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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 (and SHOULD) 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


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