AASL Conference Friday General Session: A Conversation with Administrators

I attended the Friday’s General Session “A Conversation with Administrators” during the AASL National Conference. What do administrators at all levels need and expect from their school librarians? How can administrators not only support but empower school librarians as leaders? These were the questions that were posed by moderators Kathy Carroll, librarian at Westwood High School, and Kathryn Roots Lewis, retired director of libraries and instruction at Norman Public Schools.

On the panel were retired superintendent Sean Doherty, superintendent April Grace, and principals Kelly Gustafson and Joel Hoag. They represent districts in Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. These administrators have worked with AASL as part of the AASL School Leader Collaborative over the past two years.

Kathryn Roots Lewis announced at the end of the session that OverDrive would be sponsoring another group of administrators in the coming years. Look for an announcement in the second half of the 2021-2022 school year.

Below are a selection of questions posed and some of the administrators’ responses. I’ve done my best to capture their quotes and ideas shared during the discussion. There has been some editing for clarity and brevity.

Q: How do I garner support for school library funding? What kinds of justifications should I provide?

Sean Doherty

Doherty: The role of the school librarian is multifaceted that so many people don’t see. So many of the stories of the school library are unheard of.

Helping students find that perfect book. Co-teaching with the classroom teacher. Those are things being done that are beyond test scores. Librarians are helping build skills that are critical. Sharing that is extra work for you. This is the why. This is how it is going to have an impact. This is how it grows our students, our staff, and presents it as a need and not a want.

Gustafson: Get on the meeting agenda. Become a regular part of those times in front of others to make your case.

Hoag: You have a wealth of data that no one else knows about. You can use that to create a story to bring about change.

Grace: Invite those administrators into your space. Superintendents and principals can be very busy but when we’re invited in we try to get there. Then you can have a conversation about how you could have done that work better and ask for support.

Q: How can school librarians be part of the larger community.

April Grace

Grace: Ask to be part of those professional learning communities. You have tools and resources and can connect pieces that only you have.

Doherty: I think sometimes school librarians have to be their own PR department. Sometimes that means you have to take that active role. Ask yourself: Why am I not at the table? Look at those barriers. Take a risk and ask to be part of those communities.

Hoag: Invite your colleagues into the library as well. You’re building those connections and making yourself available.

Gustafson: Advocates don’t have to know everything. That back and forth discourse between librarian and administrator grow me and my school librarian professionally.

Hoag: You are leaders. You are aware of so many things going on in the school that we don’t know about.

Q: Involvement in ed policy and curricular work. Are school librarians automatically part of district-level committees.

Kelly Gustafson

Kelly Gustafson

Doherty: People don’t understand the impact of school librarians. Some people have a mental model of the school librarian that is archaic. Administrators, curriculum leaders, or teachers may need to have those mental models changed. People don’t always know to ask the school librarians to be a part of something.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing librarians. I’ve seen how they’ve taken leadership roles within our district that set high expectations for everyone else.

Hoag: You amplify so much because of the impact you have on literacy. Sometimes you have to volunteer for the committees that no one else wants to be on and take it as a place to amplify your message and build from there.

Gustafson: My librarian will bring books to bus duty because she knows she gets my face and my ears and that moment and we continue those conversations afterward.

As an example, my librarian has taught me so much about windows and mirrors I took what she taught me and brought that to my staff.

Grace: The conversation should be focused on how school librarians can support student growth and development and how they can support teachers. Teachers need the skills you have and they need your support. Not just how to use it but why we want to use it and how that use takes shape.

Q: How can librarians advocate for being part of state-wide and national committees and how can admins support that?

Joel Hoag

Grace: Make sure you are intentional about putting yourself in the best spot to be a part of those conversations.

Doherty: There can be a bigger systems issue where librarians are not being asked for at the state level. We need to look for those.

Gustafson: We should be inviting librarians to the principal’s conference. I sneak my librarians SLJ magazine and learn so much. I should be sharing the administrator publications with her.

Hoag: Create connections and partnerships beyond the school district. Look at where that can happen and capitalize and tell that story.

Q: What messages and stories will influence school administrators?

Hoag: We have a battle of the books team. A student who was learning English wanted to be on the team. The application was already set up so any learner could be on the team. The librarian has set up a system where a student has set up a system where every child could participate.

