Saturday, April 9, 2016

Let's work together to solve the California Teacher Librarian shortage!

This posting has been simmering in my head for a long time (years, perhaps!), and, as I read the recent discussion on California School Library Association's (CSLA's) CALIBK12 listserv with the incredibly depressing subject line of "Are Credentialed School Librarians a thing of the past?" I knew I had to get on with it. So ... here goes ...

For those of you not on the CALIBK12 listserv, here's how the topic started. One of our list members, Liza Wardell, stated that her district was replacing a teacher librarian position with a paraprofessional technician position. She noted that this appears to be a trend. The reasoning she surmised, was not enough candidates to pull from. That's actually an interesting take, since, until very recently, it would have been a district's strategy for cutting funds, not a lack of candidates.

California school libraries have been in crisis for many years now. When I entered the field in 2002, we saw one position cut after another. When the recession hit in 2008, the cuts, of course, got worse. And, this was in the state that was already dead last in the nation in the ratio of credentialed librarians to students. Some of our schools don't even have a proper library, many that do are run by volunteers, and most of our school libraries are run by paraprofessionals. Having a credentialed librarian on staff is, sadly, the exception, not the norm. Check the sobering statistics on the California Department of Education website and at the end of "Does Your School Have a Teacher Librarian?: A CSLA Film" produced by the talented Karen Morgenstern for CSLA in 2014:

(If you haven't seen this film before, please share it widely! Add it to your blog, your website, and send it to parents, administrators, board members, and legislators. Here's an easy link:

Indeed, most of our California administrators have never experienced a strong school library program with a trained librarian and support staff, so they don't know what that looks like or why they should want it. They have no idea what amazing programs trained librarians run to prepare students to be college and career ready, to connect them with the world, and to empower them to pursue their personal passions and make a difference.

So the situation has been pretty dire in California for a long time. There is a bit of good news, though. With the recovery of the economy and lots of advocacy efforts by CSLA and many others, there actually are some districts restoring positions. Some districts are actually taking advantage of California's new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) requirements for funding. For those of us who went through the recession, things seem to be looking up a bit. Yes, we have a long way to go, but it feels like we are heading in the right direction.

Yet .... I have a bad feeling that we have a new and probably at least as serious crisis - or, that the old one has morphed: When there are positions, there aren't available candidates to fill them. All the advocacy in the world to create and restore librarian positions won't help if districts can't find good people to hire. There's been so little incentive to pursue a teacher librarian credential in recent years, so even for the limited jobs, there are even less qualified candidates. And, I'm going to guess that once a district can't fill a position, its administrators aren't going to feel very motivated to persevere in continuing to look.

So, what's to be done?

As Connie Williams and some others noted in the CALIBK12 listserv discussion, we all need to help administrators find librarians and also encourage those administrators to nurture their own by getting the exemplary teachers in the district to earn their teacher librarian credentials, advocate for positions and for library (librarian + support staff) teams, and maintain our memberships in CSLA and support all its advocacy efforts. I couldn't agree more with these ideas. What I keep fretting about, though, is what we can do to get more people credentialed as teacher librarians and ready to fill openings. I think there are three types of people we need to look to to build a credentialed librarian pool, and we need to find ways to encourage, support, and nurture all three groups.
  • There are the classroom teachers. We all need to be looking for those super teachers with strong leadership, tech, cross-curricular, and collaboration skills and recruit them to get their teacher librarian credentials. Districts need to support them financially while they do this, and allow them the option - already provided within our credentialing regulations - to work in the library while their credentialing is in progress. A key issue here is financing the tuition for this additional education. I recently tried to woo one of the teachers at my school into considering enrolling in a teacher librarian program. Her response was simple: she'd do it if she didn't have to pay for it. We need to get districts willing to pay and also find other sources of financial aid. Could we make this a priority for the state to pay for?
  • Then, there are the librarians with MLIS's but no teaching credential. California makes it way too hard for those people already qualified to work in any kind of library except a public school to become eligible for public school library jobs. I say that from personal experience. I came in "the back door," hired with my MLS degree because there was no "qualified" candidate. To this day, I think I was more than a little crazy to go through the grueling process of getting my credentials while working. The most challenging part was completing the student teaching. A fellow classroom teacher earning her credential while already working at the same time as me was able to apply her work in lieu of student teaching. For me, though, my work teaching in my own library didn't "count" in lieu of that requirement. I needed the credential to keep my job, but it was extremely difficult getting the student teaching done without quitting my job to do it! I accomplished it only by driving a long distance to a year round school two different summers. Yes, we teacher librarians are proud to be "teachers first," but there is always more than one way to acquire needed skills. Failing to credit any of a professional librarian's experience and expertise towards teaching credential requirements drives away a lot of good people we ought to be inviting and welcoming to our ranks. 
  • And, last but absolutely not least, are our school library paraprofessionals. We have many amazing, dedicated college degreed people running our school libraries. In most fields, people who do well in their jobs have the opportunity to get promoted to a higher rank and are supported in earning any needed education requirements. Not so with our library paraprofessionals. Expecting them to go through the entire cycle of, first, earning a teaching credential, and next, a teacher librarian credential, is not realistic for most people. And, even if they did, their districts probably would not want to pay to convert their positions to credentialed ones; they'd probably have to find a new job in a new district. We have to find a way to fast track the best ones to getting the training they need to become teacher librarians, while we simultaneously advocate with districts to make this transition. This, in my mind, is probably the group we need to work on first and most. Why? They are the people who are already running so many of our libraries. A lot of them are already members of CSLA. A lot more, though, aren't, often, I think, because they don't feel valued by those of us who are credentialed. We need to change that.
At the risk of offending some of my friends and colleagues, I think we need to get a bit more flexible on the "teachers first," philosophy which is a huge road block for both the MLIS librarians and the paraprofessionals. Otherwise, we will sabotage our own advocacy efforts to restore and create certificated librarian positions. To be honest, the teacher credential program I attended was pretty disappointing and uninspiring, and the content of most the classes was extremely redundant. (Please note that I am not referring to the teacher librarian program courses, which were valuable.)  Neither the courses nor the student teaching experiences really prepared me to become a good teacher. Instead, I believe that I learned the skills I needed on the job, by active participation in California School Library Association and the American Association of School Librarians and their many professional development opportunities, and through networking with other teacher librarians. I am a teacher first, but it wasn't my teaching credential program that made me one.

I would like to ask all my fellow California teacher librarians and CSLA to support prioritizing, brainstorming, and advocating for ways to make it as easy, affordable, and streamlined as possible to transition the exemplary members of all three of the above groups to becoming credentialed teacher librarians in California. Let's explore together how we can make this happen. Let's have our very best paraprofessionals going to their administrators and asking to have their positions converted to credentialed positions - because they are already on the road to those qualifications. Let's have our best classroom teachers eager to become teacher librarians. Let's welcome MLS librarians to our ranks. Together, we can find a way to do it!

And, while this posting focuses on California, we, of course, share a lot in common with other states. If you are from another state, please do share any insight on how your state may have addressed these challenges.

Please note that my opinions are entirely my own. While I am a Past President of CSLA and an active, dedicated member, I am no longer on the Board of Directors and not speaking as a representative of the Board. I am hoping that members of the Board will hear this and take on this cause. Let's not sabotage our advocacy efforts on behalf of adequate staff positions in school libraries by failing to find solutions for the other crisis, the lack of qualified candidates.