The professional learning hat

By Barbara Braxton

Barbara Braxton writes about the importance of professional learning, arguing that if we are to encourage lifelong learning, we should practice it ourselves. Barbara provides recommendations to make professional goals meaningful and worthy of investment.

The core of our mandate as teacher librarians is to enable our students to become lifelong learners.

By teaching students, staff and other members of the school community about the information literacy process, we provide them with a scaffold that they can use in any area. This allows them to find what they need to know, whether it is solving a complex mathematical problem or learning how to start a motor mower. As teacher librarians, we often pride ourselves on being lifelong learners — but are we?

How many of us walk across the stage at graduation, accept the certificate that states we are now qualified teacher librarians, and think, ‘that’s it, I’ve completed my studies’, or believe that the only way to grow professionally is by attending teacher librarian-specific courses and conferences? How many of us look at the requirements needed to progress our careers and think that they are too heavily focused on the classroom-based teacher and therefore deem them irrelevant? From the messages I read on the various teacher librarian networks I belong to, it would seem that all too often this is the case.

Over the last few years, education in Australia has changed significantly, in part due to the establishment of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). All teachers are now required to be formally accredited, and to log a minimum of 20 hours of professional learning each year (100 hours over five years in NSW). This is because AITSL believes that a great education system starts with its teachers: ‘The best systems make sure that teachers and school leaders can become great as they progress through their profession . . . [because] people naturally want to grow, develop, and be successful’ (AITSL 2012).

For this to be achieved, there needs to be a commitment to professional learning, with diverse learning opportunities that meet the needs, abilities and preferences of teachers. In other words, we must do for ourselves what we do for our students. As library professionals, we wear many ‘hats’; the professional learning hat is one we must put on in order to grow.

Most education jurisdictions now require annual logging and formal evaluation of professional learning. This is based on a formal plan that clearly states personal and corporate goals that identify the how, when, where, and why of achievement.

This may be a new concept to those who focus on traditional teacher librarian professional learning, which is centred on nebulous goals such as increasing students’ love of reading, which is difficult to measure; or improving circulation statistics, which reveal nothing beyond the number of times a resource is checked out.

Goals need to be S.M.A.R.T — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely — and the best way to formulate them is to consult formal documentation such as AITSL’s Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, and the Australian School Library Association’s (ASLA) Standards of Professional Excellence for Teacher Librarians. These documents will help you to identify the areas where you need to improve your knowledge, practice and commitment. For Australian teacher librarians, ALIA has mapped the AITSL standards to the teacher librarian profession in Teacher Librarian Practice for the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

You can then examine your library’s vision statement, mission statement, and strategic plan to identify what you anticipate the library to be like in three years, and from there identify what professional learning is needed to achieve this goal. If relevant professional learning is not readily available, you can approach your professional network to see if there is a demand for it, and whether anyone can assist with informal training. Don’t limit yourself to face-to-face delivery at conferences and meetings, but look for webinars and free online courses, as well as relevant books and articles.

Even if you have been in your current position for many years, there is always something new to learn. It may be worthwhile to stop, draw breath, and reflect on your role: develop manifestos to encapsulate this, draw together your experiences and achievements, and provide a benchmark to reach. Such an exercise will ensure your plans are true to your beliefs, will help you set higher goals, and ensure you invest in the outcomes. Your plan will require you to do more than merely tick a box to satisfy school leadership; it will be a well-thought-out plan to further develop your role in the school.

To achieve a plan, it needs to be attainable but not overwhelming: three carefully chosen goals relating to the domains of professional knowledge, practice and commitment should be sufficient.

Ask yourself how achieving this goal will contribute to:

  • Your personal professional growth
  • The design and delivery of the curriculum for teachers and students
  • The achievement of the library’s vision, mission statements, and strategic plan
  • The school’s plan for progress
  • The perception of the role of the teacher librarian within this learning community.
An example of a professional learning plan.

