We keep saying it amongst ourselves: librarians are leaders.
But, midyear, when we are up to our necks in winter routine, an ambiguous word like “leadership” can intimidate the most confident of us. I mean, let’s face it: we don’t have administrative or departmental titles, and quite often, nobody has really *asked* us to lead, so some days it is hard to raise our hands and say, “Yes, I am a leader.”
It is important to remember that the most impactful leadership is often the kind that grows from grass roots, that the best leaders are those who lead by example, and that the most effective leaders are not always the ones who are appointed. The best leadership is the kind that recognizes and addresses the specific needs of colleagues. It does not look like everybody else’s–it looks like you, but there are some things that every aspiring librarian should consider when defining his or her leadership style. There are some simple strategies that can demystify what librarian leadership looks like.
Understand your unique role
As a school librarian, you are the only academic teacher in the building who sees every student every year. This makes you an invaluable resource in literacy and research planning and transition. You are also the only educator who sees a larger picture of your school. You know what curriculum is covered at every level. This allows you to give insight on repetition, unintended holes, spiraling, strengths, and weaknesses. You are the only teacher in the building with this perspective. Use it to lead your teachers and administrators to meet school-wide goals.
Act with confidence
You are an expert. As educators, we often feel like we are never enough, and admitting that feels like a confession of weakness. Understand that the best in the profession are the ones who allow themselves to be vulnerable. When we question what we do, it drives us to be better. So square your shoulders, know that you will always contend with your insecurities, be honest about the issues you question, and then move forward with confidence. You are an expert in curriculum, in student grouping, in literacy, in research, in YA Literature, in technology integration… hold your head high, be proud, and offer your strengths while you continue to improve.
Listen to your patrons
I had a principal once tell me that if I looked behind me and nobody was there, I wasn’t leading, I was just marching alone. I’ve thought about that a lot, and have decided that he was a little bit right. But he was also a lot wrong. As leaders we need not to look behind us, we need to look beside us. If nobody is next to us, then we are not leading. We need to be in the midst of our colleagues for effective leadership. We need to know what the greatest needs of our teachers, administrators, and students are. Listen carefully in staff meetings and at the photocopier. Create a welcoming space in your library that allows for your colleagues to share and be vulnerable. You cannot lead effectively without listening carefully.
Good leaders offer assistance before their colleagues have to ask for help. If you are listening carefully, you know what the people around you need. Pull together relevant curriculum and pedagogical and literacy resources and deliver to your teachers. Asking “how can I help you?” will rarely ever elicit a productive collaboration, but saying, “I know you do _____ and here is ______ that I think will help you” always does. Once your patrons know that you are a go-to person, they will approach you, but leadership means not waiting for others to initiate change or collaboration. To be an instructional strategist, you must proactively provide assistance regularly and ahead of time.
Communicate clearly and routinely
Every single person who has ever worked in a school has bemoaned the communication skills of a leader at one time or another. Communication is a tricky thing. When communicating from the library, be clear, consistent, and routine. Do not assume that teachers know what resources you have available, what your schedule is, what events you are hosting, or what you can do for them. Communicate frequently about how the library can support classroom practices. Send out weekly notes, monthly statistics, and put personal messages in boxes. Remember that effective leadership is always rooted in effective communication.
As you begin the second half of the year, dig into your leadership strategies. Keep it simple; try one new thing. But be sure to do it confidently, make sure it is rooted in patron needs, provide it before asking, and clearly communicate!
Author: Angie Miller
Angie Miller is a 7-12 school librarian in Meredith, NH. The 2011 NH Teacher of the Year and the recipient of the 2017 NH Outstanding Library Program of the Year, Angie is a TED speaker, National Geographic teacher fellow, and freelance writer who writes for her blog, The Contrarian Librarian, and is a regular contributor to sites like EdWeek and the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet. As a co-founder of the initiative, Let the Librarians Lead, Angie leads professional development, speaks to audiences, and advocates for school leadership through librarianship. Her book, It’s A Matter of Fact: Teaching Students Research Skills in Today’s Information-Packed World, published by Routledge, will be on shelves in January 2018.