Monday, May 25, 2015

An Open Letter To Principals (Before You Hire A New School Librarian)

Dear Principal,

I know you're busy, so I won't mince words: Hiring and supporting awesome people to work with the students who go to your school is the most important part of your job.  Period.  It's not school safety.  It's not community outreach.  It's not busses,  instructional services or building maintenance.  It's people.  Because the better people you have, the more empowered and capable they are, the fewer problems you'll have in all of those other areas.  Great people = great outcomes.

That said, I'm willing to bet you spend a lot of time thinking about this.  Especially at this time of year when resumes, resignations, transfers and retirements start coming in.  As a life long teacher, I associate the end of any school year with lots of things: kids waving out of bus windows for the last time, empty lockers, quiet hallways and an almost indescribable exhaustion.  But for the principal, this time of year also means looking for and hiring new people.

In my experience most principals have developed a pretty good system for hiring new classroom teachers.  They have a team of go to instructional leaders to serve on the committee, a list of finely tuned questions to ask and enough gut instinct to know when they've found "the one."  When it comes to hiring new school librarians, however, the process is often a little less efficient.

And look, that's not your fault.  I get it.  Chances are, you've a) never been a school librarian b) never hired a school librarian, c) never collaborated with a school librarian (back when you were a classroom teacher) and d) you probably also missed that nonexistent lecture in principal school in which you were told what to expect from the school librarian you would soon supervise.  But despite the lack of guidance you've received in this area, trust me, this is important.  As important as hiring a new 5th, 8th or 11th grade teacher.  In some ways, more important, because your school librarian will work with every teacher and every student in your building.  She will purchase materials that support both your core curriculum and the interventions you design for your most vulnerable students.  He will lead the way in technology initiatives and build the programs that help develop the literacy habits of your little learners.  This is a big and important job.  And you need someone who is up to the task. You need an awesome librarian.

And I am going to help you find one.

As you prepare to interview and select candidates for this role,  here's what you do:

  1. Look for someone who loves children more than books.  Books are awesome. And your new librarians should love them. But they should love children more.  Look for passion when you talk to them about their job, but make sure that passion revolves around what makes being a school librarian the best job in the world: the opportunity to match kids with the first book to change their lives. 
  2. Look for the right person as opposed to the right degree.  Librarians reading about this are not going to like this suggestion, but the right person can earn the right degree later.  That transformation rarely works in reverse, however.  Besides, I'll tell you a little secret.  I wasn't finished with my degree when a principal took a chance on me as a fledgling school librarian.  And I turned out okay.  (I want to be clear.  You NEED a certified, degreed, school librarian.  But if you find the right person who is willing to get that degree and certification, and your system allows you to hire such candidates, don't let their initial lack of credentialing stand in the way of hiring someone who is awesome). 
  3. Look for data and outcomes. Data comes in all shapes and sizes.  Ask how your potential new school librarian uses it to make sure her work matters. Find out what kinds of data she collects, how she changes her practice to meet individual student needs and how she uses it to evaluate the effectiveness of her work. 
  4. Look for someone who can grow readers, not just reading scores. Developing reading skills and developing the habit of reading are two different things.  But when we talk about the important work of helping students thrive (and achieve) one thing cannot exist without the other.  You need a school librarian who can support the work of classroom teachers while also creating spaces, events, instruction and programming that help make reading an essential part of your students' lives. 
  5. Look for a leader (or one in training). I've said it before, but it's worth repeating, your school librarian works with every student and every teacher in your school.  You need a coach, a cheerleader, a visionary, a risk taker and a rebel.  You need someone who is willing to do whatever it takes for your students and who will inspire others to do the same.  
  6. Look for a learner. Ask them about their habits as a learner.  Ask them who their instructional heroes are, where they go for pedagogical inspiration and how they continue to grow as a practitioner of the world's most important art.  Look for someone for whom learning is a part of their DNA because only a "life long learner" can model that passion for someone else. 
But that's not all.  Finding the right person is only part of the equation.  Once you've hired the perfect candidate, they are going to need you to do a few things to help them be the very best school librarian they can be.  You have to support them.  And here's how:
  1. Have high expectations.  In my experience, people rise and fall to the expectations that are set for them. So set your expectations high and watch your new school librarian rise.  That said... 
  2. Give them meaningful work.  Providing other teachers with a planning period is not meaningful work.  Forcing students to select books within a certain lexile band is not meaningful work.  Checking books in and out all day long is not meaningful work.  Give them important work. Work that matters.  To whatever extent possible, give them time to collaborate with classroom teachers, manage your school's collection of resources and work with students in ways that produce real outcomes.   
  3. Put your money where your priorities are.  Over and over again, studies show that sufficiently and consistently funded school library programs positively impact student achievement.  And I know, these are lean times. You won't be given enough money to fund all the programs you'd like, but an investment in your library program is an investment in your students.  Ask yourself how much that's worth to you and then allot accordingly. 
  4. Be present. Be proud.  Visit the library as often as you can and show off the great work being done there.  When prospective parents, school board members or the superintendent stop by for a visit, make sure your school library is a stop on the tour.  Together, you and your librarian are going to build something awesome.  Be sure to show it off.
I know.  That's a lot.  But you can do it.  Still not sure how to get started?  Here are a few interview question that I pull from when I get the chance to help with the interview process.  Feel free to use them.  But I suggest you make them your own.

