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The Image that Counts

by MSLA President, Gerri FeganGerri Fegan

During the past season, I have had the opportunity to work with the Executive Board to plan some very interesting events for 2011.  Very shortly, our members will be invited to attend the MSLA 2011 Anti-Bullying Summit, a collaborative seminar that combines the talents of school librarians, educational technologists, guidance counselors, and reading specialists in a unified spotlight of support for the new Massachusetts Anti-Bullying Law.  MassCUE, Massachusetts Reading Association, and the Massachusetts Guidance Counselors Association leaders have agreed to join us to discuss ways in which we can all work together to make our students safer.  Our Executive Board has been brainstorming ways to be the forerunner in anti-bullying efforts and the personal stories that have emerged indicate that we have always been sensitive to the needs of students who not only seek out school librarians for educational purposes, but for personal and confidential guidance.  Nancy Everhardt’s speech at the 2009 Annual Conference dinner enlightened us all about the non-assessed ways we encourage our students to be strong.  The school library seems to be the “safe” place for so many who are being bullied.  It makes sense that we lead the way to bring support teams to work together for the good of our school communities.

Planning this event has led members of the board to initiate an examination of our goals as an organization and how best to showcase all the good that we do.  We often preach to each other, the choir, albeit a diverse audience, and yet others outside our library profession still question us about our purpose: “Yes, we value you, but what is it that you DO?  You should tell your story so everyone knows!”  Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing that.  My immediate sarcastic response is usually, “Well, take the earplugs out and turn up the volume on your hearing aids!  You should listen more!  We’ve been telling our stories for years!”  I was beginning to think that we could not yell any louder.  Our members did not let me down – because of you, we were able to secure a meeting with the state’s largest teacher’s union.  Thank you, Leslie Lomasson and others, who reached out once again to the Massachusetts Teachers Association to insist we get a chance to yell.  At the end of December, Legislative Chair Julie Farrell met with MTA President Paul Toner at his office in Boston to find out whether or not our largest teacher’s union was going to listen to our story.

Toner welcomed us warmly to discuss our concerns:  job loss, the economy, volunteers replacing school librarians, and our public persona.  We are in agreement that there has been no unified effort to assist us with job loss or representation in advocacy efforts.  The reason for that was quite logical when Toner explained that, currently, district representation is guided by district contracts which, in turn, drive grievances and other processes.  (It is no wonder that every town or city has different realities with the union and school libraries.)  He recommended that MSLA create a common job description agreed upon by our membership.  This job description can then be endorsed by the MTA.  In this way, a pursuant common standard of action can be taken by all districts when school libraries are threatened or librarians replaced by parent volunteers.  The MTA and MSLA will have established expectations upon which to act.  Therefore, both organizations are now in the process of developing common language across the state so that all districts can be guided in their efforts to support school libraries. 

We are fortunate that AASL has created such a job description in the Learning 4 Life initiative and we intend to use this as a base for our work.  When the job description has been passed by the MSLA Board, we will work with Nora Todd from the Center for Education Policy and Practice to refine the document before presenting to the MTA Board for approval.  Massachusetts school librarians will then have a unified voice in the MTA.  We hope to pursue comparable discussion and representation from the Mass. Federation of Teachers.  Your help is needed.  If you would like to work with Julie Farrell to prepare this document for the MSLA Board, or help us work with MFT, please contact her as soon as possible.  This is proactive work that could use a few more volunteers.

Our meeting with MTA president Toner and several meetings that Kathy Lowe, Valerie Diggs, and I have had recently with marketing strategists, have brought attention to the fact that the image of “school librarian” needs changing.  This may be a little uncomfortable, but bear with me.  I’m not talking about the book-sniffing, head-patting, technology-hating stereotype that has been battered about in the tabloids and tweets.  I’m talking about the image that school librarians have two different roles in their libraries: teacher of information and clerical circulation staff.  Parents, students, and administrators see us as having two separately distinct roles that are not interwoven in our jobs as teachers.  This misconception is what needs to be erased immediately if we are to succeed in changing our image.  If you have ever described your job formally (or informally) as having teaching and non-teaching duties within the library as classroom, you may be perpetuating a dangerous myth. 

School administrators, when inquiring about tasks performed by volunteers, often note that they are performing duties that do not require a teacher.  These “non-teaching duties” that make us replaceable are the perception that school librarians do not teach when they circulate materials, shelve books, or process newly purchased materials.  These tasks have been labeled as “non-teaching duties.”  Administrators have conveniently used this as a rationale for replacing school librarians with volunteers. The immediate rebuttal – “every moment in my classroom is a teaching moment” may lack evidentiary support if the perception is that volunteers are independently working successfully with students.    How can we actively demonstrate that maintaining the collection, circulating materials, and cataloguing are also the ways we teach? 

Please visit the L4L Job Description, read it carefully, and ask yourself these questions, “If someone were to take photos of what I do throughout the day, what would they see?”  (Be honest – these photos capture your image.)

  • Would these photos show you teaching students when you are at the circulation desk? 
  • Would they show you preparing lessons while you shelve? 
  • Would they show are promoting literacy while you place stickers on spines? 
  • Would these photos show that these “non-teaching” duties can easily be done by someone else?  
  • Will these photos exemplify your duties as a teacher or demonstrate that you are replaceable?
  • Would the stakeholders, the ones who will vote for school budget cuts in your community, recognize the difference? 

Is it time to step behind the camera to take the pictures you want everyone to see, to change the image of your job by removing some tasks from volunteers and making “non-teaching duties” genuinely visible educational opportunities? 

When you find yourself saying (as I often do), “I couldn’t do everything I need to do without my volunteers,” are you giving administrators the perception that volunteers are performing a service that doesn’t need a teacher? 

In 2011, the MSLA board is going to work diligently to support school librarians in Massachusetts and our organization’s image is vital.  Organizational liaisons have been invaluable in their collaborative efforts and we look forward to being part of a larger family of stakeholders in our children’s academic successes.  We will continue to clarify our roles in education, lead collaborative events to support state initiatives, and strategically plan to present ourselves as an invaluable resource for our communities.  We will be asking you for comments and opinions as we move forward. 

I wish you hope and joy in all that you do in 2011, and the rewards that you so richly deserve.

Gerri Fegan
MSLA President

Last Updated ( Saturday, 01 January 2011 )

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