The Winter of Our Discontent

geograph-2345037-by-Greg-FitchettOne of my great pleasures in working with preservice teacher librarians is getting caught up in their new-found passion and zeal for the profession.  Their joy can be so infectious it always reaffirms why I loved working in a K-12 library and now enjoy working with preservice teacher librarians.

On a school visit back in the fall to one of my students working provisionally in an elementary school library I got swept up in her energy and excitement. She was starting her third year at the school with a flexible schedule, her disagreeable principal had moved on, she was doing all the right things to connect with teachers, and she was beginning to appreciate and embrace the need for advocacy. I couldn’t have asked for more!  She loved working with her students, she had a good thing going with her technology facilitator, she was making inroads collaboratively with some of her teachers, and she had documented the effect she was having on student success.  She was stronger and more confident from when she had first started the program and had obviously and definitely embraced the work with passion.

She mentioned a few roadblocks she had encountered at her school but rather than complain or make excuses she, instead, had adopted a refreshing “can do” attitude and had already determined how she was going to go about tackling those roadblocks. While I had expected her to bring up typical problems about dealing with her teachers or principal or even classroom management, especially in terms of her flexible access program, I was surprised when the biggest problem she brought up involved her district-level meetings and the negativity of her peers. Rather than resulting in valuable PLN sessions when her peers came together supposedly with support for one another, the talk turned negative and ineffective. A “why bother” attitude prevailed.

Another student had an amazing and fulfilling experience interning at her school sifting through the school’s statistics and planning lessons and activities that would address school needs. And more importantly, she documented how the library successfully met those needs.  She proactively approached teachers resulting in several excellent collaborative lessons, even with those who rarely used the library. She established trust with the teachers by welcoming them, responding to their needs, and addressing their technology problems. All this accomplishment for a novice and all in spite of her negative supervisor!

There is a lot about our profession that is wrong.  It is wrong that we train and study so hard to become school library professionals only to have people ask time and time again, “Do you really need a degree to do this job?” It is wrong that along with students we have to teach teachers and administrators about our jobs, about what we do and could do with their support. It is wrong that we have no budgets. It is wrong that we have to do many of the odd and random jobs that come along in the school that take us away from the work we should be doing with students and teachers. It is wrong that what we do with students and teachers does not speak for itself. It is wrong that principals replace us with clerks and say that the students do not suffer. Without a doubt, there is a lot about our profession that is wrong. Being our own worst enemy should not be one of them!

I get it. I’ve been there and I’ve done that. Like Sisyphus, over and over I’ve struggled to roll my rock to the top of the hill only to watch it roll back down. I have survived many winters of discontent. Now I am angry – not at principals or school boards or teachers, rather at those discontented, discouraged, dejected school library professionals – those whom I entrusted my students to as interns as well as those in a position to mentor new school librarians. I feel betrayed!

While being negative, jaded, and cynical is definitely not unique to our profession it IS most definitely harmful and hurtful to the rest of us out there fighting the good fight! What’s worst, the negativity from those who, in the words of my student, obviously do not “want to be working in a school and perhaps had been in this position too long” affects us all in the profession.

There is no denying that being a school librarian can be challenging. It is also not surprising that we, after so long, may be beaten down. In dealing with untenable situations, I advise my students to deal with it or move on and that’s what I would say now to any school library professional who is doing the job just for the sake of the job – deal with your negativity or move on.

One of my English teacher friends used to welcome his students each fall by announcing that the past was the past, a turned page, a closed book. Each and every student (no matter what his/her past history had been) was starting fresh in this English class and had an equal opportunity to shine. The students loved it and, in turn, all succeeded in his class.

The idea of closing the book and starting a new page in life is enticing if not cathartic. I suggest that with the new year in front of us, one way to perhaps stem the tide of negativity would be to consider holding our own “Good Riddance Day” or perhaps more appropriately for school libraries, a “new page” or “new chapter” day.  And not just for ourselves but for our teachers, for our students, and even for our district-level peers. Provide ourselves and others with an opportunity to confront those events, attitudes, disappointments, failures – whatever has caused us to be negative –  and then, in turn, give us license to symbolically erase them from our lives so that they will never again hold us back.

If my optimistic, talented, determined students are any indication of the future of school libraries, we have much about which we can be hopeful. It will, however, take an entire village of experienced, practiced, committed, and abundantly optimistic school library professionals to get them there.


 Winter image © Copyright Greg Fitchett and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Author: Anne Akers

Clinical assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of NC at Greensboro working with school library candidates. Former elementary, middle, and high school librarian in Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics

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