The Seven Most Critical Challenges That Face Our Profession
Teacher-Librarian, May/June 2002
It certainly seems like our profession is in a state of crisis! Various places in various parts of the country are:
• Reducing school library programs and cutting professional and clerical staff,
• Providing minimal budgets for library materials,
• Supplanting “library programs” with “technology initiatives,”
• Closing university library programs, and
• Establishing “teach to the test” curricula.
And you can probably add to the list.
However my sense is that most professions are usually facing one sort of crisis or another much of the time. My sense is that school library programs in general have always been in a crisis situation. But at the same time, my sense is that there are as many vital, successful library programs in schools today as there have ever been.
Let’s just face it, good school library media programs may never be seen as a permanent part of the educational landscape. Gifted and talented programs, art programs, academic and athletic extra-curricular programs, and even school counseling programs – anything in a school that goes beyond one teacher, 30 students and a textbook – can and will be seen as non-essential by some decision-makers.
I am not sure that this is a bad thing. Our very vulnerability demands that we as a profession need to continually find ways to strengthen our programs and roles. I would suggest we take a hard look at the challenges we currently face and see how we can rise to meet them. Below I suggest seven areas where every library media specialist can and should take action.
1. Tying our library program goals to the larger goals of our educational system.
Too many media specialists create lovely programs that have very little to do with what transpires in the rest of the school. While I’m sure their library skills and activities do wonderful things for students, teachers and administrators are too often unaware of them and see little impact on the school’s overall learning goals. Classroom instruction is and will remain the primary focus of education, and unless we have an impact on it, we will be seen as superfluous. Our media program goals must be directly aligned to the instructional goals of the district, building, and classroom. Sometimes I sense that we work very, very hard to climb one mountain only to find the rest of the school on a completely different peak.
While it is probably the most daunting part of our jobs, we must continually enhance our collaborative efforts with teachers. This is the only way that what we do in the library will tie directly to what is happening in the classroom. We need to work with every teacher on staff (not just the living, as we like to joke). That will only happen with initiative and persistence. Make it your goal to work one-on-one with four additional teachers every year. Hone those interpersonal skills, identify and articulate the areas where you can be seen as someone who can be helpful, and keep at it. Also, our best media specialists are ones who serve on site-based councils, technology committees, curriculum teams, and in other decision-making positions. The credibility established by serving as a “leader” often goes a long way in gaining acceptance by teachers in collaborative efforts.
2. Demonstrating and publicizing our effectiveness through accountability.
While we certainly have responsibilities that go beyond direct student instruction, our role as a teacher of critical skills is the one that is the most important in an educational setting. In order to be seen as true teachers it is imperative we:
• Establish an integrated information/technology curriculum with clearly defined, measurable skill benchmarks by grade level.
• Collaborate with teachers in designing and teaching units in which students learn, practice and demonstrate those skills within a content area.
• Collaborate with teachers in designing and administering the student performance assessment that accompanies those units.
• Report attainment of skills to students, parents and community though progress reports, conferences, and public reports.
Perhaps the most challenging task we have ahead is helping our administrators and public understand how our information literacy curricula complement and support school accountability efforts that use standardized testing as a critical measurement. A publicity effort that informs those outside our profession about the findings of studies like those of Keith Curry Lance’s Colorado studies needs to be undertaken by every district.
3. Remaining experts in helping others make meaning out of technology.
Schools have made a rapid technological transformation. They have gone from institutions devoid of technology to institutions full of under-used, rapidly aging technology. Teachers need training in not just basic productivity tools such as word processors and webpage design, but in learning how to construct instructional units that help students master technology skills, content concepts, and higher-level thinking skills.
Thoughtful information literacy units can also teach most if not all technology competencies needed by students. Technology used to locate, assess, synthesize and communicate information in order to answer questions and solve problems is technology used in its most powerful and meaningful way. Media specialists must be seen as the experts in this use. We also need to make sure teachers and students are truly technologically literate: they know when technology is not the best solution to a problem as well.
New and changing technologies create a need for exceptional staff development opportunities for school library media specialists. But if we demonstrate to our administrators that we will teach to our staffs what we have learned though workshops, conferences, and other training opportunities, we can justify receiving those extra staff development dollars.
We can also do some of the technology tasks in our buildings that are rapidly becoming very important. These tasks include web mastering, network management, and technician supervision. Remember that there is rarely a position that is indispensable, but there are specific tasks that must be done. Personally, I like to stay valuable by doing jobs no one else is willing or able to do.
