Library Assistants: Essential Personnel in ALL School Libraries

Every school must have a library assistant. Period. The End.

This blog post has been incredibly difficult to write. I have written and deleted a post-rant on the importance of these key personnel. But then when I write about my former and most recent library assistant, I do her a dishonor by including her in a rant. She deserves more accolades. She is a treasure to me. So I have written and deleted an ode singing her praises. But that does not get to the point of why we, as school librarians, rely so heavily upon our assistants.

So here I am. Struggling to write something of meaning that threads the needle between my love, admiration, and enteral gratitude for Jean and proving the point that library assistants are as essential to schools as custodians, cafeteria staff, and classroom teachers. Library assistants are not “nice-to-haves” if there is additional funding. They serve a key role within the library program and school-at-large.

First, meet Jean. She worked at Taylor for over 30 years: first, as a parent and parent volunteer; then as cafeteria monitor and crossing guard; finally dedicating over 20 years as library assistant. When I met Jean she had worked in the library for 10 years and knew it like the back of her hand.

It was a rocky start between the two of us. I started my tenure in Taylor’s library by redesigning the library space (including book shelves), program, and policies. The first day I met Jean I introduced myself and then showed her the thousands of books I had already weeded from the collection. I pointed to the empty bookshelves and told her we were moving them to rearrange the flow and layout. Our first day working together, we did more physical movement of the library and books than most librarians do over the course of their career. This is a lot to ask of a person making less than ½ my salary and who knew the school culture far better than me.

But over the first few weeks, month, and certainly that first year, I incorporated her in my vision. I listened to her and it became our vision: our vision to work together having our desks in the same space; our vision to make the library collection better reflect what our students wanted to read; our vision to make the library a lively, happy place open to all anytime of day.

Jean will tell you that I won her over when I threw out the card catalog and moved my desk to where it sat. Before me, the school kept copies of the all library records in the card catalog. No longer spending time typing the little cards and no longer needing the type writer to do it, she had time to help create displays and had more space on her desk for personal items reflecting her personality.

Jean became my knowledge bank when it came to school history and teacher personality. Her rapport with the staff served me well as I proved to be a change maker and tradition breaker. She advised me when to pull back or when to go full steam ahead.
Jean loved pulling books and setting up displays. Personally, I enjoyed that as well, but Jean really enjoyed it and was great at it. So that was all hers. I would decorate the display with student work or colorful signs. Her displays ranged from the typical holiday showcases to more obscure social awareness. During quieter times in the library when she was not shelf reading, shelving, cataloging, or repairing books, she was researching topics for her displays.

Jean ran circulation and library volunteers. I was teaching. When the library program switched from fixed scheduling to a wheel model, I was teaching all the time with no check out attached to lessons. All things circulation was Jean’s domain. She could get long overdue books back from students better than anyone I’ve ever seen. She knew what types of books each student liked reading and which ones their teachers wanted them reading instead. She helped them find both types. Parent volunteers checked in with her and she led them well.

Jean’s presence allowed me to focus on instruction, leadership, purchasing, and operations. Because of her, and for that matter any library assistant’s presence, I molded and oversaw the library. She did the tasks. Library assistants are workhorses. They put their heads down, ask for little, and work. Their work is imperative. If they cannot do this work, the librarian must do it. Circulation does not stop because there is no assistant. Books will always need shelving. Tasks always need completing.

The best example for why library assistants are so important comes from a WCPSS colleague of mine. Speaking with her principal about library staffing and operations she asked her principal what the principal wanted for the school: A librarian focused on checking in and out books or a librarian focused on instruction? The conservation is certainly more nuanced but the point is made. School librarians who serve as instructional leaders run a different library program than those who emulate public library programs. All libraries are important. But school libraries serve a different role for communities than public libraries. School leaders must decide what program best meets the instructional needs of their students and communities.

For the program I wish to operate, for the students I teach and have taught, for the teachers, staff, parents, and communities I have and do serve, I need a library assistant. To this day, I realize how much I took my assistants, and Jean in particular, for granted.

Library assistants make librarians better at their jobs. They are essential personnel.

Find Your Tribe: They are your wind, energy, and dreams.

 

Dreamers, realists, doers, thinkers…people are grouped into categories. These labels have a ring of truth but most often one person is a mixture of all types. In Launch Cycle by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, the first chapters outline the types of teachers within a school building. The premise is it takes all types to create a well-rounded instructional program and enact systematic educational change.

Much like the various types, my small “tribe” at Taylor had a mixture. While all groups and my relationships to each group mattered, it was the small tribe that gave me wings. The music and art teachers comprised this tribe. Much like when the architect, engineer, and artist collaborate, the three of us dreamed, designed, and built.

The relationship mattered because we found common allies who were not afraid to challenge the status quo of education. We saw a greater vision and understood for it to become reality, large and small changes were needed. The tribe began with art and music collaborating. I was already a friend with them so they would run ideas by me for my input.   When I saw how I could support their dreams, I jumped aboard their ship.

