June 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

What Every New Media Specialist Needs to Know

These 10 tips can help your career get off to a great start

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Illustration by Steve Wacksman

It’s not easy being a media specialist, especially if you’re new to the profession or you’ve switched schools and you’re suddenly the new kid on the block. Let’s face it, many administrators and teachers don’t understand what we do. And like it or not, we’re still battling that age-old stereotype of the school librarian as a little old lady with a bun who shuffles around shushing people. How can you help others see that you’re a creative, computer-savvy information specialist who works hard to collaborate with students and teachers? How can you become the dynamic leader you’re meant to be? And even more to the point, how can your survive your first year on the job?

Take a deep breath! Relief is on the way. Here are 10 road-tested tips that will help you not only survive, but also thrive.

1. Learn the curriculum.
It’s vital to have a strong understanding of your school’s standard course of study. One of the easiest ways to familiarize yourself with the curriculum for every grade is to post it in your office—and be sure to study it regularly. Then the next time you walk into the teacher’s lounge and your colleagues are discussing their lesson plans, you can join in and offer to team-teach a lesson. You’ll be surprised to see how eagerly they accept your offer. When I collaborate on a lesson, I always try to use cool tools, like interactive whiteboards, Flip video camcorders, and Playaways (which are similar to MP3 players) for struggling readers. These tools keep kids engaged and make them eager to return to the library. And don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. Some of your colleagues may not realize you’re proficient in teaching content areas and that you’re a valuable resource who can help boost student achievement. Prove them wrong.

2. Document! Document! Document!
I can’t stress this point enough. In a more perfect world, school librarians wouldn’t have to constantly prove themselves. But unfortunately, some of our colleagues are convinced that all we do is sit around and check out books! I’ll never forget the day when a teacher stopped by my office and said, “It must be nice to sit at your desk and not have to do anything. Do you want to come and teach my class?” Gulp! What did I just hear? When anyone questions what you do, gently show them your “notebook” full of documentation. This lifesaver can include lesson plans, collaboration logs, correspondence from other teachers, PowerPoint presentations, and information about professional organizations you belong to and seminars you’ve attended, or any other kind of artifact that says, “I’m a teacher librarian, a professional, and an expert.”

3. Smile and say, “Yes!”
You’ve probably heard the old adage, “it takes more muscles to frown than to smile.” So the next time your principal asks you to fill in for lunch duty at the last minute, or your computer crashes as 20 kids are lining up at the circulation desk, or a teacher needs to check out an entire class set of books ASAP, what do you do? Uh-huh. And remember, even if you’re typically a smiley, happy-go-lucky person, your colleagues will remember that one time in a thousand when you weren’t responsive or enthusiastic. So keep smiling, and when you don’t know the answer to a particular question, cheerfully tell the inquirer you’ll get right back to her.

4. Stick with positive people.
I’ve actually had colleagues say to me, “You need a master’s degree to do your job?” Trust me, you don’t want to hang out with those folks. Seek out constructive staff members whom you’re comfortable working with, and when other colleagues see how much you accomplish and how much fun you are to work with, they’ll want to join your club.

5. Make “resource” your middle name.
People wander into the media center for all sorts of things, including sewing kits, Tide pens, Band-Aids, and coffee mugs. That’s why I stash a supply of those items in my office. Once, I was even asked if I had a power drill. (I suggested they try the maintenance department.) Granted, one doesn’t typically associate the media center with these things, but teachers know the school library is a friendly and safe place, so I guess they can’t resist asking. Of course, you’ll also need to stock the usual stuff, such as batteries, blank CDs, extra flash drives, and tape. If possible, it’s wise to include these items in your budget—a few extra items can generate a whole lot of good will among the staff.