Now... go forth and find the school librarian your students deserve.

Library Girl

Monday, May 18, 2015

MacGyver Librarianship: An Exercise in Crowdsourced AWEsomeness!

I hope everyone reading this has a “big idea” friend.  That person with whom no topic of conversation is too improbable or idealistic.  That friend who often feels more like a coconspirator than a traditional bestie. On those nights when you look up at the sky only to see the bat signal glowing persistently in the dark, this person is your first call.  For me, that guy is former school librarian and forever genius, Mark Samberg.

If you are not already following Mark on Twitter, do yourself a favor and correct that. Right now. Go  ahead. I’ll wait.

One of the many reasons why having a big idea friend is so important is because we all need someone with whom we can share our craziest notions and map out our most ambitious plans for changing the world.  In fact, it was during one of these very conversations that Mark and I had a crazy idea: what if MacGyver had been a school librarian?  You know MacGyver, of course, that mullet loving, plaid wearing, boy scout/heart throb from the 1980s who could repair a broken nuclear reactor with just a paperclip and a piece of chewing gum?  That guy.  What if HE had gone to library school and was then faced with his most difficult challenge yet: creating instructional magic in the library with not enough support and too few resources?  

Crazy?  You bet!  But we felt we were onto something.

So... we set out to create a presentation that would both empower school librarians to continue advocating for the best possible resources for their students, while also providing them with practical examples for making the most out of what they already have at their disposal. We didn’t know if anyone else would be interested in what we had to share, but we knew we’d have fun putting it together. And we did. We really, really did.

What happened next, though, was completely and utterly amazeballs.

It only took sharing our presentation a couple of times for us to realize that a) the world is full of school librarians who are already MacGyvering (yes, I just turned Angus MacGyver into a verb) the heck out of their own libraries and b) the hashtag #macgyverlibrarianship was a thing that absolutely had to exist.  So… we started asking for examples to share in future presentations, and boy did the Twitterverse deliver!  We’ve received suggestions from around the world involving spray paint, old wii remotes, post it notes, suran wrap, an endless supply of rulers and about a million uses for weeded books. Seriously, the stuff people have shared has been incredible. I've no doubt that our unfortunately coiffed hero would be so, so proud!

What's more, the ideas just keep coming.

Last week I had the honor of sharing this presentation with some truly badass school librarians in New Hampshire, and today the #macgyverlibrarianship hashtag has been on fire.  What these librarians, along with all the others from around the world who have channelled their inner MacGyver and then turned to Twitter to share their work, know is that the very thing you consider to be a small idea could, in fact, make a BIG difference for someone else.  Although the particulars may be different, in some ways, we’re all trying to crack the same puzzles.  Why not share what we know?  Put another way: individually we may be pretty great, but none of us is as awesome as we all are together.

Wanna know more? (And you know you do). Checkout the #macgyverlibrarianship hashtag and, if the spirit moves you, toss in a few ideas of your own.  Not only will you be contributing to our collective awesomeness, but you never know when Mark and I will share your idea(s) during a future presentation (with credit, of course). PLUS we’ll also add your name to our ever growing phone tree of super heroes to call the next time the bat signal goes up.