Leadership: Beyond the Memes

Almost 160 years ago, the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr observed, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." This epigram is an apt description of what school librarian leaders need to bear in mind in navigating the ever-changing educational and information landscape. For while our profession pushes school librarians to be aware of pedagogical, technological, and societal shifts, it is in mastery of the underlying dynamics of power, authority, and school culture that a librarian moves from innovation instigator to someone who is trusted to champion high-impact growth.

Few guideposts exist for navigating those complex networks, and even the most strategic and prepared among us will experience a situation that is the result of dealing with the age-old stumbling blocks of individual personalities and group dynamics. We have all witnessed libraryland impresarios who talk a good game but do not produce real results or impact on student learning. Leading from the library, without endowed authority, is complex and glamour-free. Real leadership involves a persistence of vision and an indefatigable belief in the work you do. It is about framing that vision in a way that truly connects with others' wants, needs, and aspirations. Leadership is not a drive-through or drive-by approach: it develops from sweat equity. We know firsthand how one change in personnel, curriculum, administration, legislation, or budget can—despite our best intents—set into motion a cascading domino effect that requires all of our energy, savvy, and finesse to resolve.

As we reflect on our leadership journeys, we remember our own missteps and ensuing labors to correct course. And as our careers have taken us outside of daily work in a library and into various external roles, we have been fortunate to see school libraries through others' eyes and gained insight that we wish we had known earlier in our careers. If we had to narrow down what differentiates those who successfully lead from the library and those who do not, it's knowing what makes people tick and figuring out how to optimize existing culture for growth. As Dale Carnegie says in How to Win Friends and Influence People, "People do things for their reasons, not ours. Find their reasons."


First, speak the language of stakeholders. So many of us leave library school fired up to talk about information literacy and flexible schedules, having implicitly or explicitly been told that it was our job to turn the school's schedule around. Kristin tried that. It fell flat and felt downright demoralizing; worse, it did not increase library usage, much less student learning. Instead of fighting an uphill battle to instill those concepts, Kristin turned elsewhere. She subscribed to Educational Leadership, which she saw on her principal's desk, so she could connect to her principal's knowledge base. She became familiar with the district's strategic plan and technology documentation to see the goals the administration had set for itself, then adopted their language to show how library-based efforts could enhance progress toward those goals. In short, make it a priority to create a positive working relationship with your administrator. Find something that fires them up and build on it. Every administrator is proud of something—find their "love language" and then figure out how to connect your goals to their aspirations.

In Kristin's case, knowing that administrators were required to share points of pride at their weekly meetings gave her the idea to do a weekly share to her principal of what she saw happening in the building (sometimes about the library, sometimes not). That added value to the overall relationship she worked diligently to build with her principal. After all, aren't libraries information gatherers and disseminators? This also "bought some insurance" with her administrator, setting up a relationship in which Kristin was a problem-solving asset for the principal. (This lessened the blow when she screwed up—and she did.)

With another principal, the need could be for less information rather than fancy annual reports or constant emails; or for tracking down articles for graduate coursework; or taking over website management (annoying until you realize you now control the school's messaging). Kristin spoke recently with one librarian who after a meeting with administrators was panicked that makerspaces were going to annihilate her library program. Upon reflection, she realized that all the principal had asked for was a bunch of STEM toys set out on library tables. She realized she could easily achieve his maker goals and, by satisfying him, build goodwill as she continued to develop her more-nuanced maker priorities for students.

Leadership doesn't mean working in a vacuum. Susan, as a district director who met regularly with administrators, had regular opportunity to convey program needs and share what the school librarians could do to help the district achieve its goals. She needed her team of librarians to keep her in the loop so she could be an effective leader in helping them help their learning communities. Too often, librarians would "sit on things" because they didn't want to complain or admit that they needed assistance. As an adherent to the old adage that a "stitch in time, saves nine," Susan instituted a monthly form—first paper-based, and eventually electronic—that at first, was perceived as onerous by the librarians, but which they became accustomed to over time. The form prompted each school librarian to reflect on these questions:

  1. What went right this month?
  2. What went wrong?
  3. What would fix what went wrong?
  4. Instructional strategies I am excited about
  5. What do you need from administration?

