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How To Survive The Zombie Librarian Apocalypse Tip #2: Keep Learning!

Zombie Librarians have stopped learning. 

You know these folks.  They've made an art out of being a disconnected educator, they've done no professional reading since leaving library school and while they're not exactly sure what a PLN is, they know they don't want one.  While you're spending your evenings attending webinars or participating in Twitter chats, they're still mourning the death of Encyclopedia Britannica's print edition.  While you're spending your weekends and summers attending professional conferences, they're at home knitting yet another cat sweater. And while you're collaborating with other educators from around the world to create new and innovative experiences for your students, they're still using the same lesson plans that they've used for years, (because, you know, they've always worked just fine).  

You get the picture.

What's really worrisome about this affliction is that being and staying disconnected these days requires work.  Shoot.  The other night my husband and I went to dinner at a restaurant where the menu encouraged us to "pin" its recipes, the receipt requested that we "follow" them for special deals and the to-go cups were decorated with QR codes.  Seriously, social media has infiltrated just about every aspect of modern life, which makes the fact that some of our colleagues seem to be living on professional deserted islands utterly mind boggling.

What's more, this type of intellectual stagnation is bad.  Really bad. And here's why:

When I was a first year teacher, a well meaning assistant principal told me that it would probably take five years, but eventually I would "find my groove" - at which point, I would no longer have to worry about reinventing the wheel because, after five years, I'd have a collection of great lessons that I could pull from the filing cabinet and reuse year after year.  Now, 17 years later, I'm happy to report that my groove is still missing in action.  I don't know about you, but I've never taught the same group of kids twice, so... rather than a weakness, I see reinventing the wheel as a necessary part of meeting each group of kids' unique instructional needs.  Our curricula may stay the same, (or not depending on where you live!), but our kids (even those we work with for several years in a row) change, and as such our teaching has to change too.  And this type of pedagogical reinvention requires us to be constantly learning - about new teaching methods, new technologies and new strategies for reaching kids.  Without this exposure to new ideas, we cease to grow as professionals which, ultimately, does a disservice to our students, all of whom deserve the best possible educational experiences that we can give them.  Think about it.  Who would you rather your own child learn from?  A teacher whose love of learning keeps them constantly seeking out new ideas and inspiration?  Or one whose "one size fits all" philosophy requires no intellectual curiosity at all.  Right.  Thought so.

But, here's the thing:  Zombie Librarians aren't just bad for students, they are also bad for our profession.  

As the only librarian in your school (unless you are lucky enough to have a partner in crime) it's important to remember that every interaction you have with a child, a teacher, a parent, an administrator, a school board member, and/or anyone else who walks through that door, has the potential to confirm or challenge what that individual thinks they know about libraries and about your work.  If those interactions reveal or reinforce that your practice is ineffective, your methods outdated, your attitude apathetic and your commitment questionable, not only are you making things really tough on yourself, but you are also (however inadvertently) hammering another nail into our profession's coffin.  People who think libraries are unnecessary do so because they see ours as a profession that hasn't evolved.  And, guess what?  If you've stopped learning, you're proving them right!  And as someone who loves libraries and believes in what they provide for students, that makes me really grumpy.

The good news, however, is that a) it's never too late to start learning and b) getting started has never been easier.  So... here are a few ways to jump start your professional learning and kill a few zombies along the way.

  1. Focus on the LEARNING not on the credit:  Stop thinking of professional learning as just another hoop you have to jump through in order to get however many "credits" are necessary for license renewal.  Chasing credits is the professional equivalent of doing the bare minimum required to pass an assignment: it's both lazy and unfulfilling.  Besides, the number of credits needed to renew a teaching license is usually very attainable - especially if you don't wait until the last minute to do it.  Trust me, if you seek out regular meaningful learning experiences, the credits will take care of themselves.

  2. Learn to love the hashtag:  Even if you're not keen to join the Twitterverse on a regular basis, consider participating, or at least following, one of the many weekly/biweekly Twitter chats that are focused on education.  Not only are there Twitter chats specifically for librarians, but there are many state and even district specific chats as well.  These (typically) hour long discussions explore the most timely educational issues, will help connect you with other, like-minded educators (who are often facing similar challenges) and will expose you to mountains of new ideas.  Plus, most chats are archived in some way, so even if you are unable to participate live, you can often read through the stream later.  

