ETL401 Topic 2: Part 1: the Role of the Teacher Librarian

Initial reflections from a classroom English teacher on the role of TLs:

Doing the initial reading about professional standards and role statements for Teacher Librarians has been a mixture of the expected and the thought-provoking. It has also prompted some reflection about the role of information literacy in my existing role as a classroom teacher for High School English.

One of the things that has struck me about the reading for the MEd. (TL) so far is how, in my experience, little real conversation there seems to be between TLs and English teachers and how teachers really need to know more about what TLs have to offer. I mean, TLs regularly come to Department meetings to show us the resources they have made (and they are always excellent) but we classroom teachers don’t use the expertise of the school TLs as much as we should. Instead, we feel like we need to resource our curriculum on our own. There does not seem to be the time to sit down in teams with TLs and design courses together and create resources and information literacy tasks, as I have seen evidence of in the blog “The Unquiet Librarian.”

What’s more, because of the size and complexity of the school where I work, many of the roles deemed to be part of the TL’s remit in standards statements are actually divided up among a number of personnel, who each contributes in a defined way to the running of the school library. Many of the functions classified under ‘technologist’ or ‘media specialist’ to do with the use of learning technologies have been hived off to ‘Learning Technology Consultants’ who are classroom teachers without TL qualifications but skills and knowledge in ICTs and, of course, learning theory and classroom teaching.

This means that as I have been reading the role statements and professional standards documents, I have been thinking about how complex the TL role really is and how in many schools TLs will end up focussing on select parts of the role, depending on the needs of the school and the seniority of the person. In other, smaller, perhaps less well-resourced schools, the TL ends up having to do it all – especially if they are the only one.

Overall, however, I would have to admit that I think TLs in my school may actually be under-utilised by teaching staff who perhaps, like myself until I started this course, have a limited understanding of the potential for collaboration and support from the library staff.

One of the more exciting aspects of my initial reading has been the focus on information literacy. While I have not wholeheartedly agreed with the way some authors conceive of “information” and “literacy” (more on that later), it has shown me that we classroom teachers really need to think more carefully about the Information Literacy dimension when we are designing units of work. It is often implicit or a buried assumption in both the texts set and the learning activities and assessment we design – but I think we and the students would benefit from making the Information Literacy aspects of our work more explicit and drawing on TLs more to help design units that foster these skills and aptitudes.

Standards for Professional Excellence:

The ASLA Standards for Professional Excellence are a good starting point for thinking about the Teacher Librarian’s role.

One of the things that struck me is how the qualifications and skills drawn up in this document closely correlate to the actions required by a TL. Some standards address the need for skills in Information Management and promotion, some are focussed on teaching skills and knowledge of pedagogy and learning theory, and still others are concerned with using ICTs and emergent technologies and supporting Information Literacy. There is a notable emphasis on being active in promoting the profession and contributing to the professional discourse, which I think is linked to the ongoing need to make a case for the value of funding and staffing a decent school library in the face of funding shortages in education and the growth of information outside the library and school walls.

One of the unexpected and, in my opinion, problematic effects of the plethora of information now available, is that the ideas of expertise and the trained, critical ability to discern the value of information and how it should be applied in specific circumstances, is being obscured. We still expect our local GP to know more than just how to type symptoms into a medical database and give us a print-out of a diagnosis. Yet, in a lot of other domains, there is an illusion that if the information is there, then anyone can just access it and be an instant expert. The idea that not all information is born equal, and that we often need to interpret information carefully, falls into the background when we have so much of it.

I find my students are far more willing to rest their research for a topic on a cursory internet search and Wikipedia, than they are to use the authoritative and carefully screened information in Library-subscription databases, online archives and topic guides. I seem to be always working against the grain in arguing that just typing in a few words or a question into a search engine is highly inefficient and does not yield the depth and quality and focus that they need. My other concern is that increasingly students seem to think that meaning is ‘out there’ on the net, in information, rather than in what THEY do with the information: interpret, assess, synthesise, create, evaluate.

So it is clear to me that in drawing up Standards for Excellence and Qualifications, the ASLA are making a case for an explicit and carefully-planned teaching of Information Literacy in schools, and that there is a specific profession trained to help with this. When we have so much information available to us and each of us can publish on the web more or less instantly, we have a need more than ever for teachers who can teach students how to use this new information environment effectively.

