How would you describe your school’s culture? If you have never thought about it, now’s the time to start. The school (and district) culture influence everything from your budget requests to the willingness of teachers to collaborate with you and administrators to support you.
I have written in the past of two very different cultures in districts where I worked. At the first, education was regarded as being like medicine. You don’t like it, but you have to take it. The twenty budgets that were defeated in the twenty-two years I was there was an obvious indicator. The district depended heavily on teachers’ commitment to helping their students since there was never an extra payment or support for what they did. I knew one world language teacher who taught four different sections including having an AP Spanish class within Spanish IV.
The other district saw itself as a leader in education with a diverse, multi-cultural student population. The culture reflected pride in what they were doing and bringing to students and, by extension, the community. The Wall of Fame saluted graduates who had made major contributions. It included authors, government officials, and those in noted businesses
While these districts could not be more dissimilar, I could get funding for projects in either place by working with the culture. In the first district, I always presented my requests by stressing how this would save money in the long run, using as a theme, “the library gives you the biggest bang for your buck.” I even had one teacher tell her department chair they didn’t need new textbooks, “as long as Hilda’s library was up-to-date.”
In the second district, my proposals were always tied in some way to why it would keep us in the forefront of education. Knowing how strongly the administrators felt about moving to block scheduling, I put in a request for extra funding to purchase support material for the faculty. I noted that many teachers were opposed to the change because they couldn’t see how they were to get through their curriculum within the structure of a longer period and alternating semesters, (e.g. Spanish I in the fall of 9th grade and Spanish II in the fall of 10th grade). The extra resources I was proposing would give them the information they needed to continue to be great teachers and show that the district was there to support them.
On a daily basis, the school culture affects you differently. My two districts had radically diverse cultures, both had teachers strongly committed to serving the students. To have teachers collaborate with me, I had to convince them that what I taught would help their students be more successful. The English teachers in one district relied on me to teach each grade the research process for term papers because it ensured every student had received the same background information and experience.
I had a co-librarian in one district who teachers rightly felt didn’t like the students. When they brought their classes to the library, if I was already scheduled to work with another class, they taught their students themselves. That situation is an example of how we can also negatively affect the culture around us.
In an article primarily directed towards administrators on “5 Ways to Impact School Culture,” Dr. Amy Fast offers suggestions that work well for school librarians. The first is “Assume Best Intent.” So, if you send a teacher a resource for his/her students and there is no response, don’t assume you are being ignored “because the teachers don’t appreciate what I do.” Things get lost in cyberspace. Either send it again with a message saying, “I don’t know if you received this when I sent it out,” or speak to the teacher in person, which is probably best, and find out what the situation really is.
Her second recommendation is, “Surround Yourself with Greatness,” because “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” That can be a scary thought. Work hard to connect and get into relationship with the teachers who are recognized as “stars.” As they create units with you, the others will follow, and your school library culture will thrive.
“Elicit Feedback” is her third way. I discussed this in my blog on “The Power and Importance of Feedback.” The fourth idea is to “Know Your Sphere of Influence.” Too often we think all the power – and leadership—comes from a title. You can, in fact, lead from the middle- or the bottom. In my Weight Watcher program, I have been keeping up enthusiasm which was crushed when the leader we adored was fired. I lead from my seat – and it is recognized by the other members.
Dr. Fast’s final suggestion is “Make Your WHY Transparent.” You know why you became a school librarian. You know why you love your job (most days). Make sure you are communicating that in your words and your actions. It will also keep you from focusing on the negatives that are a part of any job.
If you are struggling to get teachers to work with you or you want your administrators to recognize your value, review the ways you interact with school culture and see which ones might help you improve your school library culture.