April 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

How Does Your Boss See You?: Proof That Principals Value Librarians

Illustration by David Flaherty for SLJ feature "How does your boss see you"

Illustration by David Flaherty

Principals value their librarians. They also want them to be more visible leaders.

Those are just two of the interesting findings from a recent survey of 102 media specialists and 67 principals. In fact, 90 percent of the administrators that we surveyed think we have a positive impact in schools—and a large number also feel that our jobs are important. That’s great news, considering only 65 percent of librarians in the study thought their bosses would recognize the valuable role we play.

Tech respect

When asked about our tech contributions, not only did 90 percent of principals say that we encourage its use, they also ranked dealing with technology as one of the top 10 important tasks that we perform. In fact, our bosses highlighted three technology-related activities—sharing our tech expertise with students and teachers, offering tech leadership, and providing tech equipment—as being among our most important job functions.

“The evolution of the ‘library’ into the ‘media/technology’ center is a reality,” says one administrator. “The librarian needs to be current on new and emerging technologies, and assist others in their use.” Another explained that our “teachers are not technology literate, but the librarian is doing her best to change that problem.”

One principal even went as far as to say that technology and the library go hand-in-hand. “As the information landscape continues to evolve, the librarian is the rudder guiding the school toward the new or unknown, while at the same time melding ethical use and appropriate application in the school environment as well as life outside of school.”

Not surprisingly, we’re keenly aware of the crucial role that technology plays in our professional lives—and we like being called the “tech expert.” Some 95 percent of media specialists surveyed agree, or strongly agree, that technology is an essential component of our work, with one librarian saying it was “vital” to her library and another saying she pushes it all the time.

“Technology is my baby! I infuse it into each lesson,” says one respondent who’s also part of her district’s tech team and offers tech training to her colleagues in newsletters and emails. “I present with it and teach it. It hooks the students and the staff.”

Every librarian who responded to the survey said they embrace and encourage technology in their schools, with many adding that they’re one of the few people in the building who are up to date on the latest and greatest technology available, in addition to having in-depth knowledge of web design, prezis, wikis, blogs, and the hottest educational apps.

While some media specialists—especially the veterans—admit to fearing technology at times, they say they still push themselves to help teachers see its value and how it’ll make learning easier in the long run. Several, for example, mentioned getting creative with their Kindle Fires and iPads to teach students about online resources. The only negative comments were about funding—or more specifically, the lack of it—for keeping up with the fast-paced tech evolution.

What are other areas of our jobs that scored high with our bosses? The bulk, 93 percent, strongly agree that we’re helpful in “reinforcing concepts learned in the classroom” and that we assist teachers by making resources available. Plus, 90 percent of administrators think our rooms are inviting. Meanwhile, 90 percent also feel our professional development efforts with teaching colleagues are effective. This is an area of opportunity for librarians: as more than half of librarians surveyed report working with teachers on a one-on-one basis, and express a desire to do more professional development and collaboration in the future.

The big disconnect

Of course, there are areas where school librarians and their principals simply don’t see eye to eye. One that stands out has to do with the promotion of recreational reading. A whopping 98.4 percent of librarians agree—and 81.3 percent strongly agree—that they encourage reading for pleasure, which, according to researcher Stephen Krashen, “is the major source of our reading competence, our vocabulary, and our ability to handle complex grammatical constructions.” Simply put, those who read more show superior literacy development, and as Krashen explains, literacy and language growth are “clearly attributable to free reading.”

Yet only 48.8 percent of principals strongly agree that the librarian encourages recreational reading. It’s quite possible that the question was misunderstood, or that of more concern, principals just don’t understand that it’s a significant—and important—part of what we do each day.

This may help explain another disparity we uncovered: when asked to list the activities that librarians perform daily, media specialists provided a list that exceeded 100 tasks. On the other hand, principals listed 20 items, which, when we eliminated redundancies, were narrowed down to a mere 10. The good news is that both pretty much agree that the top tasks performed by librarians include helping students to access books and information, teaching students and teachers research and tech skills, and collaborating with teachers.