  3. Join professional organizations:  Really.  Professional organizations are often run by the most dedicated members of our profession.  These folks work tirelessly (and for free!) to advocate for our profession, connect us to our colleagues and provide meaningful, local and often very practical learning experiences that are specific to librarianship. (But don't stop there.  Once you've joined, ask how you can get involved!)

  4. Think outside the box:  As much as I love professional conferences (and I do! I really, really do!) they can sometimes be pricey and getting time off from work to participate can also be a challenge.  Fortunately, these days collective and collaborative learning experiences come in all shapes and sizes.  If you can't make it to your state/region's conference offerings (or even if you can!) consider attending a local Edcampor participating in virtual experiences like webinars or signing up for a MOOC.   These opportunities are almost always free and are made especially relevant by the fact that they are by educators for educators. 

  5. Make time for learning:  We're all super busy and, believe me, I get it.  Sometimes looking at my calendar makes me want to cry.  However, despite the demands of our personal and professional lives, we all make time for things that we see as a priority and learning cannot be an exception.  So... if you're having trouble finding time to engage in meaningful professional learning experiences, put them on your calendar and then, as often as is possible, make them the priority. 

  6. Follow your passions:  We all know that students learn the most from experiences that are relevant to them and that engage their passions - the same is true for teacher-librarians.  If you're super interested in educational technology, pursue learning opportunities that engage those interests.  If you want to know more about how poverty impacts learning, dive into work that focuses on that very question.  And if you want to transform your library into a center for inquiry, then you know what to do!  We've all sat through workshops thinking "what does this have to do with me?"  By following your passions, you're more likely to be asking "how can I learn more?!" 

  7. Rethink failure.  I'm not sure where I saw it, but I recently ran across the use of the word FAIL as the acronym  First Attempt In Learning.  Real learning can be messy, frustrating and often leads to more questions than answers. But we also know that those experiences also yield the most fruitful results.  The important thing is to not give up.  If you can't figure Twitter out on your first try?  Big whoop! It took me a year and three tries to get it right.  If you've signed up for a MOOC but can't finish the coursework?  No worries! There's another one just around the corner! Bottom line: stumbles are a part of learning and if, when you do take a tumble, you find you can't get up, don't be afraid to ask for help.  

  8. Take it from theory to practice:  None of this really matters if it never impacts your work, so be on the lookout for ways to create new learning experiences for your students as a result of your own professional growth. I once had a principal who encouraged her staff to take notes during PD that included a column for "actions I will take." This lesson stuck with me.  While I no longer take formal notes in this way, I still approach every workshop, every webinar and every Twitter chat wondering how this experience will impact kids.  Indeed, if your students don't benefit from what you've learned, then, really, what's the point?

  9. Share. Share. Share:  Don't let the learning stop with you.  If you've learned something new and have used that learning to impact your students, find ways to share that experience with others.  Whether it's at a staff meeting, a district wide professional development day, some tweets to your followers or a post on your very own blog, fight the zombies by spreading the undeniable truth that great teachers are also great learners!

Finally, let me end with this.  As Zombie Fighters we can't be afraid to have honest conversations with our colleagues who are stuck.  Like my friend and colleague Jennifer Northrup said in a recent post on her blog, there's no need to be confrontational or to go on the attack.  However, we can't be passive either and hope that Zombie Librarians will simply be inspired by our stellar examples.  

A few years ago, a unnamed friend of mine from an unnamed state told me that her school district allowed her to attend author readings and book signings for license renewal credit.  She went on to tell me about how she'd sat through lectures on being a pro golf caddy, finding the perfect gumbo recipe and life in the Peace Corp as part of her professional learning experience.  Later that year, we had a conversation in which she lamented some professional stumbling blocks: she'd had  couple disappointing observations from her principal and was struggling to find evidence that her work was impacting students in measurable ways.  Now... I could have let this slide.  I could have commiserated with her plight, blamed her administration or lamented the challenges of a particularly tough group of students.  But instead I said, "well, you've always got that gumbo recipe to fall back on."  I'll admit, she took offense and that conversation did not end well.  However, a few weeks later, she sent me a list of courses she was considering taking over the summer to help sharpen her skills, and wanted my opinion.  A small step, perhaps, but in my experience every victory begins with one small step.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not at all implying that sarcasm is the best tool for fighting Zombie Librarians but I do know this: ignoring the problem won't solve it.  As Zombie Fighters we have an opportunity and an obligation to (appropriately and professionally) help our stagnant colleagues move forward.  And not just because it only takes a few Zombies to bring us all down, but because all students deserve to learn from teachers who love to learn themselves.


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