When mk proposed the idea of 30 Days of Back To School, I was heading into uncharted territory as a solo librarian covering two libraries in my large public high school (we have about 2200 students in grades 9-12, with one library serving grades 9-10 and another serving grades 11-12), and leaped at the chance to write a greatest hits post on collaboration with classroom teachers.
If nothing else, I needed a set of reminders to myself about how to work effectively with faculty for the benefit of all students, and after the last couple of years of working in the Senior High library, I have a few ideas to share, largely based on the advice of my personal school library guru, Alice Yucht (and which I hope you lovely readers will add to in the comments). As I write this, though, I am preparing to leave my school for a job at Infolink, NJ’s Statewide Library Cooperative, as a Program Coordinator in charge of continuing education for libraries in South Jersey. While I’m very sad to leave my school, I’m also very happy to share with you all some of what I’ve learned along the way. Here goes!
- Eat in the Faculty Workroom. This may not sound like something that will enhance collaboration, but it will. Collaboration is all about relationships, and you can’t have relationships with people you don’t know. How do you get to know people? By eating with them! It is so tempting to squirrel ourselves away in our offices, or in the AV storage room (guilty!), or wherever, for a few minutes of peace and quiet, but that’s not how you make friends and influence people (that is a key concept, by the way — you may have little-to-no power in your school, but through solid work, competence and kindness, you can certainly build influence). Get to know your colleagues as people first.
- Collaboration Comes in Different Colors. As Toni Buzzeo writes in The Collaboration Handbook (Linworth, 2008), there are different levels of collaboration on the Continuum of Instructional Partnership. These are: Cooperation, Coordination, Collaboration, and Data-Driven Collaboration. David Loertscher has developed a useful taxonomy to go along with the Continuum. As a school librarian, you may find yourself engaging in all four types of collaboration in a given week. That is totally normal.
- Go To Where The Teachers Are. Contact department heads for their schedule of departmental meetings and ask for 5-10 minutes on their agenda (don’t hit every meeting in one month — stagger them). Take with you your schedule and a handful of current resources, and show them what you’ve got. It would be smart to consult current curriculum maps in advance, if your district makes them readily available, to see what’s being taught at the time of the meeting, so that your resources line up with current unit and lesson plans. Be ready to check materials out to teachers on the spot — by hand, if necessary — and be prepared to schedule one or two brainstorming sessions (maybe not co-teaching immediately) with interested teachers, either during the school day or after school. It’s also a good idea to find out when teacher’s prep periods are, and visit them once in a while, if you can get out of your library at the same time.
- Think Big, Start Small. You will probably have identified a handful of teachers with whom you are sympatico, and who are keen to work with you. Great! Work with them first — find out what they need and want from you, be clear with them about what you can provide, and remember the power of word-of-mouth. I started with the English Department at my school, holding booktalks for classes where the teachers were excited about independent reading, and because those sessions went well, within the next year, I was booktalking to the entire Junior and Senior classes, as well as quite a few sections of Freshman and Sophomore English. Circulation went through the roof, and we now boast a real culture of reading and talking about reading at our school.
- Over Time, Success Breeds Success. Remember those booktalks? Teachers were happy with my work there, and started to ask me to work with them on assignments large & small. Sometimes we went no further than coordinating dates and times for classes to use the library as a base of operations. Sometimes I went a step beyond and pulled useful materials for students. Eventually, I began offering and teachers began asking me to help design, revise, and co-teach research projects with them. This is a process that takes time, so if you’re beating yourself over the head wondering why all the teachers aren’t banging on your door wanting to collaborate with you, take a deep breath, remind yourself to have patience (even though it is crazy-hard to do), and keep on keeping on.
- Collaboration Cuts Both Ways. It’s not always about what you can do for teachers — sometimes it’s about what teachers can do for you. Two years ago, I took a hard look at our database subscriptions and decided that changes needed to be made, but my fellow librarian and I couldn’t make these decisions blindly. I appealed to my colleagues in the English & Social Studies departments to help us re-evaluate our resources. The 8-member Database Evaluation Team met over the course of the school year, comparing current resources with potential new ones, had students test-drive different products, and made recommendations which yielded a stronger portfolio of electronic resources for the entire school.
- Don’t Take it Personally. Now, I’ve just given a bunch of examples of how collaboration has worked, in spades, at my school. And it has, truly. My colleagues are an amazingly dedicated, creative & hardworking bunch. But there are some teachers who won’t collaborate with you, and it may not have anything to do with you. Maybe they had a bad experience with a librarian at their previous school. Maybe they’ve been here so long and seen so many people come and go that they’re reluctant to embark on a strong collegial relationship with anyone new. Maybe they are stretched so thin by their workload that they simply cannot conceive of collaborating with you in a way that would not cause them even worse stress. Maybe they are worried about serious behavioral problems with their students, should their students be removed from the safe haven of their usual classroom environment. Or maybe they just don’t see a connection between the library and their curriculum. There are any number of reasons. Do not take it personally, and DO help them with the needs they identify: scheduling computer lab space, replacing overhead projector bulbs, providing AV equipment, furnishing reading advice for their kids who don’t like to read. Maybe you’ll change their minds. Maybe you won’t. Either way, it’s good business, and maybe you’ll make a friend, too.
Most of all, and especially if you lose your way or your mojo, remember: the purposes of collaboration are to improve student learning outcomes and to grow with your colleagues as teachers. When you collaborate with your teaching colleagues, you join the learning community they’ve built in their classrooms. Just honor that community by bringing something new and useful to it, and you won’t go far wrong. Good luck, happy new school year, and please: continue the conversation in the comments. This, right here, is a learning community!