There are many pieces to the jigsaw that make a successful library program and many of them are behind the scenes (collection development, policy development, standards review and curriculum writing, for example.) These responsibilities are critical to a strong library program but to the general public they sound like a snoozefest and make it easy for the Library Teacher role to blend into the background, often misunderstood or overlooked. Gone are the days when being a school librarian consisted of sitting behind the circ desk, reading glasses permanently affixed just below the eyes, with a finger at the lips shushing patrons. Today’s Library Teacher (Teacher Librarian, Media Specialist, Learning Commons Manager, call it what you want!) has curriculum development responsibilities, direct instruction responsibilities, often plays a tech support role, is an ambassador of books, multiculturalism, community interaction...the list is long. But how is anyone to know this if we don’t COMMUNICATE?! In order for the school library program to be valued and supported within the school community, the Library Teacher must be a known entity. He or she is the face of the library program. Without a dynamic, progressive, motivated Library Teacher, there is no dynamic, progressive, motivating Library program. So do we need to toot our own horn? Sure, at times we do, but there is more to building relationships than just basic advocacy.
Elementary school library teachers have the benefit of getting in on the ground floor when it comes to building relationships with students and their families in their community. Working in a PreK-5 school, I have the opportunity to make family connections early, sometimes really early - as in Day One of a new school year! On the first day of school, many parents are nervous about dropping off their cherubs among what initially appears to be a sea of strangers. This is true of both our entering Kindergarteners but also, older students who are new to the district. As the Library Teacher, I know it is unlikely I will have customers lining up at the library entrance those first few mornings of a new year so I take advantage of my freedom to get outside to welcome students new and old to the school during morning drop off. It is fairly easy to identify the nervous parents and children, those who may not know where they should be going or how to get there. It is the perfect opportunity for me to introduce myself with a friendly smile, ask names and register their faces, to offer reassurances that I can help them find their way, and to let parents (and students) know that if they need anything they can always reach out to me in the school library. Helping families break that initial ice and settle some of the first day jitters seems like a fairly benign act but it can have a long-lasting impact. It’s helpful at the end of those first few days too when I have dismissal duty and can identify a parent by name and I can identify their child among the crowd of students being dismissed. Just knowing one friendly face can make a world of difference for new families - make that face yours!
Create Opportunities to Connect
Parents of our youngest students are hungry for information about their child’s school day. Those who have time are often eager to come in to the schoolhouse to be a fly on the wall - and some even genuinely want to help out! They may volunteer to help with a Book Fair, be a Mystery Reader, or even volunteer in the school library on a regular basis. Take advantage of these willing parents, grandparents, guardians and community members! Reach out to them in September via school newsletters, Open House Night, or via email and ask them to sign up to participate in library activities. Make it easy for them. My library volunteers know I am happy to have their help but that I understand if they just can’t make it in on any given week. Some volunteers will come initially and go once the school year is underway, while others will carve out the time to help out all year long. Make sure you thank ALL your volunteers often; consider small holiday and year-end tokens of thanks for those die-hard volunteers that you always seem to be able to count on. They will return to work next year!
Find Them Where They Live and Switch Things Up When Needed
Over the course of my 14 years as a Library Teacher, I have used various means of communication to share library curriculum, news and activities with the school community - particularly parents and guardians. Many years ago, I sent home weekly letters (first in hard copy then via email) to all K and Gr 1 families explaining what books we had read and what activities we’d done in Library class that week. This was a bit laborious the first year but for several years after I just had to edit the letter and then email it to the K and Gr 1 families. Within a few years email inboxes everywhere started to overflow and I needed a new way of communicating. The other Specialist teachers and I started to publish a monthly newsletter. A couple of years into that, parents were inundated with newsletters from many school members - the Principal, Superintendent, classroom teachers, PTO, etc. - so we abandoned that and haven’t looked back. A couple of us decided to switch things up and learned that many of our parents were big Facebook users so we created a Facebook page for the Library and Tech Lab. Our presence on FaceBook has been very effective. It allows us to highlight our programs “in the moment”, collect feedback from the “Comments” and our Administrators follow our page and share many of our posts on other District social media tools. We have both several hundred followers now as well as community members beyond the schoolhouse who get a glimpse of the work we are doing with their tax dollars! But we are not sitting on our laurels...just today we decided to open a Twitter account and share our FB posts on Twitter to further our reach in the school community - including making it easy for our District Superintendent to share our posts on her Twitter account!
Use social media to your advantage, but use it carefully. We are very careful about the photos we post, never post “Do Not Photo” students, never use last names, and rarely respond to comments. Invite parents and guardians (not students!) to follow you on social media. Post “in the moment”, innovative, fun activities - and post often!
Leave the Library!
As tempting as it is to spend all your time in the school library, if you want everyone to know your name, you need to leave that circ desk and get out every now and then. Attend school functions including schoolwide meetings, chorus and band concerts, art shows, Field Day, graduation ceremonies, sports events, etc. Your students love to see you at these events - and parents do as well. Why? Because it shows that you are invested in the school community.
Work with the PTO on school events like Read Across America Day, Poetry Cafe Night, author visits, Book Fairs, etc. Participate in fundraising events - attend the events that you can fit on your calendar during evenings and weekends but in lieu of your attendance, offer up an “experience.” For example, my school holds a Halloween party and auction each year so I’ve offered experiences such as “Librarian for the Day” or “Holiday Lunch and Crafts with Lib & Tech Teachers” for a student and a group of friends. This requires personal time and sometimes a little money but the positive PR is worth it - the kids love it and their parents genuinely appreciate it! Parent organizations are great advocates for the library program - especially when they know you support their work just as they support yours!
Much of this is probably not news to you, but I know that sometimes I need a little reminding to get my head out of the books and reach out to the critical stakeholders in my school community - my parents! And when I see them in the grocery store, the mall, the local library or the school hallways, and they call me by name. I know if my School Library Program needs support, I can call on them and it is definitely worth all my extra effort to connect with them throughout the year - starting on Day One.