What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
Friends, it please me to no end to share with you the news that by the time you read this post, I will officially be a practicing School Librarian. It has been a long and winding road to get here. It’s taken professional development, advocacy, patience, and persistence.
School librarianship has been a goal of mine for six years, ever since my middle school’s librarian mentioned he was thinking of retiring. I immediately enrolled in a masters and certification program to earn my license.
I honestly thought I would step into his shoes the following year with an emergency certification. Little did I know, I was embarking on a much longer, stranger journey than I’d ever have expected.
Changing My Perspective
During my first discussion with my graduate school advisor, I noted that the school library seemed to be the last, best place for student learning. Six years later, I hold this view even more firmly. While in graduate school for the administration and supervision program that led to two degrees, I learned that intrinsic motivation is much better for learning than extrinsic motivation such as grades. Therefore, it only makes sense that school librarians are educational leaders.
To my mind, the school library was the perfect representation of student-driven learning powered by intrinsic motivation. It was the only place that offered students all of the following elements of true inquiry learning:
- Students could pursue their own interests…
- …supported by professional guidance…
- …and an array of reliable resources and materials…
- …without grades or standardized testing…
- …and without imposed, inauthentic assignments and requirements.
Even with this perspective, as a classroom teacher I still saw the school library as a sort of free-form classroom.
As I went through my Master of Information graduate classes, I began to see how vastly different school librarianship is from classroom teaching. And the more I learned about how different, and how incredibly important, school librarianship was from other educational roles, the more shocked I was by the declining numbers of schools with certified school librarians.
But I was excited by the certainty that as soon as I finished my M.I., I would be able to share my new insights as a practicing school librarian.
Things Are Looking Up…
Right around the time I started my program, decision makers in the district planned a renovation for my school. It included some upgrades and changes to the school library space. This frustrated me some. Since I wasn’t the school librarian, the space I planned to take over would be redesigned without my input. But, I looked forward to having a newly renovated space to step into.
In the meantime, I became a serious school library “hobbyist”. Online PLN with truly amazing school librarians? Check. Materials to share and ideas for programs and displays? Check. I started reading more new middle grades and YA literature to build up some knowledge of the great titles I could add to my library’s collection.
I would dive into librarianship in my middle school once the renovation was finished!
…And Then Came The Turn
As I entered my final semester of “school librarian school”, the renovation plans took a turn. Instead of renovating the library, they converted the space into two science classrooms. This left the school without a library, and left me with some dashed hopes.
My middle school is part of a middle-high school complex. They sold the middle school library closure on the idea that the middle school students would “just” head over to the high school library.
This put the high school librarian in charge of serving as the librarian for both buildings. He already was responsible for about a thousand students, without an aide or other support. Now he would service an additional five hundred students, six grade levels and 1,500 students, covered by 1 certified school librarian. It broke my heart.
What’s the worst they can say?
By this point, I firmly believed that the school library was perhaps the single most important educational element schools can provide. An effective school library includes support not just for students, but also for all of the faculty, as well as administrators.
Still in the classroom, I was able to create a “secret” school library skills class that I got to teach. But I wanted to provide those skills and lessons to all the students.
It finally occurred to me that I should put in a request to be added to the complex library as the middle school-focused librarian. The worst they could do was say “no.”
It turned out, the Supervisor of School Libraries loved the idea.
Eighteen months, and many raised and dashed hopes, later, my principal and the supervisor came to my classroom and sprung the news on me. I’d be moving into the complex library at the end of the marking period.
I honestly thought I would spontaneously combust with happiness.
Engaging in Different “Flavors” of Advocacy
In order to become a school librarian, I had to engage with several types of advocacy.
Self-advocacy was incredibly important. I regularly shared my thoughts and accomplishments as a member of my state school librarian association with the Supervisor of School Libraries. This let me show her my dedication and engagement. I also had to self-advocate to ask for the position that seemed so unlikely as to be impossible. But my years of demonstrating what I could do before I was even in a library paid off. The library supervisor persuaded the decision makers in the district that I would be a benefit to the school and district, largely because of what I’d previously shared with her.
School Librarianship Advocacy
Advocacy for school librarianship was another key component. While I demonstrated my commitment to the field through my “extra-curricular activities”, I also showed the many benefits that school librarians can bring to their schools. It helped others see that the middle school lost something important when its library space closed.
Advocacy on Behalf of Students & Teachers
Perhaps most important of all was advocacy for the students. When I created my “secret” school library skills class, I demonstrated the many tools, techniques, and lessons students weren’t getting. There is no way for classroom teachers to cover their subjects and also tack on in-depth database use, research skills, search strategies, information and media literacy, and lessons on social media. At the end of the first year teaching my “secret” skills class, I shared a short list of the key tools and abilities students would have to draw on. The principal and faculty responded with enthusiastic praise for what the students were gaining. This gave me the opening to point out that the skills being presented came from my school librarianship graduate work.
It also showed how teachers as well as students can benefit from a strong school library. Thus, when the library supervisor broached the idea of making me a school librarian, the principal was on board with the change in position.
“Playing the Long Game”
As school librarian and podcaster Amy Hermon likes to point out, school librarianship is often a long game. School librarians must think not only in terms of what they can do now, but what they can set in motion for later. Fulfilling my dream of becoming my middle school’s librarian was, indeed, a long game. Making that dream a reality took advocacy, persistence, and perseverance.
That I achieved school librarianship at a moment when school libraries are facing challenges strikes me as an important reminder:
Advocacy and activism take time. And we’re more likely to succeed with friends by our sides.
Fortunately, I know that I have a solid collection of friends in my PLN ready to support me in my new journey.
Author: Steve Tetreault
After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!