6. Listen to your customers.
It’s essential to find out which books and other resources your students and staff want. That’s why I keep a “Wish List” notebook at the circulation desk for them to record their requests. I also send out a survey at the end of the school year, soliciting input about what titles they’d like us to add to our collection. That way I can make informed purchasing decisions and justify what we’ve ordered. By the way, it’s always a genuine thrill to see the excitement on kids’ faces when I hand them a book that they’ve requested. And who knows? When they realize that we actually respond to their requests and have their best interests at heart, they may trust us the next time we recommend a title that’s slightly outside their regular reading repertoires.

7. Lend a helping hand.
There are times when you’ll be called upon to do things that are above and beyond your job description. I always feel my heart start to race when my principal walks in with that look—the look that means I’m going to be asked to take over a class for a teacher who’s had an emergency, fill in during an assembly, or join a committee I would never have dreamt of joining. I’ve even been recruited to choreograph dance numbers. Will these unforeseen opportunities stress you out? Add to your considerable stack of to-do’s? Stretch you in directions you hadn’t considered? Definitely. But consider the upside. By investing in helping others, you’ll become more than just that person that scans books, reads stories, and gathers resources. Your colleagues will remember your willingness to help out, and that may inspire them to be more willing to help you.

8. Encouragemints.
Want to encourage more visits from your colleagues? Well, a little sugar can go a long way. I keep a candy jar in my office stocked with Hershey’s Kisses and M&M’s for chocolate lovers and peppermints and sourballs for those who love hard candy—and it seems to do the trick. When staff members stop by for a boost, I hit them with some resources I know they need, share a brilliant idea for a collaboration project, or schedule time to plan together. That way, they leave with their sweet tooth sated and some new ideas. And later on, when they’re looking for some good resources, they know where to go.

9. Turn trash into treasure.
Library budgets are shrinking at an alarming rate. But being the resourceful folks we are, media specialists can always find ways around that. I’m a big fan of Dollar Trees (and other discount stores), donations, and yard sales. I’ve bought a picture frame for a dollar at a tag sale and with a little paint, a little sparkle—voila!—it’s been transformed into part of a book display. Yard sales also offer an abundance of craft materials (including yarn, buttons, fabric, and loads of different types of paper) and holiday and seasonal décor, such as Christmas wreaths, scarecrows, and silk flowers. And when anybody asks, “Could you use _______?” The answer, of course, is, “Yes!” I can always find a creative use for “stuff,” such as transforming a discarded cardboard box into an ice cube for my display on the Earth’s polar regions. My family even gets into the act. My husband once brought home a big, scary-looking, book-shaped candy box that’s perfect for Halloween. I fill it with “Goosebumps” books and other scary stories, and every time a student lifts the spring-loaded lid, the box lets out a scream! The sound drives my assistant and parent volunteer crazy, but kids love it, and I do, too.
If you’re searching for more cheap, simple, and easily adaptable ideas, the following books can’t be beat: Rob Reid’s Cool Story Programs for the School-Age Crowd (2004) and Something Funny Happened at the Library: How to Create Humorous Programs for Children and Young Adults (2002, both American Library Association), Gayle Skaggs’s Off the Wall! School Year Bulletin Boards and Displays for the Library (McFarland, 1995), and Earlene Green Evans and Muriel Miller Branch’s 3-D Displays for Libraries, Schools and Media Centers (McFarland, 2000).

10. Be Switzerland.
Your library is there to serve the needs of everyone, including the good, the bad, and the annoying. Don’t give your faculty a reason to think you’re favoring one grade over another. To keep track of things, I color code my lesson plan book. I assign a color to each grade—say, green for third grade, orange for fourth, and red for fifth. Then, when I teach a particular lesson, I mark it with its corresponding color. Later on, when I review my lesson plans, it’s easy to see if I’ve inadvertently ignored anybody, and I can plan accordingly.

Author Information
Donna Corbo (dcorbo@currituck.k12.nc.us ) is a media specialist at Currituck County Middle School in Barco, NC, and Candace Sample (csample@currituck.k12.nc.us) is a librarian at Jarvisburg Elementary School.