Advocacy Begins at Home

So many insightful pieces have already been written about the importance of advocacy for school libraries and librarians, including thoughtful tips and ideas on what to do to promote the wonderful goings on in these classrooms that see and serve all students. I've seen so many that I am left wondering, what could there possibly be left to say on the topic? What else needs covered? And, then, this happened.

I had a proud mama moment at the end of the 2018 school year. My then fourth grader said she going to help their school librarian during one of the last days of school, probably by helping put books away. I must admit, I felt pretty good in that moment. Not only did my kiddo decide all on her own that she wanted to help a teacher at school, the teacher she picked was the school librarian! We had also been discussing possible career choices as she had recently been on a college visit to the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). So, it wasn't a big surprise when she also said, "I guess I could be a librarian, too." I smiled and said, "Of course you could. You could even go to UNO." She stopped, looked at me a bit puzzled and said, "Why do I have to go to college to learn how to put books away?"

I'll be honest, my moment fizzled quickly. My kid is the daughter of a school librarian now working in our district library services department, an adjunct instructor for the library science program at UNO, and the president of our state school librarian association. My kid has had amazing school librarians that teach lessons on inquiry, technology, and much more. How did she not know a school librarian does more than shelve books or, for goodness sake, that they need a college degree?

As a huge proponent of advocating for school libraries and librarians, I was flummoxed at first, but then it hit me. We cannot just focus our advocacy on the people who we know don't know enough about school libraries. We need to pay just as much, if not more, attention to the people we are confident know what we do each day.

Most school librarians are aware of the importance of getting stakeholders on their side to ensure the continuance of a robust school library program or to inspire steps to make one even better or, if necessary, to protect student access and their own jobs. We know that many people base their thoughts and ideas about what goes on in the school library on their own experiences. For many, these have been different than what we see as the aim for school librarianship today. For whatever reason, librarians still seem to have the unshakeable image of a person pushing around a cart laden with books or glaring from behind the circulation desk at patrons who dare speak. While it may be difficult to pinpoint who exactly is perpetuating this stereotype, rallying against it can be one of the many roles school librarians take on each year.

Many times, we use advocacy to battle these preconceived notions. We cannot forget, though, that anyone can fall prey to these generalizations. What we think those close to us know and what they really know are probably not the same. Think about this. How much do you really know about what happens in the lives of your friends and loved ones each day? What do the people residing with you really know about what you do each day? Could those closest to you defend the reason why a school librarian is important to their children, school, or community?

Obviously, school librarianship doesn't have to be the focus of every conversation you have with people—if it was you may find a lot of folks running for the hills when they see you coming. However, if we never focus our discussions with the people closest to us on what school libraries and school librarians do, we lose out on opportunities to grow our team of allies. If we turn our supporters into fellow advocates, then the voice supporting school libraries and librarians becomes more powerful and resonant.

How should we go about assembling a legion of advocates? Who should we gather around us? Who has a voice that could carry power? The answer is simple. Everyone you are close to in your life has the potential. It doesn't matter who they are—relatives, friends, neighbors, fellow volunteers, faith group members, that parent on your kid's soccer team you always end up talking to—they can all lend their voices. It doesn't matter where they live—even if these folks you hold dear don't live in your district or city or state, a champion for school libraries in any locale helps the greater good. Again, I'm not saying you should monopolize every conversation you have with school library talk, but, when the opportunity arises, take advantage of it.

If someone asks you about your day or how you are doing…tell them! Don't just say it was "fine." You spend a large portion of your waking hours at work, so most of your day was probably spent in your school library. Talk about what happened there today and be honest. "We were really busy in the library today. We had three science classes conducting biomes research, two AP English courses working on finding evidence for argumentative essays, and our book club Skyped with this really cool author." Or, "Today was tiring but wonderful. Our kindergarten students are going out to the shelves to find books on their own for the first time. It takes work up front to help them learn where to find things but seeing the looks on their faces when they find a book they are excited to read is completely worth it." Even, "You know, it was a tough day. The library was closed again for testing. Traveling to the classrooms ensures students still get their lesson and can check out books, but it is tiring. Plus, it is hard to help them develop a love of reading when they are limited to the small selection I can bring with me." If we want folks to understand what we do, we need to tell them. The clearer the picture we paint the better.

Also, be sure to not forget about the built-in support systems already in place at your school. Fellow teachers, students, and administrators can be some of your greatest allies. They reap the benefits of your practice, and while they may vaguely understand what you do, they may not always understand all the pieces that go into creating a successful school library program.

Elementary teachers—Email teachers to let them know what you are teaching their students. Show how what you are teaching is connecting to their curricular goals.

Secondary teachers—Share news of a great collaborative experience with other teachers in the same content area or grade level. Share your calendar online to not only show when you are available but also to highlight how much of your time is spent teaching.

All grade levels—Let teachers know when new book orders arrive. Point out a few of the best-reviewed items that could be of interest to their students and why you chose them. Book orders are the hidden time bandits no one but you knows about.

Administrators—Invite them in to see you teaching. If the timing doesn't work out the first time, keep asking until it does. Visits like these provide instant evidence as to how you support academic achievement and life-long learning and remind administrators that your most important role as school librarian is teacher. As a bonus, they get to see the welcoming, student friendly space you have created.

Students—Show students how you create your book order. Let them make suggestions by looking through options and professional reviews. Discuss the importance of weeding. Ask them to help decide what should be taken away or added. Not only will you get help in curating your collection, students will learn about copyright dates, checking for currency of information, evaluating others' opinions, and much more.

School/District Guidelines—Be sure that you follow the same guidelines as other teachers in your building. If learning goals are to be in a certain format, posted, and referenced in the lesson, be sure to do that. Being proactive about bringing learning front and center will help your library to be seen as the classroom it is and you as a teacher that plays an integral role in your school's instructional framework. Your students should be able to tell their teachers, administrators, or parents exactly what they are learning in your school library.

While targeted advocacy efforts that go beyond a quick conversation or an email are critically important to the support school libraries and their librarians need, don't discount how those conversations can empower the advocates around you. We must actively and continuously build our choir of voices. Our goal should be that if the subject comes up or the need arises, the people we know best can provide a clear message about the vital role school libraries and librarians play in education today—with a possible anecdote or two thrown in for good measure. Who knows, maybe the stories they share will create even more allies. I know I will be talking to my daughter and others I am close to more often about school libraries and librarians. Who will you share your story with?

About the Author

Courtney Pentland, MEd, is a lead teacher and research librarian for library services for Omaha Public Schools in Omaha, NE, and an adjunct instructor in the library sciences program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She earned her master’s in secondary education and master’s endorsement in K-12 library science from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

MLA Citation Pentland, Courtney. "Advocacy Begins at Home." School Library Connection, July 2019, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2187126.

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Entry ID: 2187126

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