At a Pennsylvania School Library Association conference a few years ago, Judi Moreillon, a professor at Texas Women’s University, asked an important question: Who do you serve?
I felt instantly uncomfortable. I knew the right answer: students. After all, they are the reason, as I made clear in Part 1 of this post, that schools exist. Everything we do, ultimately, is because of, and for, the kids. We’re here so they can grow up to be productive adults who never stop wanting to learn.
And yet. Students is not what my gut was telling me. I thought about everyone as an answer. But Judi had specifically said to choose the group we serve most, and, for me, that group is the teachers. And teachers, as it turns out, were the people Judi had come to talk to us about. Judi Moreillon believes that the most important role the librarian has is collaborating with and supporting teachers. Today, I’d widen that further to include paraprofessionals, especially those who work in classrooms, because they are an essential part of the instructional team.
Here’s the thing: There are over 900 students in my school. As hard as I try, I do not get to know every single one of them on a deeply personal level. I know a lot of names, and I get pretty well acquainted with the kids who use the library as a haven. I also have library helpers and book club kids with whom I feel close. I love that some of these kids come back to visit after they move on to high school. I love that, once in a while, there will be a kid who writes a note to say I’ve made a difference in her life, or simply says, “I want to be just like you when I grow up!” But that’s rare. Because what I don’t have are kids who spend forty minutes with me every single day for an entire school year. I don’t regularly exchange emails with parents or have meetings with counselors when problems arise. And on the last day of school, I’m more likely to get a friendly wave than a teary hug. If teachers are “in loco parentis,” I’m more like “in loco auntis.” (Whether I’m the cool, crabby, nutty, wise, or ditzy aunt depends on who you ask, or maybe the day). And that’s OK. It’s what I signed up for, and it’s how it’s supposed to be.
Here’s another thing: teachers and support staff are busy people. Really, really busy people. If you work in a school, you already know this. If you don’t, let me tell you: teachers’ lives have always been busy, but they’ve become significantly busier over the last ten years. More classes to teach. More students per class. More testing. More (unpaid) extra duties. More students coming from low-income families. More professional development. Constant changes to the curriculum. Constant new initiatives. Evaluation systems that are huge time-sucks. Less money. Fewer supplies. If you think your job is harder than a teacher’s, it well may be. Coal miners and marines certainly work hard, and you probably do, too. I’m not comparing teachers to anyone else. I’m just explaining that one reason my priority is serving classroom educators is that they’re on the front lines serving the students, and they need all the support they can get to do their difficult, important, and crazy-making jobs as effectively as possible. And unlike students, I CAN get to know them all by name. In most cases, I can tell you the names of their significant others or pets, or something they do for fun. Some I consider close friends.
So, exactly how do I serve classroom educators? Well, perhaps most importantly, I try to make their lives easier, or, at the very least, not more difficult. Sort of like the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” I can’t just dump more responsibility on top of them, like, “you need to use these databases with your kids for this project,” or, “here’s some nonfiction books that you should include in your unit on such-and-such,” or, even worse, “IF YOU TAKE ANY OF MY STUFF TO YOUR CLASSROOM, YOU BETTER NOT LOSE IT!” Instead, I try to wait for an opportunity to offer my services so that they relieve a burden rather than add one. Sooner or later, most teachers will need resources; this is when I can offer to gather books, curate websites, and/or show them (and their students) how to access library databases. Once teachers know I’m willing and able to do the work of finding top-notch resources for them, many will actively ask for my help. One caveat: I strongly believe it’s important not to annoy teachers with repetitive requests to “help.” Force-feeding does not work. You know how you feel when someone asks you over and over to have a cookie, after you said “no” the first time? You are NEVER going to want that cookie, no matter how delicious it is. I don’t want anyone afraid to walk into my library for fear I’ll ambush them.
Once I’ve developed a working relationship with a teacher, I can share areas of expertise with them to either help develop or co-teach a lesson, on, for example, genres, citing sources, or evaluating websites. I also do a lot of book talks. I read about 50 new children’s books a year cover-to-cover, and on top of that, I read reviews for hundreds of others. Teachers don’t have time for that, but I see it as part of my job, and introducing books to kids is one of my absolute all-time favorite things to do. One of my current goals is to include culturally diverse books among my recommendations; a lot of teachers may not be familiar with these titles, but are always excited about and eager to share them with their students once they are introduced. Teachers not only come to me for help in selecting books for lit circles and read-alouds, but also for everything from resources for their grad classes to help with copyright questions to educational technology.