An example of a professional learning plan. Individual goals can be set for professional knolwedge, professional practice, and professional commitment.

Explicitly identify the elements of each goal so success is even more likely. A professional learning plan may include the goal, its purpose, the standards addressed, and its relationship to school priorities. It can also include particular strategies, actions, resources, evidence of achievements, and short, medium and longterm timeframes.

By clearly articulating your goal, the reason you are focusing on it, and the professional standard it is addressing, you will demonstrate your understanding of and commitment to your need for professional growth. Not only does this underline the teacher librarian’s role in the teaching and learning process, but it also increases your chances of acquiring the resources — human, financial, physical, and time — needed to achieve your goals. If you are required to use a common pro forma, you can add why particular goals were chosen, and address these in your formal conversation with your line manager.

In her presentation ‘Revisioning the school library program’, Anne Weaver (2015) states, ‘Teacher librarians must provide cutting edge library programs, using evidence-based practice, that focus on goals directly connected to school leadership priorities’. She argues that if we do not deliver programs that satisfy the school leadership and provide a beneficial return on investment, then the teacher librarian position may be put at risk.

In its publication ‘Global trends in professional learning and performance & development’, AITSL (2014) examined the features of innovative professional learning, performance and development. This analysis showed that there is a trend for individuals to undertake professional learning that is collaborative, self-directed and informal; however, despite these platforms being valuable to individuals, it is not an all-inclusive way for an organisation to leverage results and grow as a whole. AITSL (2014) found that the most effective combinations for both the individual and the organisation were opportunities that were:

  • Individual: participants take part alone
  • Self-directed: participants choose the focus, pace and outcomes, as well as monitor and evaluate their own progress and achievements
  • Personalised: learning focuses on the needs of the participant
  • Situated: learning is within and geared to the goals of the organisation
  • Offered: opportunities are made available to the participants
  • Incentivised: learning is highly valued by the organisation and participants are given incentives to take part.

If one of the purposes of professional learning is to build knowledge capital within the school, then teacher librarians and other specialist teachers need to be part of the big picture. It can be difficult to see how matches can be made between the specialist roles and the school’s broader objectives. For example, how does the teacher librarian — whose role is traditionally perceived to be associated with English and the humanities — fit within the school’s goal to provide a greater focus on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)?

Such an apparent ‘mismatch’ just needs some new thinking — for us to put on a new hat and do some inquiry-based homework. You may ask yourself:

  • What leadership and support can I provide for teachers and students?
  • What knowledge, experiences and resources do I have to provide this leadership and support?
  • What training do I need to further support teachers and staff?
  • How can I shape that learning into a personal goal using the professional standards provided by AITSL, ASLA, and ALIA?
  • How can I demonstrate my learning and its contribution to the school’s growth?

Develop a detailed plan to share with your school’s executive that not only demonstrates how your professional learning is aligned with theirs, but also shows that the teacher librarian’s role is integral to their success.

Put your plan into practice. Document it, seek evidence that it is having an impact, and share this as part of your formal professional learning discussions with your executive.

For many, professional learning remains a passive process of attendance, listening, and note-taking. However, by taking the opportunity to make a personal action plan that you are committed to, it can have meaning and momentum that really contributes to the big picture.

If we are to encourage and enable lifelong learning, then we must be lifelong learners ourselves. One way of doing this is by putting on our professional learning hat and ensuring it is a snug fit.



Article reprinted with permission.

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Barbara Braxton

Barbara Braxton

Teacher librarian

Cooma, NSW

Barbara Braxton is an experienced, qualified and passionate teacher librarian who has worked in both NSW and the ACT. She is the author of the published series All You Need to Teach Information Literacy, and was a recipient of the Dromkeen Librarian’s Award in 2003. She has two blogs: 500 Hats, focused on the practice of teacher librarianship; and The Bottom Shelf, which reviews books aimed at children in preschool to Year 2.