The responses provided critical information and gave Susan a "heads up" to any problem that might be brewing, as well as alerted her to wonderful things that the school librarians were doing. She could further her relationship with their principals by sharing positive stories with them to facilitate their own "boasting" as well.

The librarians' individual personalities took form in their answers and gave Susan new ideas for customizing her supervision, focusing professional development, and addressing issues before they became points of contention or frustration. Additionally, the required reflection helped the librarians prioritize and put things in perspective, essential skills for their own leadership development.

Keep asking yourself, "How can the library help solve problems?" not, "How can my administrator solve my problem?" and you'll find that your helpful approach will not only gain you more administrative respect, but likely more face time as well. Once the rapport is established, it becomes easier to make an ask of an administrator, because there is a sense of mutuality established. (A deep dive into curriculum documents yields similar results with teachers: you will have more empathy for where there are instructional strains, and, hopefully, find a way to meet your library's goals while lessening their burdens.)

Work Culture

Be mindful of the work culture of your building. Too often, we impose conditions on educators' library interactions. Consider, for example, our profession's insistence upon collaborative teaching. Most of us were taught that co-teaching and flexible scheduling are the ideal. But, as one of Kristin's former colleagues once posed, "I wonder why your profession thinks I can't teach by myself?" What a powerful question! (Consider this from an administrator's position, too: "Why do I need a certified librarian if there's got to be a teacher there already? A para could do that stuff under a teacher's supervision and that would free up the funds I need for summer school.")

Our classroom colleagues must balance everything from students' mental health to standardized tests. Librarians justifiably see collaborative teaching as maximizing pedagogical expertise and halving the student-teacher ratio. Classroom teachers may feel differently, seeing collaborative planning and team-teaching as luxuries their time-strapped schedules cannot accommodate. Kristin shifted her focus to out-of-school and lunchtime tech experiences and fixed schedule classes, where she could systematically build skills instead of insisting on a work style her educators didn't want. Over time, her colleagues saw her impact on kids and asked if she could integrate more of "their" curriculum into those fixed classes.

The result on student learning was as high as that of flexible scheduling; it just came in a different format. The trick was to realize that collaboration is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. The correct end goal is student growth, and there are many paths to get there. Over time, Kristin admitted that she worked better this way, because it required less fruitless effort. Instead of constantly calibrating to match the teaching style of each colleague, she could fully embrace her own pedagogical approach, which made her more confident and satisfied. This made it easier to recover when she flubbed things, as all aspiring leaders do.

If you're tired of, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," perhaps it's time to begin making some changes so that you can gain more support for the library priorities you have. Always remember that while you may not perceive yourself as a "rock star" compared to colleagues who have more of a presence in professional circles, nobody knows your learning community better than you do, and the only group you need to impress is them. So rock on!

Works Cited

Karr, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse. Les Guêpes, vi (January 1849).

Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People. Simon & Schuster, 2009.

About the Authors

Susan D. Ballard, MS, is vice president of the National Collaborative for Digital Equity and a past president of AASL. She served on the Editorial Board for the AASL Standards and Guidelines Editorial Board, responsible for writing the National School Library Standards for Learners, Librarians and School Libraries. She is a current a member of the AASL CAEP Coordinating Committee involved in revision of the Standards for Preparation of School Librarians. Follow her on Twitter @nholb or email her at sdballard@comcast.net or sdballard@digitalequity.us.

Kristin Fontichiaro, MLIS, is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, where she coordinates the school library media specialization. She earned her master's in library and information science from Wayne State University. Formerly, she was an elementary school librarian and staff development facilitator for the Birmingham Public Schools in Michigan and a classroom teacher. She is the author of numerous award-winning books for youth, educators, and librarians. She can be reached at font@umich.edu.

MLA Citation Ballard, Susan D., and Kristin Fontichiaro. "Leadership: Beyond the Memes." School Library Connection, February 2019, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2145387.

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