Some of the plans only impacted our individual programs. More often than not, the dreams were wide scale. Something seemingly insignificant as tweaking the master schedule for the next school year has huge rippling effects throughout the building. It touches core principles and beliefs of teachers. To change the master schedule required important, tactful steps.

School dreams only become reality with administrator support. Our tribe never dreamed anything without plotting out the entire approach and presenting information including all possible pros and cons, along with human impacts, to our principal. In many ways, he was our tribal leader. Our sage was the ITRT. Their wise council moved our vision to either become reality or go back for rethinking. Our tribe never accepted “no”. We tolerated and understood “not right now”.

A functional tribe understands its impact. Our tribe was a force. Much like a hurricane, our force grew when we were fueled by one another. The more we allowed each other space to dream, the greater our dreams became. The bigger our dreams, the larger instructional impact we would have.

Our tribe identified and understood unproductive dreams and instructional changes. Those ideas never were spoken to our principal. Sometimes, they were addressed with our ITRT to see if there were tweaks to make the dreams plausible. Because we tolerated each ideas, we happily agreed with one of our tribe members who pumped the breaks.

This relationship made us all better instructors. As a dreamer, I am always imagining what can happen in the future and constantly looking for improvements. I become bored when work is the same day after day, year after year. This tribe ensured it never was boring.

Snow Day Questions…So Many Questions (repost from 2016)

pic0035I need to be upfront at the beginning of this post.  I do not have answers or solutions.  I have questions—and lots of them.  By the end of this reflection, I doubt I will have answered my questions.  Rather, I need your insights.  Please comment and email your perspectives and experiences.  My blog is about learning after all.

So what are my questions?  They are about the virtual learning on snow days.  In mid-January 2016, the eastern portion of the United States experienced a massive snowstorm that left many school systems closed for upwards of a week.  Luckily, we were on the southern end of the storm and were only out of school for two days.  However, those two days hit right during the middle of the year and only three weeks after returning from winter break.  Teachers know how crucial this time is.  Students are showing growth and many formative assessments indicate directions for the 2nd half of the school year.  But this is winter after all, and El Nino or not, winter storms cut into learning.

School districts across the United States are embracing technology and finding ways to lessen the impact of school closings.  Many districts have begun to institute snow-learning days at home through “virtual school days” and snow day packets.  My questions relate to using online resources to continue learning outside of school.

Is it beneficial?  Truthfully, I cannot believe I am asking this question.  Yes, it’s beneficial.  Further exploratory learning, allowing students to be masters of their learning in a virtual setting, flipping the classroom, and online classrooms are trends that I believe are not only improving education but also teaching lifelong skills of collaboration and critical thinking.  Students are learning about life in the “real world”.  After all, I continue my work on snow days by sitting at the kitchen counter planning lessons, creating book lists, and participating in Twitter chats to just name a few. (As an aside, I want to give a quick shout out to #ncsnowchat for awesome pop-up professional development on snow days.) But for students who are excited about their snow day, are we taking away the “joy” of snow days to put focus on nonstop schooling?  Is that a bad thing or another way we are improving as a society embracing curiosity, exploration, and home:school connected learning?

So, if we embrace snow day “e-learning”, how do we proceed?  Many districts have taken to Twitter as a means.  Within my previous district, Arlington Public Schools in Virginia, many librarians have effectively utilized Twitter to sponsor snow day Twitter chats, virtual librarian access, and encouraging reading from their e-book collections.  During this past snow storm, APS teachers participated in a #APSchats focused on how teachers have continued students’ virtual learning during their extended snow days. This is certainly one way to go.  But can this be measured and are students able to show progress when participation is voluntary?

What about the great economic divide?  Who does virtual learning positively impact and are students most in need of continued growth able to participate in virtual learning.  I’ve only begun a cursory search—this is a topic that could be and is well studied—but I found a 2013report showing that in 2011, roughly 70% of the U.S. homes have Internet access with the Asian and Non-Hispanic White households having the greatest Internet access.  Only 58.3 and 56.9 of Hispanic and Black households respectively have Internet access.  Simple Internet searches reflect positive aspects to household Internet access.  So if we are offering virtual school on snow days those benefiting are the ones who already have benefit from Internet access.  Are we furthering the space between the have and have-nots?

What if we provide the technology?  In North Carolina, Transylvania County School System has given all 6th-12th graders laptops.  Teachers have set up continuous work, even on snow days.  The thought is school is still “in session” although at home therefore no make up days needed.  Teachers hold online hours when they are available through email, phone, and other means to help students with their work.  This is amazing! Much like the online professional development teachers participate, students are learning from a truly blended environment.

Snow days are great even if I complain about not wanting snow or a day out of school.  Encouraging virtual education is one of my passions.  Then, why am I pondering this virtual snow day trend?  Shouldn’t I be showcasing its boldness and need?  Maybe I am doing just that.

What about you?  What are your thoughts and experiences?  What resources are available to support this trend?

Snowflake image created by:
Moulton, Jim. pic0035.jpg. February 1, 2009. Pics4Learning. 11 Jan 2017