Doherty: Often I take all my stuff and I go to one of my school libraries. I could be there for an hour and pick up on all of the stories. You don’t realize all of the things taking place in the school library. Administrators need to take responsibility for knowing what those stories are. There were things I’ve seen and heard that I would not have known otherwise.

Gustafson: Think about where the stories live. John Schu taught me to create a Joy Journal. If you would open it up any time right now, you would see something related to a school library, a school librarian, or something that was happening around literacy around the school. I look at that as my data. We capture that. Why don’t you?

Q: How do you assure school librarians receive the professional development they need.

Hoag: I want my librarian to continue learning. She has to ask for it because I don’t know the learning she needs. Her learning has been powerful and impacted our whole school.

Doherty: I was thinking about the standards. Sometimes we evaluate school librarians off teacher standards. School librarians need a different set of standards they need to be evaluated with. They need a different type of professional development. Do the evaluations standards support the requests for that type of learning?

Gustafson: You don’t know what you don’t know. In order to grow your leadership, sometimes you need to be vulnerable about what you don’t know. Being vulnerable can be hard. Not knowing is okay too. My school librarians and I were able to focus on the AASL Standards and say what we don’t know in order to grow.

Q: How do you use your school librarian’s expertise to provide professional development?

Grace: You need to provide them the space to provide PD opportunities. You need to be intentional in how you share.

Hoag: I can’t count the number of times my school librarian has presented. She is a leader. And when she has an opportunity to meet with other librarians in a PLC other professional development offerings have developed.

Doherty: I have seen how a school librarian offers embedded professional learning with teachers and have had influence around instruction within the classroom. Look for those opportunities–where can I do something where I’m working in collaboration with the teachers and influence their learning?

Grace: Look at those entry year teachers to wrap your arms around and do those job-embedded pieces with them to lift them up.

Doherty: Being willing to ask for the unreasonable request. If you ask I’m going to think about it. That is where you can push the envelope in terms of impact.

Q: What major job expectation makes the school librarian’s role unique in schools

Hoag: You have books that are checked out at the same times every year for curricular needs. You’re the only one who knows when all of those things happen. That makes you a powerful connector for the school. You also know what books kids love reading just for fun.

Doherty: The role of the school librarian is multifaceted. It’s not just about having the right books. You want to help students develop a love of reading. I think that librarians set that tone for the school. Helping to be a problem solver, co-researcher, co-teacher. It’s hard to pinpoint the job description of a school librarian.

Gustafson: Part of that is noticing the people that I don’t notice. My school librarian made sure she and the school counselor were on a committee for digital citizenship. She collaborates and works alongside the art teacher and the music teacher. The planning that goes into those common threads of learning are impressive. That evolves as you get to know your team and the standards.

Grace: You’re such amazing connectors and collaborators. We really can’t do the work that we do without you in our building. You’re such an integral part to the school. If we’re not careful, we can forget that. You are a curator of experiences–for kids and adults.

Q: How has being part of this group impacted you?

Gustafson: We have become this group where we can be serious or silly when we share our stories. When I was nominated, I wondered if I was smart enough. I loved our meetings. We’ve seen each other grow into our role and it has been through the stories about you that we’ve seen that.

Hoag: It has been professional development for me. I’ve learned about how varied your role can be at the state and district level. I’ve always been surrounded by librarians. I truly didn’t know that there were places where there wasn’t a librarian because the work you do is so critical. I have a different level of respect for all of the librarians that I’ve worked with. Librarians have let me go behind the scenes to understand what you do and why you do it.

Grace: I had fantastic experiences growing up with libraries. The collaborative has shown me the side where not everyone gets the support of a school librarian and has made me feel like I need to advocate for our school libraries and librarians.

I live by three Es: Elevate everything I’m a part of, Encourage everyone to do the same, and Empower those around me to do that. I want to do that with out librarians.

Doherty: I didn’t know what I was getting into. What I liked about it was having a cohort of other leaders to talk to. Sometimes the school administrator role can be lonely. I could hear about something and think about how I could apply it to my own leadership. I think the AASL Standards are so strong and I’ve thought about how I could pull language out of there to help other work I was doing.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

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