paraprofessionals. That isolation can feel exponentially more acute when one becomes the only librarian at the district level. While school librarians can find teachers who are willing to interact and innovate, district personnel are often focused on their own departments, and it can be hard to venture into other silos.

When I was accepted into the Lilead Fellowship in 2014, I was just a few months into my first district-level position in Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, GA, and I immediately felt that I’d been thrown a much needed lifeline. I went to our first meeting at the 2015 American Librarian Association Midwinter Meeting with “big idea” lofty goals, only to be brought back to the reality of, well, reality. I quickly realized that I had a lot of work to do.

I work in a district that allows principals to hire noncertified personnel in their school libraries. Some principals have chosen certified teachers without library experience and some have hired staff without teaching credentials. At the time of that meeting, only 50 percent of our elementary and 35 percent of our middle schools were staffed with certified school librarians, most without clerks or assistants. It was clear, early on, that my idea of re-professionalizing our media centers was going to take a back seat to building a shared understanding of what our expectations were for a quality standard of practice delivered to students and staff—in every school, to every student, every day.

I started by building a blended learning course that was closely aligned to an evaluation instrument designed and developed by the Georgia School Library Media Consortium. With district leadership support, the course, Instructional Leadership for Library Media Specialists, was advertised to noncertified library staff and their principals. There were 10 participants in the course with four face-to-face and three online sessions. I gathered pre-course data from participants and their principals through an extensive set of survey questions to get a feel for what they knew, their perceptions of quality library service, and how they understood the role.

The survey taken before the course showed that most of the principals did not see their library staff as instructional leaders. However, the survey after the course completely flipped that perception, with more than 60 percent either agreeing or strongly agreeing that their librarians were instructional leaders. Interestingly, 75 percent of pre-course participants agreed with the statement “I am an instructional leader.” But when they graduated, there was a higher neutral response and lower agreement to that same question. Why? I believe it reflects the fact that my participants simply didn’t realize how much they didn’t know. The coursework not only provided a standard of practice framework with which to run their media centers but also a deeper understanding of the instructional role of the school librarian. They have all continued to grow in their roles and deliver that standard of practice, which is much more aligned with our evaluation instrument.

To be clear, I do not believe that teachers or paraprofessionals can deliver the same quality library program as a certified, professional school librarian. While this course helped our non-certified staff improve their skill sets, I believe that what a certified school librarian brings to the table cannot be replicated with a seven-module blended learning course.

There are other bright spots. We have an elementary school with a certified librarian at the helm after several years without one, because the principal didn’t see the benefit. When I first met this principal, she confidently told me that she didn’t have one, didn’t need one, and they were doing just fine. I had the singular fortune of knowing a dynamic, certified librarian who was willing to accept a paraprofessional position in this school because she wanted to work in our district. We both knew that in spite of her certification (and qualifications), the position could forever remain at the level of paraprofessional. However, that principal, after just half the school year, fully instated her media paraprofessional into a fully-funded full time certified position for the next school year. When given the opportunity to work with a dynamic, collaborative, and knowledgeable librarian, she used a precious staffing point to keep her.

There aren’t many certified librarians willing to take a chance on accepting a paraprofessional position and perform what was essentially a six-month interview. However, with my advocacy and this librarian’s approach to instruction, our story has a happy ending. The superintendent allowed me to present the “why” of libraries to our entire administrative staff. Because time for the presentation was limited, I made a video showing principals and their media specialists talking about what they do and how they support strong libraries. A featured principal spoke eloquently about the differences she’d seen when she had a certified media specialist in her school, and she turned into one of my strongest voices. I was subsequently asked by two different principals for input on their hires. When schools were being built or renovated, I was part of the planning team.

We now have 12 school libraries designed to be flexible, inviting, and interactive learning hubs—with more on the way. In fact, our Alliance Academy, a new high school opening in August 2018, will be a career- and interest-themed program unlike anything else in our district. The principal has already reached out for my input on making sure the right media specialist is placed there. In a district that actively “flexed” out the media specialist positions just eight years ago, this is a huge change.

The most telling change came when I told my district that I would be taking an overseas position and would not be coming back for the 2017–18 school year. My decision is difficult, because I feel a deep sense of responsibility for the media specialists of this district who, for the first time in years, know they have an advocate and a voice in the district office. I was afraid that I would not be replaced if I left. The good news is that the district deemed the position “too important” to leave vacant—just three years after many questioned the need for a district media specialist in the first place.

No matter where I land, I’m still advocating. I’m still teaching. I’m still leading. I believe to my core that school librarians bring powerful expertise to discussions about personalized learning, open educational resources, the digital shift, and the ever-expanding definition of literacy. I believe that libraries are sacred spaces that can open up the entire world (and lots of minds). Yes, it can be isolating to be the only librarian in the school and the only librarian in a district office. But I am busy building bridges to all of those silos.

Susan K.S. Grigsby is the district media specialist in Forsyth County (GA) Schools, professional development chair for the Georgia Library Media Association, and a 2015–16 Lilead Fellow.

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Comments

  1. Carole Sharp says:

    Retired after many long years of frustration in trying to get this point across to admins and teachers while trying to offer all I could without real support, this brings tears to my eyes. Kudos to Susan Grigsby who has been a shining light.

  2. Heeru Bhojwani says:

    Your article is refreshing and it’s so impressive, you had the courage to build an online program to develop and empower so many paraprofessionals who have the drive, and now you’ve provided them the opportunity to build capacity and knowledge

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