Joyce Valenza has made her 2011 poster ‘What do TLs Teach?” available on Flickr under the Creative Commons terms of use:

I found this poster handy and it linked to the slightly different role TLs seem to take in US schools. The blog “The Unquiet Library” calls the School Library Media Specialist an “Embedded Librarian” and this seems an exciting direction in the role of the TL that emphasises collaboration and how teaching Information Literacy can infuse all aspects of teaching and learning across subject areas.

 

Some tensions …

I did detect some possible controversies for TLs working in some schools when reading across the ASLA Standards for Professional Excellence, the School Library Association of South Australia Teacher Librarian Role Statement, and the International Association of School Librarianship Statement on School Libraries. The same tension is evident in the joint statement by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and UNESCO. This is that TLs must work within the brief of their school’s stated aims and values, whereas a part of their role is in fostering independent learning, information literacy and intellectual freedom. For some librarians, this will be a difficult task as the IFLA/UNESCO statement specifies that:

 

“Access to services and collections should be based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms, and should not be subject to any form of ideological, political or religious censorship, or commercial pressures.”

Schools that quite consciously seek to limit their students’ access to some points of view readily available in the wider community, such as the Evolutionary Theory of Natural Selection, or the fiction of J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series, put their TLs in a tricky position. Clearly, some TLs will have to include the ability to campaign for and promote the inclusion of some materials in the school library collection as a part of their role.

Some thoughts …

Reading the various statements and standards for the initial part of the TL course has highlighted for me the multiple and collaborative nature of the role. Although I kind of sensed this before (the TLs at my school are far from the books-only recluses of popular stereotype), it is interesting to see the various facets of being a TL labelled and described.

Some authors’ views:

Purcell in her 2010 article “All Librarians Do is Check Out Books, Right?” A Look at the roles of a school library media specialist” divides the TL’s role into several sub-roles:

  • Leader
  • Instructional Partner
  • Information Specialist
  • Teacher
  • Program Administrator

It seems to me that a TL might play any of these roles in the course of a single day, or they may specialise in one or two within a larger team of TLs. For most it would be a mixture, with the balance and blend being set by the needs of the school, their place in the library team and their seniority.

Overall, Purcell’s vision denotes the TL as a kind of connective tissue between school administrators, students, teachers and parents in deciding what resources to acquire, how they can be promoted and used, and how they integrate with the curriculum and the goals of the school.

Lamb and Johnson in their 2008 article “School Library Media Specialist 2.0: a dynamic collaborator, teacher and technologist” also highlights the TL as a person with connections to many stakeholders. Their TL role is divided into three parts:

  • Collaborator
  • Teacher Leader
  • Technologist

For myself, it seems that collaboration is implied within all the functions that a TL performs – -whether or not they are working with collection management, subject teachers, students, or administrators.

Lamb and Johnson, as indicated by their title, place more emphasis on TLs as facilitators of technology in the teaching-learning process.

Herring, in his chapter (2007) “Teacher Librarians and the School Library” sums up the joint nature of the role, “It is an educational as opposed to an administrative role.” The focus throughout this chapter is that a TLs raison d’etre is student learning.

My thinking thus far …

Overall, my thinking thus far is that the TL is a kind of information activist. This is because they need to promote the library and themselves as sources of quality, authoritative, relevant information.

The qualifications needed in the TL role and the tasks they need to perform well are interlinked. To be able to offer library and media services relevant to teachers and students, the TL must be aware of curriculum, assessment, reporting, as well as current pedagogies and the realities of the classroom and the pressures classroom teachers are under.

I think it is apt that TLs are a part of the adoption of ‘convergent’ technologies in an education setting, as they themselves are at the point of convergence of many texts, resources, and people.

References:

Herring, J. (2007). Teacher librarians and the school library. In S. Ferguson (Ed.) Libraries in the twenty-first century: charting new directions in information (27 – 42). Wagga Wagga, NSW: Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt University.

Lamb, A and Johnson, L. (2008). School library media specialist 2.0: a dynamic collaborator, teacher, and technologist. Teacher Librarian, 36(2).

Purcell, M. (2010). All librarians do is check out books, right? A look at the roles of the school library media specialist. Library Media Connection 29(3), 30-33.

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