Ten ways to advocate for your role as a teacher librarian

Jenny Kemp suggests ten ways you can show your school why they need their teacher librarian.

One of the challenges faced by teacher librarians is that it isn’t always easy for the rest of the school to understand why we are important. In my experience, comments like ‘Surely everything’s online these days?’ and ‘What?! You went to university to get a library qualification? Isn’t it just about covering books and putting them back on the shelves?’ are not uncommon.

I’m sure that most librarians did not go into the profession thinking they would need to be salespeople. Often we recognise that we need to tell the school about our physical collection or online resources, but we don’t always think about selling ourselves. Sometimes it can feel a bit narcissistic: ‘Everyone,
look at me!

But, in fact, teacher librarians always need to sell their skillset. It’s an often misunderstood skillset and we don’t want to limit the possibilities of how we can add value to a school community by letting that misunderstanding define our profession. Sometimes the misunderstanding comes because our role is, indeed, very diverse and complex. Highlighting the particular skills that we can offer to support each unique context or person is more effective than barraging people with the full array of options. When I was studying for my Master’s degree, I got a little weary of writing about ‘user needs’, but I actually think it is vital to identify how our skills can meet the needs of each person who uses our library services.

Here are ten ways you can show your school why they need their teacher librarian.

1. Increase student literacy skills

You can help improve literacy outcomes for students. You can recommend books, match students with the right book to extend their reading, or help reluctant readers find a book that will get them hooked on reading. Over time you have accumulated much knowledge about the reading habits of students and what can spark — or dampen — an enthusiasm for reading. You can point teaching staff to research that highlights the importance of reading for pleasure in contributing to strong literacy outcomes for students.

2. Run a readers’ advisory service for staff

You can recommend books to staff. When it comes to school breaks, holiday reading recommendations are always popular, as is promoting new professional reading that comes into your collection. You can deliver books to staff personally so that they can enjoy their library book sooner rather than later. You can encourage staff to share their reading with their students so that they can model the joy that can come from reading experiences.

3. Teach research skills

Tell everyone about your research skills. You can share stories of the types of problems students have with online research and bust the digital native myth. You can remind teaching staff that because you are a teacher as well as a librarian, you are able to teach students how to improve their research skills in the context of the subject content. You can collaborate with teachers on research units and provide them with the tools to enhance the research process.

4. Participate in curriculum planning

You can use your expertise as a teacher to join in with the curriculum planning process. You can listen to the plans being developed for programs and suggest points at which you can support and improve the learning process. 

You can offer to support the program with physical resources, curated website collections, core text suggestions, research skills that you can teach — the opportunities are endless. Your broad knowledge of learning across the school can contribute to curriculum mapping, connecting the work of individual subjects to facilitate interdisciplinary teaching opportunities.

5. Gain support from leadership

You can find a supporter among the school leadership team who understands your vision to improve student outcomes across the school. You don’t need to always do all the advocating yourself; you can ask them to assist you in advocating for the role of the library in the school. Work in partnership with them and support their vision and goals, as well.

6. Teach classes

You can teach. Ask to be given a timetabled class in your subject area. Participate in the core business of the school. It helps students and staff recognise that you are a ‘proper teacher’, and helps you professionally to stay on top of the latest education discussions and trends. If your leadership team is reluctant to allocate you a class, argue that you need to teach to help with your accreditation. You may feel that you are too busy to teach, but the impact that this contribution can have on your perceived value to the core business of the school is not insignificant. If you became a teacher librarian because you don’t enjoy teaching, then it is better to be honest and call yourself a librarian.

7. Share the library space

You can create a library space that both students and staff feel that they can make their own. It’s not your library. The library is a shared space for which you are responsible; you are its caretaker, but it is not yours. Change your language from my library to our library.

Believe that anything is possible with the space you are looking after. Say ‘yes’ and ‘let’s try that’ frequently. Think of ways to make your space more available to more people. Teachers and students need to see the library as a space that provides options to enhance their teaching and learning experiences.

8. Self-promote

You can introduce yourself a lot. Can you walk into a staff meeting and have a pretty good idea of who everyone is and what they do? No? Then aim to be sure that other staff members know who you are. Find out what they teach and consider how you can connect with them. Take up opportunities to connect with other staff through social occasions, sporting events, and extra-curricular activities. You can be a positive and optimistic influence in the school. When people are feeling burdened by the pressures of their job, you can encourage them and support them in any way you see possible.

9. Support the school’s vision and goals

You can contribute to the school community beyond the library. When you demonstrate that you value the vision and goals of the school outside the library walls, it is likely that your place in the school will be more valued. It is easier to connect your agenda for the library with the wider school’s agenda if you’re involved in it. It also helps you become proactive in looking for opportunities to work alongside other teachers rather than passively waiting for them to approach you.

You can consider other ways your unique skillset can contribute to the school and fill a need that the school is facing. Perhaps you could offer to write a digital citizenship program, set up a makerspace, or help embed technology in classroom practice. With such a broad set of skills, the opportunities that teacher librarians have are endless — and can sometimes be overwhelming. Make sure that whatever you choose to invest in sits within the school’s strategic vision.

10. Share your expertise in new technologies

You are good at learning new technologies. You put time into understanding new databases and online systems. And if you don’t know the answers, you know where to go for help and will do your best to find new solutions. You are a resource provider and your skills in this area are invaluable to your school community.

Conclusion

Of course, there are going to be unique ways you can be valued in your particular school context but the challenge is to keep realigning your goals as a teacher librarian with that of the school in which you work. It is not a straightforward challenge; understanding the culture and dynamics of large organisations like schools can be complex. But as teacher librarians we need to be savvy and identify how our unique skills can be valued and understood more fully in our schools.

Jenny Kemp

Teacher librarian

St Andrew's Cathedral School

Jenny Kemp is the Director of Information Services (Library) at St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney, overseeing a K–12 school library service located across two city buildings. Jenny is also a secondary history and geography teacher. She has worked in both school and council libraries, and is particularly interested in how library services connect effectively with their communities and organisations.