Looking for leaders

So why do so many librarians complain about not feeling the love? Our survey found that some of the negative stereotypes that we’ve been fighting all these years still persist. A lot of principals continue to view librarians as unfriendly shushers who are more concerned with keeping their books in order than encouraging kids to read. One administrator said that courtesy and customer service were important but lacking in his librarian, with another adding that a smile wouldn’t hurt. And when asked to identify the visible leaders in their schools, most of our bosses simply don’t think of us. Only 24.4 percent of administrators view media specialists as visible leaders. And the sad news is that we agree. When posed the same question, only 28 percent of school librarians say they strongly see themselves in a leadership role.

A very likely explanation is that school librarians don’t feel comfortable labeling themselves as leaders—but it doesn’t mean they’re not acting like ones, says Marcia Mardis, associate director of the Partnerships Advancing Library Media (PALM) Center at Florida State University. “Leaders are as leaders do.”

Mardis makes an interesting point. As our survey shows, media specialists perform dozens of tasks each day, but they don’t necessarily feel the need to stand up and shout about it to the world. Some feel that librarians would have taken district-level or managerial jobs if they wanted to be identified as leaders in the traditional sense of the word.

“Labeling yourself a leader can require a lot of chutzpah in an environment that very clearly labels its leaders as principals, assistant principals, and curriculum directors,” explains Mardis. “To stand in the face of that formal recognition and say, ‘I am a leader, too—even if you don’t call me one’ is a professional risk. It’s much less professional risk to act like a leader than it is to call yourself a leader.”

We’re trying to overcome this exact problem with our MLS students at Sam Houston State University, where I train teachers to become school librarians. When asked to rate themselves on key areas that are important to the role of a media specialist, my students consistently rank themselves low in leadership potential and high in the areas of literature expertise, tech ability, library administration, and teaching. Since these future librarians don’t seem to know how to lead—or don’t have a natural affinity for it—our faculty has developed several assignments to teach them how to lead through collaboration, by providing training, teaching technology, and by encouraging them to be the go-to person in the school and community. We’re even teaming up with our school administration department to offer a Ph.D. program in school administration, with an emphasis on library science. By training our students to lead before they enter the media center, we hope these future school librarians will consider leadership and advocacy as important as ordering books and teaching kids how to do research.

Indeed, formidable obstacles to leadership exist in the real world. While many librarians who were surveyed say that they feel like visible leaders with their students and want to be leaders outside the library, it’s a different story when it comes to standing out among their teaching peers. The roadblocks range from fear of rocking the boat and being spread too thinly among different schools to jealousy from classroom teachers and a lack of support from administrators.

“I have been an advocate in my district, which has earned me a few gray hairs due to the lack of interest,” says one respondent. Another says she’s never invited to faculty meetings, despite raising repeated requests to her administrator. “It’s hard to be a visible anything—let alone leader—when you aren’t even seen.”

Lisa Hunt, a media specialist at Apple Creek Elementary in Moore, OK, concurs. “The first year my principal arrived, she rarely came into the library. It soon became clear that she not only thought I wasn’t leadership material, she wanted to ignore my existence.”

One high school librarian in rural Alabama says she wasn’t even allowed to accept an invitation from a student to a banquet honoring academic excellence among the top 10 seniors at her school because “my principal said, ‘No, she’s not a teacher.’”

Lorraine Calabrese, an elementary school librarian with the Northgate School District in Pittsburgh, PA, inherited both the legacy of a former librarian who possessed few leadership qualities and the difficulty of splitting her time between two buildings. “I have two schools, two principals, often with very different styles of management,” she says. “I have my hands tied somewhat by teaching seven out of nine periods a day. Students are dropped at the door, [and I’m] lucky if I see the teacher. When technology came in, I grabbed the chance to be a leader and was… until they hired a technology teacher.”

Taking the lead

Although most administrators don’t see us often taking the lead, about 50 percent of respondents say they’re receptive—and in favor—of the idea. And while some media specialists say they’re waiting for an invitation to lead from their principals, a majority of administrators say librarians should take the initiative themselves.