4. Retaining our professional teaching status.
The most distressing talk I hear revolves around decertifying the position of media specialist. Not requiring a teaching license and certification in library science and educational media is too often seen as a quick fix for finding folks who can staff our school libraries. Along with the rest of the teaching profession, good media specialists are in short supply in many areas of the country. An aging teaching profession, low retention rate of beginning educators, opportunities in the business world, and stress-related burnout are all contributing to this problem.
Yet our professional skills in constructivist teaching, authentic assessment, program management, material selection and organization, and information and technology ethics are growing rather than diminishing in importance. We must work with our boards of teaching and other certifying agencies to educate them in what we do; why our skills are vital to schools; and why the total reliance on clerks and technicians will short-change students.
5. Attracting the best to our field.
Each school library media specialist’s work reflects on all other school library media specialists. Unfortunately many teachers, principals and parents have never had the opportunity to work with an excellent media specialist. But once they have, they understand and support the position. It’s imperative that our profession actively recruits the best and brightest of teachers to our field. Each of us needs to encourage teachers we feel would make good media specialists to consider this career path. And we need to encourage our post-secondary institutions to adopt a rigorous selection procedure for admittance into the library media certification program.
I am perhaps even more worried about the status of post-secondary library media education than anything else. Universities are closing or reducing library schools. Library schools seem to having a difficult time hiring and retaining those dynamic professors who not only teach the next generation of media specialists, but also guide and lead those now practicing. Poor or non-existent library schools will doom the profession.
6. Keeping our core values.
Michael Gorman’s important book Our Enduring Values : Librarianship in the 21st Century speaks eloquently to how public librarians must adapt to, but not be co-opted by technologies and societal change. The tools we use may change, but not our mission to provide our patrons information and the skills to use it.
As school media specialists we also need to continually remind ourselves of some our core values when faced with institutions that may seem to be forcing us into the roles of babysitter, technician, or clerk. While I certainly advocate that we must master the new tools of information technology, we must also continue to:
• Use technology only as an empowering device that extends students’ and teachers’ talents.
• Make higher-level thinking skills taught through information literacy projects a part of every child’s education.
• Make the ethical use of information and technology a part of every curriculum, paying special attention to safety, intellectual property, and appropriate use issues.
• Demonstrate that all forms of media, including print, are and will remain critical sources of information, and that school library programs must continue to play a role in developing both the ability to read as well as the desire to read in all students.
• Advocate intellectual freedoms for children that extend to both the print and digital worlds by fighting all forms of censorship.
• Celebrate those uniquely human attributes of teaching – personal guidance, empathy, judgment, encouragement, wisdom, and caring – that cannot be duplicated by programmed instruction, teacher-proof curricula, or measured on standardized tests.
• Celebrate cultural and human diversity through the range of materials our collections offer, the stories and book talks we give, and the topics studied through our information literacy units.
• Continue to advocate for children by providing programs and facilities that meet individual needs and low stress environments.
7. Staying connected.
My friend and fellow media specialist Tom Ross of Aitken (MN) reminded me of a final challenge after reading an earlier version of this paper. He says it well:
I am struck by our need to meet with each other to willfully engage in a battle for an optimistic vision for what we do. While the struggle for improving our media programs is often political and social, it is also a battle of the mind. If we remain alone in our understanding of the gifts we share with our students, we fail to feed ourselves the vital truths that will empower us to go once more “into the breach.” We spend so much time flailing against the wind that we forget to rejuvenate and that tiredness too can undermine our goals, our programs, and our best intentions for our students.
How do we rebuild our vigor? By supporting each other, by taking classes where we sharpen our skills, by sharing our woes, by calling on each other, and by meeting together at conferences. We must celebrate the moments of magic we have experienced and strategies we developed to obtain those moments. In short we must be colleagues to one another. Because we usually don’t have another media specialist next door, we must break out of our buildings and our districts and go and seek these experiences. If we don’t, we will mentally whither and die, educational dinosaurs.
Despite the challenges that face our profession, I remain wildly optimistic about its future. We are by far the most caring, smartest (and probably best-looking) group of educators now working in schools. Savvy communities are realizing that their best natural resource is a well-educated workforce, and in today’s economy well-educated means being not just literate, but information literate. A powerful library media specialist is indispensable to schools who are dedicated to graduating citizens who can use information in meaningful ways and know how to keep on learning.
A person recently commented to me that one must be mad to go into school librarianship. He’s right, of course, on a number of levels. You have to mad (passionate) for stories, computers, and especially work with kids. You have to be mad (angry) about how poorly our schools under-serve too many vulnerable children. And finally, you have to be mad (crazy) enough to believe that you as one little individual have the power to change your institution, your political systems, and especially, the lives of your students and teachers. I hope everyone who reads this gets just a little bit madder.