Ask the Hard Questions

Comfort Zone


Not quite a year ago, I saw a Twitter post by our state commissioner of education. The post was not out of the ordinary. He was sharing information about updates to state standards of accreditation. As I read through the updates, something struck me, and frankly, made me mad. I stewed over the proposed change and amendment to come for a while. I compared the current standards of accreditation to the soon-to-be version. The more I read over it, the more upset I got. It was a tiny change. Something non-librarians wouldn’t think anything about. But to me, it was a BIG deal.

You see, Arkansas does not have any guaranteed funding for school libraries. Our districts are locally controlled which means each district can interpret the recommendations differently. Many states have similar predicaments. What Arkansas school librarians did have was a line in the accreditation standards that said our libraries were to contain “3000 volumes or 8 books per student, whichever is greater.” Many of us would weed below that number at the end of one school year to ensure some funding the next in order to meet the standard. The Twitter post’s information showed a change that omitted that particular wording and replaced it with “an appropriate balance of print, nonprint, and electronic media that is adequate in quality and quantity to meet the academic standards for all students.” Everyone has a different definition of what adequate quality and quantity looks like.

I continued to reflect on how wrong that felt. Then, I did something I have never done. I posted a response, tagging the commissioner of education, about how sad I was that school librarians no longer had those few, tiny words. I completely left my comfort zone. I didn’t expect a response. But, I was wrong. He did respond. He gave great advice, and we had a short conversation online that continued in person a few weeks later when I met him (for the first time in person) at a conference. You see, I didn’t approach the situation with my red, hot, flaming anger. I wanted practical advice.

Where do we fit in?

How can we change the narrative?

What can we do to advocate for school libraries in our state?

As the conversation progressed, we decided to meet again in person, this time with a small group of school librarians from across our state, ranging in experience, school population and size, and grade levels. Again, I stepped out of my comfort zone. By this time, I was nowhere near my comfort zone. The comfort zone was MILES away! I expected a short, courtesy meeting with the commissioner, assistant commissioner, the state liaison for library services, and other department of education staff. What we were met with were genuine questions and concerns. The “short” meeting ran over an hour with us still talking as we were leaving the room!

Since that initial Twitter post, I’ve continued to ask the hard questions that put me out of my comfort zone. Each time I am surprised at the response. Not hostility like I expect, but more advocacy, more support, more questions, more learning, more working together. Because of that initial tweet, our 2018 Arkansas Teacher of the Year was able to use it to help change legislation! She pushed for a change that now allows school librarians and counselors to be considered for Arkansas Teacher of the Year, where we had previously been excluded.

Our commissioner of education recently spoke as a featured keynote at our state association’s award luncheon at our annual conference where he highlighted several practical ways we, as school librarians, can advocate within our districts and encouragement to do it! He stayed for a two-hour roundtable discussion with school librarians, administrators, EAST Initiative representatives, and members from the Arkansas STEM Coalition. The conversations and connections were rich and glorious, and I cannot wait for them to continue.

I don’t like confrontation. At all. At the time, I felt that the hard questions needed to be asked. I needed to know…

I needed to step out of my comfort zone! And what an amazing place it is to be!


Author: Ashley Cooksey

Library Media Specialist in Arkansas. Self-proclaimed geek. Lover of nature and music. Always learning.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, STEM/STEAM

Tags: , , ,

2 replies

  1. Brilliant advocacy work, Ashley.

    Yes – especially – to inviting the Arkansas Commissioner of Education to speak at your annual conference, engaging him in an extended conversation, and listening closely for ways to support state-level education goals.

    For me, your experience shows that when you (advocates) ask authentic questions and help other people solve their problems, school librarians can move closer to achieving our goals for students, educators, and library programs.

    Thank you for sharing your journey and for providing inspiration for all of us.

  2. You have a great advocate in your State School Library Office in Cassandra Barnett who is a former AASL President. It makes it easier for her when feedback like yours helps her make your case internally at the state level and it is reasoned and non-confrontational. I am glad you stepped outside of your comfort zone. I speak from experience after working in the same role for the Maryland State Department of Education before my retirement in 2017.

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