While this was not an exhaustive search, the trend was clear. TLs have working days that can be characterized as fractured with multiple, diverse activities. One important study investigated the structural and theoretical constraints on reference services in the high school library (Chelton, 1999). The four research questions being researched were:
- What proportion of a school library media specialists time actually is devoted to reference and information work?
- What contextual factors in the school library setting affect how much information work is accomplished?
- How are generic reference and information service guidelines interpreted in actual practice in this setting?
- What is the nature of the librarian and user roles produced here?
Chelton’s findings were that the real-life demands imposed on the TL by scheduling, disparities in collaborative lesson planning, and the “unique usage rhythm of a school library” make it impossible to make distinctions between “librarian” and “clerical” categories. This is because the TLs in the study performed one-fifth of clerical functions, including coverage of the circulation desk (Chelton, p. 277). These findings indicate that the TL generally takes the role of information facilitator in a number of ways (instructional visits, student queries, skills lessons) but that this role is squeezed by clerical activities on the circulation desk, usually to reduce wait time for students, or to cover for clerical absences.
Michelle Luhtala (teacher-librarian at New Canaan High School) posted some action research she just conducted in her own library. On her blog, Bibliotech, she shared a self-audit of a typical day. Similar to Chelton, Luhtala broke her day into categories with the following findings:
- 38% Co-teaching (either collaborative instructional planning time or co-teaching classes)
- 28% Makerspace management
- 11% Helping students (virtually or face-to-face)
- 11% Reader's advisory
- 8% Library administration (ordering, troubleshooting, cataloging, etc.)
- 8% Teacher evaluation (explaining what we do)
Will the principals save us?
The theme of principal support emerged, with many studies indicating that TLs can increase their effectiveness by building a shared vision with the building principal (Oberg, 1998). Principals demonstrate support by:
- Directly stating the value of teachers working with the library curriculum
- Demonstrating personal commitment through advocacy
- Enabling the school librarian as a school leader
- Providing visibility to the school librarian by making time for meetings, exhibiting trust, and encouraging professional development.
It turns out that a lot of these factors lie in the hands of the principal, and research shows that it is the perceptions held by the principal about school libraries and their TLs that are the single biggest influence (Hartzell, 2002). Interestingly, these perceptions are rooted primarily in: the experience the principal had with the library and TL while in school as a student; the professional training of the principal and to what extent it included information about the role and potential of the school library (training generally had not included this area of professional development); and the low profile of the school library and TL in the professional literature. The last perception of low profile was “flavored” by the role of the TL to empower others, and the invisibility of this role. For example, a collaboratively planned, well executed unit or lesson makes the teacher look and feel great! The contribution of the TL is not clear, apparent, or easy to document.
The study cites successful strategies to influence principal perceptions such as targeted professional development, frequent communication highlighting learning-centered student achievement, and the impact of the TL publishing in respected professional and academic journals (Hartzell, 2002). In the end, however, it is up to the TL to promote the school library as well as run the facility, prepare and teach lessons, and do the myriad activities that interfere with the ability to carve out meaningful time during the school day for more creative, thoughtful work.
Another strong theme was the value and priority placed on flexible scheduling over fixed scheduling. The goal of having school libraries that are open and accessible to students and teachers before, during, and after the school day, is persistent in the literature. Flexible scheduling is defined as a “scheduling arrangement that provides open access to the library media center throughout the day rather than only during a specific library time” (MacGregor, 2006, p. 1, as cited by Gavigan, et al, 2010). The research has successfully correlated increase of per-pupil circulation in the elementary school libraries with flexible scheduling. (No correlation has been made for middle or high school levels). The presence of a flexible schedule however, does not correlate with the educational value of the school library curriculum, or the role of the TL within the school unless the program is considered an extension of the classroom. The factors for a successfully implemented flexible schedule at the elementary level are an information skills curriculum matched with content area curriculum; team planning; principal expectations for TL and teacher collaboration; and a school-wide commitment to resource-based learning (Donham & van Duesen, 1995, p. 17-18, as cited by McGregor, 2002).
A 2008 study identified five broad themes from the data that identified the essential elements of successful collaboration: school culture, positive attributes of collaborators, communication, management, and motivation (Montiel-Overall). This is all well and good, but if we think back to Google’s manager v maker paradigm, where does the time for all this meaningful collaboration come from, and how is it determined if it is quality time or not?
As critical as it is, for TLs to rely solely on the perceptions of their building principals to find quality time during the school day is an inherently weak position. What can be done? Chelton’s study may hold an important key (1999). The first strategy for finding time is to stop filling in at the circulation desk. Stop taking on the clerical aspects of the job. If people see TLs doing clerical work (this includes checking in/out books and shelving) then TLs are perceived as having a clerical role. The position of library aide/clerk needs specific responsibilities, a detailed job description, clear requirements (example: technological competencies) and a year-end review. The work of the TL must focus on the higher goals of instruction and collaborative planning, collection and program development, and articulating and implementing forward-thinking, student-centered goals.
Most important of all, the TL must grade student work. As a teacher-of-record, the TL participates as a teaching colleague. This may look quite different from school-to-school. Whether the TL provides report card feedback as a “specialist or as a collaborating teacher, the feedback must be rich, focused, and rubric-based.
In order to move away from managers and into the maker-space it is necessary to stop saying yes to everyone, every time, all the time. Not every student or teacher who comes through the door requires the immediate attention of the TL. Many queries can be handled by the library aide. Evolve this position to include an initial triage. “Do you have a pencil sharpener?” The aide can handle it. “Where do I find the database passwords?” Hard as it may seem, the aide can handle it. “How do I find information on my topic?” The aide directs the query to the TL. “Can I bring my class for the first units of the upcoming fill-in-the-blank research project?” The aide directs the query to the TL. “Can I check out a laptop?” Not a job for the TL. What if you aren’t lucky enough to have some sort of clerical help? It is even more necessary to carve out the time somehow, and more imperative to move into the maker-space. Push in chairs and make copies for people, or collaborate with the ELA specialist on getting baseline data on the impact of independent reading on reluctant readers in your school? This is work a principal can quantify, will value, and that is unique to the TL. An aide starts to make sense.
And then, of course, there is the cone-of-silence strategy. Headphones and earbuds have become a cultural signal that we are unavailable. Even if nothing is playing, headphones have come to signal a “do not disturb” state. As a pretense, putting on headphones could have positive benefits such as setting a mindset of uninterrupted focus (Mannering, 2015). Imagine for just a moment the scenario of the TL, working uninterrupted while the flow of pencils seeking to be sharpened, password-seekers, and “the toner is empty” supplicants all eddy past. Imagine a Saturday morning at the kitchen table and nothing but a cup of coffee in front of you, and room for ideas to percolate. Imagine the impact and power of a more focused and productive mindset - during the school day! It is time to fill the gaps in the research literature with new practices that empower and place value on the quality and quantity of time available to the TL during the school day.
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