But My Principal Won’t Let Me! Leadership, Advocacy, & Some Rebel Yell from the Library

“I love that idea–but there’s no way my principal would ever go along with that…”

“That is really cool that you can do that. But it wouldn’t fly in my school…”

“I wish my principal would let me try something like that…”

Have those thoughts ever flitted through your mind while you read an inspiring article, sat in a workshop, or took a class? Then join the rest of school librarians across the country. We all have. The reality of the school library is that, like any other classroom in the building, it falls under parameters laid out by an administrator and sometimes those parameters feel like inflexible boxes that we just can’t break out of.

It’s important to remember that administrative rules for libraries don’t derive from bad intentions; they are usually just deeply rooted in misperceptions and the ease of following long-set tradition. But with some leadership strategies, advocating skills, and a little rebellion we can redefine our boxes and break out of the “but my principal won’t let me” trap.

Pay attention to what your principal needs.

The school library needs to provide resources for all of its patrons. Make sure the principal is one of them. Recognize what his or her priorities are and then go about curating resources for them to utilize. Don’t ask what they need or how you can help–instead, present her with a LibGuide that is filled with resources that will help her communicate with teachers. Read articles and put them on his desk. Being a principal is a tough job. Ask yourself how can I make it easier? If you can, you will develop a trusting relationship that will serve the library’s goals.

Share national guidelines and goal-setting with your principal.

Set goals for your library and then support them with AASL’s Standards for the 21st-Century Learner or the AASL’s National School Library of the Year criteria. Instead of presenting ideas as “I think this is a good idea,” present it as “my professional organization recognizes that this is what excellence in librarianship looks like.” Read case studies on libraries that have transformed into learning commons and use those outcomes to support your decision making. Show your administrator that you want your space to be as relevant and academically and professionally supportive as possible. Invite them to be part of the process.

Make visuals to show what you do and where you want to go.

Part of our job is to keep the unsavory invisible. We do a lot of work that nobody ever sees. That includes our principals. Few administrators have a background in librarianship, and therefore do not understand the depth of the work we do and the ways that we support students and staff. For them to fully acknowledge our work, we have to be fully transparent with them. Show them exactly what you do. Develop lists, infographics, charts, etc. that outline the overall task of the library and its influence on the school. Administrators are busy people and love visuals that get information across to them.

Document your data.

Every month create an eye-popping visual that shows what classes you worked with, what your top titles were. Share your circulation numbers. Put it in the school newsletter. Send it to parents, staff, school board, and administration. Stand on the top of the circulation desk and yell out to the world all the great stuff that is happening in the library.

Always start with what’s best for kids & how it will help the school.

Administrative styles vary from principal to principal, and we’ve all worked for some we adore and some we do not. Despite this, I have never met a principal who doesn’t want what is best for students at heart. When approaching an administrator about a new direction you would like to take, do not start by complaining or explaining how hard your job is. Make sure your changes are student-centered. Show them that what you want to do will benefit your student body. Any program that can meet diverse needs of students will get full administrative support.

Be excited!

Passion is contagious. Share your excitement! They say the squeaky wheel gets all of the attention? Maybe. But the one that treads its own path and shares its enthusiasm usually gets the better kind of attention. Be unapologetically passionate about your space, your program, your students–and then be evangelical in your sharing. Make posters, go to classrooms, send emails, speak at faculty meetings. Share share share.  It will catch on.

Don’t ask permission.

I can hear the collective gasp. But really, that old adage It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission holds true. If you can support the changes you want to make in your library with pedagogical truth, then do it. Sometimes administrators need to see it in action to know it will work. You are the trained professional in charge of a program that is likely the largest academic program in the school. Being able to run and organize a library space, know every student in the building, be familiar with all of the curriculum, balance a budget and interact with sales representative, assess materials, and teach every grade level in every content is no small feat. You were trained for this, so don’t wait for somebody who wasn’t to give you permission to move forward. Do what you know is best. Don’t ever allow yourself to be backed into a corner when it is what is best for students.

Meaningful change has never happened without a little rebellion. But it has also never happened without a little negotiation and compromise. Finding the sweet spot of the two takes courage. It means swallowing our pride some days. It means swimming upstream others. And it means always holding our ground when we know what’s best for kids. If our profession and our programs are going to transform alongside all of education, it will require us to be brave in speaking out. Set your intentions. Grab your principal’s hand. And say, let’s go. We’re doing this. Don’t ask if you can.



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 April 2018.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics


5 replies

  1. Yes, yes, and more yes! Thank you for sharing this as we start the school year!

  2. I agree. It’s always better to find a way around the rules and do what you think is best for the students.

  3. Great post, Angie.
    One of our principals’ major responsibilities is developing outstanding educators. Through coplanning/coteaching school librarians create opportunities to improve their own instruction and that of their colleagues. Partnering with principals for professional development that creates a school culture of continuous learning for all stakeholders is one way to win their respect and support.
    Yes! to “let’s go!” Let’s help our administrators reach our shared goals.

  4. Thanks for your publication, as advocacy begins with the librarian and creating teacher “buy-in.”

  5. Yes!!!! Your post inspires me to get realistic and organized for another year of “managing up!”

    Some principals love to come up with a catch phrase or theme each August. These run the gamut from inspiring, to clarifying, to absolute gobbledygook. Meanwhile, you’re wondering how you’re going to do what you know to be right for kids-which includes time-tested lessons, experimenting with new methods or materials that may flop, and may include pushing back on or just flaunting stuff like reading levels. The trick is to be ready to frame *whatever* you want to do in the latest catch phrase (in addition to the AASL standards). Be ready with a spiel-write it down if you have to-in case you get questions.

    And then, go on your merry way. You have to work within their frame, but you don’t have to upend your program to do it-it WILL change in a year. Similarly, when asking for money or other support, use the catch phrase to frame your proposal. It may feel like spin doctoring, but it’s a means to an end. Remember-their theme might be their own brainchild, but it may also be their own way of complying with a district mandate. Tick the box and carry on.

    Photos of invisible work in progress – like stacks of books and supplies for processing, notes for web design, etc – are dull but can be used to tell your story.

    My husband’s boss is a poor manager with a short attention span, but my husband has worked hot him for years and has gotten good at managing up. When Boss comes at him with a new task or initiative, my husband refers to his to do list and asks which he can table, given the limited hours in a work week. There’s an element of “gotcha” in their patter, but in general, it’s a helpful reminder that managers have lots of irons in the fire and may not remember what they already asked of each employee. They may need some prodding to make their priorities transparent.

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