February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

What’s Your Why? Defining Your Mission | Take the Lead

Who? What? When? Where? Why? Growing up, I wrote many essays for English and other classes asking me to address the “Five Ws” as they related to a given topic. I venture to guess that you did, too.

We librarians frequently focus on the first four: who, what, when, and where. We interact, we get to work on time, we know which classes are coming to see us on a given day, we know where to find great resources for students, and we focus on what we need to do each day to be amazing school librarians.

As teacher specialist for library media programs for Calvert County (MD) Public Schools, I understand what I do each day. I order databases, provide peer coaching, assist a team of librarians, and advocate for the libraries, librarians, and students. I have a great understanding of who I work for, what I do, when I do it, and where I do my job.

I imagine that you also have a great understanding of the who, what, when and where of your positions. You check out books, solve technology issues, teach new technologies, plan your program, build your collection, collaborate with teachers, serve as instructional leaders in your building…the list goes on and on.

Here is where it gets interesting: Have you stopped to consider why you do what you do day in and day out? I don’t mean on the surface; go deeper. Have you really thought about why you are a teacher librarian?

This summer, to kick off my year as a 2017–18 Lilead Fellow, I was fortunate enough to take part in the Lilead Fellowship Summer Institute at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. My teammates and I really had chance to think about school libraries. Our goal was to move from thinking about what we do each day and into thinking about the why of school libraries. It required a lot of reflection.

To prepare me to dig into “finding our why,” the Lilead organizers had me read Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action in the spring. If you don’t have time to read it, watch his Ted Talk by the same name. It’s well worth the 18 minutes. Sinek’s premise is that successful companies not only can articulate the what and how they do business, but also they understand the why of their business.

We librarians need to dig into our why in the same way. Successful organizations understand how to create a feeling and a desire to purchase a product. We need to evoke positive feelings about libraries.

I boiled it down to this: all students have the right to an excellent school library program to explore, learn, and ignite their passion for learning.

I cannot tell you how powerful it was to realize what my why was. It has made all the difference—I have a clear purpose and mission.

I took this wonderful exercise back to my district and modified it for our opening day professional development. We started by asking each librarian to write down what they do each day, resulting in a list revealing many shared activities and ideas.

Then we watched Sinek’s Ted Talk and divided into teams. I had pre-planned the groups—mixing elementary, middle, and high school librarians together—creating teams of people who would not normally gravitate toward one another. We talked about what we learned from Sinek’s video and explored the idea of why. Finally, I shared my own why.

From there, participants focused on thinking individually about the motivations behind why they do what they do. Quite honestly, the results were amazing. Every one of the 22 teacher librarians left with a renewed sense of why they come to work every day, why they’re passionate about their jobs, and why library media makes their students better people.

I collected everyone’s why and turned it into a word cloud, and I’m making posters to give each librarian. The words that came to the surface—those used most often—are so powerful to our profession: believe, create, students, discuss, love, passion, explore, help, motivate, life-long, and learn. If that is not why we do what we do, then I don’t know what is.

Each time I read those whys, I have a renewed sense of purpose and energy. Here are some of them:

  • I share my passion and love of learning and exploring new ideas while cultivating relationships with the staff and students.
  • I help teachers teach and enhance instruction in my school. I help students learn how to find and utilize information and become lifelong learners.
  • I believe my students can dream big, explore, and learn.
  • I build a culture of literacy and learning in my school community.
  • I create a central hub for learning where students and staff can explore, create, and find answers in a safe and enriching environment.

What is your why? Tell us in the comments section below.

Jennifer Sturge is a 2017–18 Lilead Fellow and teacher specialist for library media programs for Calvert County (MD) Public Schools.

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  1. Randi Harrison says:

    As a mother of four children in the Michigan public school system, I plan to share this article with our superintendent. Our schools are not required to have certified librarians, so libraries are often staffed by parents or individuals looking for a second career with little or no education in library science. Although I am certain those individuals care about the students, I don’t feel they have the knowledge base or the passion to engage and teach our children necessary skills. I am going to encourage our administrators to consider the “whys” and hopefully they can realize the necessity of rethinking Michigan public school libraries to best serve our kids and give them the tools necessary for success! Thank you for sharing your passion. I hope it continues to burn bright!

    • Jennifer Sturge says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment! Speaking out and up is how we can implement change! Advocate for school librarians in Michigan!

  2. Cynthia Ortiz says:

    You hit the proverbial nail right on the head! So well articulated and comprehensive – thank you! This is helping me put my “why” together and will also be shared with my supervisor and principal when we meet about library issues. Thank you and be well.

  3. I completely agree! Understanding the “why” for our own purpose is important, and it is equally important for others (students) to understand, so they understand the process.

  4. Jenean Deahl says:

    What a timely reflection activity at the close of the 2017. Your “why” is what keeps you going on those tough days and energizes you to take risks and try something new! Thank you

  5. Stephanie Riddle says:

    Phenomenal! It’s so important to keep asking ourselves “Why”. Thank you for this timely insight :) !

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