“This position is the best of both worlds,” wrote one principal. “Students work in project-based learning environments without the threat of failure in the library, and actually, failure in the library is incentive alone to continue learning.” Meanwhile, another administrator said, “An effective librarian could be as important as an effective principal, given his/her ability to impact teaching and learning in the school.”

At the same time, almost all librarians agree that achieving success without their principal’s backing is impossible. “It is vital,” says Gerri Ellner Krim, a media specialist at Brooklyn Collegiate in New York and a 2007 winner of the School Library Journal/Thomson Gale Giant Step Award for the most improved library.

What advice do librarians who consider themselves leaders have to offer? Advocacy ranks at the top of the list for all of them—and it can come with huge payoffs. Alice Yucht, a retired school librarian and the creator of the widely read Alice in Infoland blog, describes the need to be “assertively courteous” by offering timely and useful resources to teachers and administrators. But she cautions against complaining. “Always be positive, even if you have to fake it,” she says, adding that it’s important to promote the library, not yourself—and to know the difference between promotion and advocacy. “You cannot self-advocate. You need to create satisfied customers and users who will then advocate for the library.”

Learning the language of administrators and even dressing like them was key for Rose Luna, a librarian at New York’s Freeport High School. “When you wear a suit, people perceive you a certain way. If you’re wearing a holiday sweater with a pumpkin on it, you aren’t going to be perceived as a leader or as a part of the leadership tribe.”

After giving numerous presentations and workshops to teachers, parents, and other community members—sometimes on weekends and after school—Margaux DelGuidice, a librarian at Garden City High School in New York, says she and her co-librarian were asked by their superintendent to present at a Superintendent’s Cabinet Meeting to administrators from across Long Island. The topic was a librarian’s dream: the importance of a research curriculum and the link between school librarians, research skills, and the Common Core Standards.

For Pamela Jackson, a teacher-librarian at East Wake High School in Wendell, NC, social media played a big role in her success. “I’ve Twittered with educators globally for over three years, and this has led to exponential professional growth,” she says. “I’ve participated in numerous free online webinars, boot camps, edchats, virtual cafes, classroom 2.0, and unconferences. I’ve attended board meetings, advocating for librarians, information literacy, and student success; and I’ve shared with business leaders what librarians do.”

The best advice that Maureen Schlosser offers is to attend every meeting possible, especially the ones at grade level. “Bring to every meeting some little tidbit from the library, whether it’s a great book that will support a lesson, or a website that will help teachers or administrators in some way,” says the librarian at Colchester Elementary School in Connecticut. “When presenting the tidbits, think of it as a quick commercial, and you are the star of the commercial, and the cameras are rolling. If the audience sees you excited about whatever it is you are bringing to the table, they can’t help but be excited, too. Especially when they see that you truly want to help support what they work so hard at doing every day. Who wouldn’t appreciate help?”

Schlosser also says to stay current. “Read all of the current information out there about what is new and relevant. Go to any classes or workshops that will not only help you in the library, but also teachers in the classroom.”

She routinely follows “revolutionary” librarians such as Joyce Valenza, Michelle Luhtala, Buffy Hamilton, and Gweneth Jones on Twitter to see what they’re doing.

“With the Common Core being implemented next year, you can’t help but see library media skills written all over those standards,” says Schlosser, explaining that her goal last year was to team up with her school’s ed-tech teachers on lessons using the Common Core Crosswalk and the Inquiry Model developed by Barbara Stripling, the former head of school libraries for the New York City Department of Education, and to share the lessons with everyone. “Because of our efforts, our administrators are asking all social studies teachers to work with school librarians on research projects.”

Nicole Knott, a media specialist at Connecticut’s Watertown High School, sums it up best. “If you promote the image of the media center as the hub of the school—for staff, students, and the community at large—it will inevitably become such, and the person in charge of such a vital place is bound to be sought out as a leader.”


Trica KuonTricia Kuon (tav005@shsu.edu, left) is an assistant professor at Sam Holly WeimarHouston State University in Texas.

Holly Weimar (right) is chair of SHSU’s department of library science.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library JournalStronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.


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