However, there’s other, perhaps less usual ways that I work to serve classroom educators at our school. In addition to the kids’ book club I am the co-advisor for, I also run a book club for staff members. I believe that teachers—better yet, ALL the grown-ups in a school—need to be reading role models for kids. If the teachers don’t read for pleasure, why should their students? The books we read for our book club aren’t education-related. They’re simply entertaining reads; the kind of books you’d find selected in any book club for adults. While our actual monthly meetings aren’t always well attended, we have many staff members who keep up with the reading, and we share our opinions of the book with each other as we pass in the hall or in the faculty lounge. Favorites this year include Ready Player One and Girl on a Train. Somehow, having a “book club book” gives people permission to make time for the pleasure of sitting down and enjoying a good book in the midst of their busy lives.
It’s also a goal of mine to promote poetry in the school. Again, I figure that if teachers don’t enjoy it, neither will the students. During April, I encourage staff members as well as students to write their own poems. No one is “required” to participate, but we have fun contests that both students AND staff can enter. It doesn’t take long to write an acrostic poem or a haiku, and teachers and other staff members who haven’t written creatively for years have surprised themselves. Our security monitor, who recently retired, turned out to be one of the most prolific poets in our building! I also send out a “poem of the day” to staff throughout the month of April. Again, it’s not required reading, but for many staff members, it’s an easy introduction to an oft-maligned genre. Frequently, I’ll have staff tell me, “I don’t like poetry, but I like that poem you sent out today.” It’s a start!
I can’t always say “yes” to teachers. Sometimes, when teachers want to hold a class in the library, I have to say “no,” because we have state testing make-ups (ugh), or a special activity like our poetry blasts (yay). But I love to say “yes.” A lot of times a new teacher, or someone I haven’t worked much with before, will start a request with these words: “I don’t know if this is something you do, but. . . .” Most of the time, it is something I do. Sometimes, it’s something I’ve never done before, but I’m willing to give it a shot. These often end up being the most interesting and fun requests. (Can I bring my students to the library and have them blow up balloons and make geometric shapes out of them? Ummm. . . sure!) And on the occasions when a request really isn’t something I can help with, I do try to send the requester on to someone who can help (usually that turns out to be either a tech admin or an office secretary).
The teachers also send me their kids during class, individually and in groups, when problems or questions arise that for whatever reason (time, expertise, resources) cannot be dealt with in the classroom. As in: “Mrs. Smith sent me here to see if you could help me figure out how to cite a historical marker.” “Mr. Jones sent me here to see if you could help me find any information on the invention of the elevator.” “Mrs. Hughes sent us here for help with Google Slides.” “Mrs. Jackson sent us here to see if you could get five biographies of Steve Jobs from somewhere.” And on and on, every day. Of course, kids come of their own accord during study halls and before and after school to ask questions, too—in much higher numbers! But if I weren’t around, who would these kids turn to? You got it . . . the teachers, who are already overloaded.
Naturally, when I’m serving the teachers and the staff who support them, I really am serving the students. I play a lot of roles as a librarian, some of which I haven’t covered in this article (for one thing, I manage a small library—and yes, that includes making all the purchasing decisions.) But ultimately, the most important thing I do is help educators with the time, expertise, and resources they need to give their students the best education possible. (As an aside: I learn from them, too—I can’t even begin to tell you how much. Teachers, and all of the amazing paraprofessionals who work alongside them, are fascinating, smart, and super creative people! And, news flash, they love to teach you what they know!) Since I’m everywhere, I also get a rare “big picture” view that can be an asset to cross-curricular planning. Without a school librarian, the teachers would have a lot of gaps to fill. More than likely, many of these gaps would remain open, because there are only so many hours in a day. You know how people often talk about kids who “fall through the cracks?” Well, librarians do a great job of sealing up some of those cracks. And yes, I just compared myself to grout.
I’m not tooting my own horn here. Okay, so maybe I am a little. But that’s not the point. What I’m trying to do is explain (a bit about) the job of a school librarian, and why it’s important. Not all school librarians do exactly the same things, but all good school librarians (and the school librarians I know are GREAT) are allies of those serving on the front lines: teachers and classroom paraprofessionals. We’re all in this together!