Unveiling Our Capes to Advocate for School Libraries

As social norms shift and trends change, once-powerful words can lose their impact and traditional thoughts become outdated. For me, the word advocacy used to evoke a sense of focus, energy, and urgency. It now has morphed into an ambiguous, almost passive term for me. This is not an indictment of those who continue to embrace the word and do the work; but rather a plea for school librarians to reexamine the language we use and the actions we take to support our colleagues and learning communities. Stagnant thinking and passive action is not beneficial in our new normal. Changes happen when a group has a shared vision, prioritizes efforts, and does the work needed to be successful. Is this a fail-proof formula for success? No, it’s not. Sometimes, our best efforts are not successful. “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly,” as Robert F. Kennedy stated. Instead of allowing setbacks to deter us, we should use them as opportunities to regroup and strategize new ways to accomplish our goals.

Earlier this month, AASL, ALA, and 48 state-level school library associations sent a letter to the Biden-Harris Education Transition Team. The document stressed how school librarians are an equity-oriented solution to some of the most pressing concerns facing educators at this moment. I was honored to be involved in this project and quickly realized that something this significant does not happen in isolation. There were many voices and combined efforts needed to pull this letter together. I learned many lessons while working with AASL staff and ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy office, which I can use to be a more effective school librarian. Below are some of the lessons learned that will help me to be proactive and guide my professional practice:

Be specific in the ask. When engaging with decision makers, always have a “specific ask.” Never have conversations with administrators or supervisors without a focused and aspirational vision for your program. Be able to articulate your plans and have specific requests needed to accomplish your goals. See the below excerpt from the Biden-Harris Education Transition Team letter:

As your team lays the groundwork for a Department of Education centered on President Biden’s and Secretary Cardona’s vision of equity for all learners, we respectfully ask you to include these priorities:

    • provide ESSA guidance that addresses the role of school librarians
    • improve NCES data collection to accurately reflect the presence of a certified school librarian at the building level
    • adjust the NCES definition of school librarian to reflect their instructional role and national standards
    • ensure that, as teachers, school librarians are eligible for the same federal supports as their colleagues

Explain your why. If you are ever questioned about your programming, collections, or policies, your response should always align with AASL National School Library Standards and vetted tools and research that support the profession. When you have conversations with decision makers about your budget, staffing, or the need for professional development, your answer should address the needs of your learners and reference best practices. Be able to clearly describe your role as an education leader. Have frequent communication with your administrators, and be prepared to answer questions about what you do and why it is best for learners. Ambiguity and lack of planning can stand between you and achieving your goals. See the excerpt from the Biden letter:

One thing is clear: not all learners were equally resourced to confront this year’s challenges. What prepares students with the critical thinking skills…

The short answer…a certified school librarian.

Identify decision makers and make connections. We must make a concerted effort to convert decision makers into allies. This can only happen if they understand what we do and respect our role as education leaders. If there is a leadership team at your school and you are not involved, ask to be a member. Volunteer to be on the curriculum committee, schedule regular appointments to talk to your principal, and attend school board meetings.

Effective practice, which includes support from all levels of decision makers, cannot happen in isolation. We need to make professional involvement a priority to learn how to grow professionally so we are better able to collaborate, mentor, and share our expertise with others.  Non-AASL members are able to register and participate in our town halls, which provides support and resources for librarians throughout the pandemic, and the recent ALA Midwinter Meeting was a cost-effective opportunity for professional development. There are many ways to get involved, network, and find support from colleagues and school library supporters.

Excerpt from Biden letter:

Dear Members of the Biden-Harris Education Transition Team:

Seize the moment. Reaching out to the Biden-Harris Education Transition Team and newly appointed Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona is the first step in developing a mutually beneficial relationship with our federal decision-makers. Admittedly, most school librarians will not have an opportunity to participate in such an endeavor, but this is no excuse to not be civically engaged or champions for our learners and profession. You can contact your federal, state, and local representatives and other decision-makers. Remember the old adage that all politics is local and small advances can lead to big results. Everyone you know should be aware of what you do and be aware of the value of school librarians. We never know who will become our staunchest supporters.

Excerpt from Biden letter:

We are educators and librarians who believe this is also a moment of opportunity to shape the future of education for a stronger, more equitable, and just society.

I am hopeful that the letter sent to the Biden-Harris Education Transition Team will be the first step in major legislation to recognize the school librarian’s role in education. Perhaps we should not merely advocate for school libraries but rather become activists for them. That may seem like a small linguistic difference, but to me, it removes my apprehensions, taps into my inner warrior, and gives me a cape and a desire to soar.

Author: Kathy Carroll, AASL Leadership Development Committee Chair

As AASL Immediate Past President Kathy Carroll is chair of the AASL Leadership Development Committee.

Categories: Community, Presidential Musings

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