Lakisha Brinson of Amqui Elementary School in Nashville, TN was named a School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year Award finalist in August 2015. Stay tuned for blog posts from School Librarian of the Year finalist Sally Smollar and finalist Kristina Holzweiss!
“Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes.”—Hugh Prathe
I echo this sentiment as I enter my sixth year as a teacher-librarian. At the beginning of the year I am confronted with the realization that changes have to be made. Change is often associated with apprehension, which is often followed by dread. I wish that I could say that I haven’t experienced these emotions as I’ve moved from school to school, but I have. Yet these emotions are quickly replaced by excitement, anticipation, and exhilaration. It is in these very moments that I remember that my students, teachers, and school community are depending on me to create a learning hub that inspires, and motivates our students to become readers and users of information. Seems daunting, I know! Read on to learn more about my journey implementing three different approaches within three different schools throughout my career as a teacher-librarian.
Approach One: Leading from Within
My first years as a librarian were spent in a school where I had already spent four years as a classroom teacher. Though my ability to teach and plan lessons granted me credibility among the staff, it also resulted in blurred lines at first.
Because I had worked with and formed relationships with select teachers throughout the years, I found it easy to collaborate, and I often invited them in for special activities. I prided myself on the number of collaborative lessons I initiated. Then it happened: my administration pulled me aside and said, “You have to realize that you have moved into a leadership position, and your vision has to shift to include what is best for all students.” I was being told in no uncertain terms that there were over 500 students in my building and I was only meeting the needs of 60–80 of them. Ouch! Can you say wake-up call? From that moment on, I made the decision to become more inclusive. I accomplished this by:
- attending meetings and offering my services to all team members
- providing weekly newsletters with resources for upcoming events/holidays
- going into the classroom to teach a lesson
This transformation took the rest of the year and continued well into the next. However, by the end of my third year, I had worked with each class at least two times during the year. Let’s face it, being told that you are not meeting the needs of your school makes you take a real hard look at yourself. I learned that leadership requires change, and change requires a look within, no matter how difficult.
Approach Two: Trainings, Teachings, and Teaming
After my first three years as a librarian, I wandered back into the world of teaching. Fast-forward three years, and I returned to the library. At this time, our library program was under new leadership and an incredible shift was taking place: Libraries were moving from operational to student-centered. This shift required us as teacher-librarians to be knowledgeable about district initiatives, standards, and teaching practices. Though this was a much-needed change, it was still change. What worked three years prior would no longer meet the needs of my users. So what happened? You guessed it! I adapted.
Remember when I said I had returned to teaching? Well, during that season I also worked as a STEM Instructional Designer at an elementary school. This role provided me with intensive training on inquiry-based learning strategies along with Project Based Learning best practices. Upon reflection, I noticed that the teachers at this school were overloaded by the need to understand and implement one of our district’s mandates: project based learning. Project based learning (PBL) is a hands on approach to teaching and learning that facilitates student learning through engagement in a real world problem. I felt like Charlie in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and this was my golden ticket.
I used this opportunity to build relationships with the teachers and gain their trust, which led to a new experience: On our back-to-school retreat, I led a training that introduced teachers to PBL to ignite their interest and to show that it was manageable. A couple of months later, I proposed to the administration that we complete our first school-wide PBL. During an afterschool professional development session, each grade level team created a skeletal unit using the theme People, Places, and Products, which addressed social studies standards. The next week, the Instructional Coaches and I went to team meetings and walked through a PBL protocol with each team. The following week, the PBL unit was implemented. On the post-evaluation, teachers said that it was the most engaged they had seen students in a while, and that they had succeeded in learning the concept. The students’ excitement and knowledge was the fuel I needed. Following that experience, I was often asked to review and help plan PBL units. From this experience I learned that I need to become what my students and teachers need, and this may differ from school to school.
Approach Three: Back to the Basics
As I write this, I am finishing my first two months at a new elementary library. This school is the most diverse school I have ever worked in, with over 600 students, a fairly high EL population, and no library clerk. This provides the biggest opportunity for me to embrace change and create a student-centered space. With 28 classroom teachers and no assistant, I had to think fast when I arrived. My first goal here was to create a functional library program. I asked the teachers for the first 40 days of the year to allow me to shift, refine, and re-do current practices to create a space that would work for our school. The first three weeks were devoted to library procedures such as order in the library, how to check-in books, and selecting a “read and relax” spot after checkout. The following two weeks were devoted to choosing the right books and check-out procedures.
Let me stop right here and say that this has been a work-in-progress, and we have not perfected it yet. But it has brought about a welcome change that has been noted by both teachers and students. Another goal of mine was to create an inviting atmosphere for both students and teachers. So, I asked teachers for their opinions. Teachers were very vocal about the fact that they just wanted access, so this quickly became my priority. I implemented open check-out times, and I am now allowing anyone with a library card to check-out any time of day (by far the biggest change I have made). I have relinquished control over being the keeper-of-books; I shifted responsibility to the students. I trust that students who come in while I am teaching will be able to check in and out without assistance. Most importantly, I trust that this change is cultivating a student-centered environment where the students feel empowered. Though we have not fully arrived, I stand in awe of all that has been accomplished. I am excited for more change to come in upcoming months, remembering that librarianship is not one-size-fits-all.
Change requires reflection, and though it might be complex, it also requires courage. I ask that you join me as we each take a look at our schools and their needs. Then make a conscious decision to change what needs to be changed.