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


  1. Can I pleases include this in my local professional group? Linda Mitchell

  2. beautifully stated! I couldn't agree more.

  3. So awesome to read your list & see myself in those descriptions. After 20 years in the classroom, I was just hired this week as a teacher-librarian (and yes I'm starting the degree in 3 months). ;) Very excited to be in this new role!

  4. This is amazing! It really speaks to me. I would really love to share this with my principal. As the previous comment states, it's great to see myself on the list. I have an arts degree, and working on applying for my masters in Library Sciences over the next year. I was hired on a whim, for my ideas and love of children than for my qualifications. I'm loving it so far!

  5. Jen I agree! :) I see myself in many of those as well :) thank you so much for sharing this awesome post!

  6. I've just sent this to my principal asking him to share it with the principals of our feeder schools, many of whom have started the habit of hiring a part-time circulation clerk rather than a certificated librarian. Thank you so much for providing a warm, compelling and articulate account of what I hope to accomplish as a librarian and how librarians can help our students while they are attending our feeder schools. Bravissimo! :^)

  7. Great post, Jennifer. There is one characteristic you could consider adding: Enjoys co-learning with colleagues. The ability and desire to co-plan, co-teach, and co-assess student learning is one trait that may distinguish the "right" classroom teacher from the "right" school librarian. Best, Judi

  8. Jennifer, I love your letter to principals and as a retired school librarian I would have given it to every principal I worked with. There seems to be a complete lack of understanding about the critical role of librarians to the learning and achievement process. Some years ago my district could not fill all of the available positions and a colleague and I worked together and developed a program called "Grow Your Own Librarian." We recruited classroom teachers and provided them with six weeks of basic training. The state agreed to give participants a provisional certification as long as they were enrolled in an MLS program. I am happy to say that most of the participants are still in their libraries, finished their degree, fully certified, and very satisfied with the program. The "Grow Your Own Librarian" program filled all library vacancies. On another matter, when I tried to access the NC evaluation rubric for school librarians the one for school psychologist came up. Now, I know that we often are seen as psychologist when we suggest books as bibliotherapy, but is the real one for librarians available. Jen, are you in NC? Where?

  9. Hey, Library Girl, You hit the mark! Well stated! Loved meeting you in Iowa this last spring at the IASL conference. Thank you for all the awesome work you do to promote our profession.

  10. I really love this - thanks for putting down in paper many of the thoughts I also share!

  11. Love, love, love this! As someone who is strongly leaning toward library school, I appreciate your letter, especially number 2: Look for the right person as opposed to the right degree.

  12. I also was hired from the classroom, in January of this year. I've been teaching K-2 for over 30 years. I got my certification in 1990! So grateful our principal took a chance. Thanks for this great list. I'm getting ready to have a conversation or two with him concerning some of the points in the second section of this post. Thank you!

  13. As a librarian-turned-principal, I agree on all counts!

  14. I'm intrigued by the data piece. Other than circulation stats and extra class/student visits (I'm in a fixed schedule elementary library) what other data are librarians collecting? Love to expand my practice!

  15. Sayitloud LibrarianMay 31, 2015 at 11:10 AM

    Love this! I think that any librarian who is interviewing for a job should use this as talking points. Very well done!

  16. I love this! As a classroom teacher of 12 years who is now in the process of becoming a certified LMS, I love your thoughts on hire the right person, not the right degree. I have many applications sent out and a couple of interviews set up. Hopefully the principals I'm meeting have the same mind set as you!

  17. I have to disagree about the need for a degree up front. I have an MLS and 20 years experience. My school librarian coworkers in my school system do not. They have no intention of getting a library degree. They may be great at book talking, but they have NO idea about foundational library functions and management. They do not know how to catalog a book. The catalog database is a horrible mess. How can anyone teach a student how to use a catalog when the results list is a confusing mess of misinformation and inaccurate results? One coworker has not bothered to track her budget spending. It just didn't occur to her that that was important. Most of her budget will go unspent and her next one will be smaller, because administrators will assume the money isn't needed. A friend of mine commented recently that "librarians" usually just fall into the job without training and they like reading/books. In what other profession is this ok? Is it okay to be under the care of a hospital nurse who "just fell into the job" and likes thermometers and bandages? Would you give your money to a banker who "just fell into the job" and likes money? Would you trust your child's education to someone who "just fell into the job" and likes kids? No, of course not. Professional expertise is not less important than social skills. Too many principals think a teacher can just take on running the library. How hard can it be to shelve books anyway?
    Apologies for the rant. I agree that having the right person is important and that having the degree doesn't make one the right person, but the degree is essential.

  18. Jennifer, my district has been hiring teachers without degrees to fill library positions for years. I have had an MLS for over 25 years and cannot get a position as a librarian. I am more qualified than the teachers who have been hired. They have no intention of getting a library degree. No other type of teacher would ever be hired without a degree. Perhaps this is why universities keep eliminating library science departments. Many politicians would love to see all teachers hired with a "Grow Your Own Teacher Program."