The unique position of a school librarian by @bcb567

It’s the beginning of another school year; teachers will be getting to know their new students, even if they only see them for a few minutes each day during tutor time or for a couple of lessons a week, learning their names, finding out about their interests and anything relevant in their background.

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But what of school librarians? They are part of the school community with the majority getting to know the whole of year 7, seeing them on a regular basis to introduce them to the library, books and the pleasures of reading. Many will also be getting re-acquainted with year 8 students, finding out what they’ve been up to over the holidays and marvelling at how much they’ve grown in six weeks. Then there’s year 9 and above … all of whom librarians will have seen throughout the past two years and many of whom will continue to be library users, either individually or in classes, within and outside the curriculum.

Librarians are one of the few staff within a school who have contact with all students; other than a Head of Year, transition manager and careers co-ordinator, it is likely that no other person will deal with the whole of a year group or the whole student body. This gives school librarians a unique position.

There’s the obvious benefit of the library having a curriculum overview, of knowing that whilst History study the causes and outcomes of World War 1, English look at the background to World War 1 poetry so they’re interested in similar resources, that both Geography and Cultural Studies investigate other countries. You would not believe how often I’ve had students borrow books for a homework assignment, leaving me with about 2 items on the topic, only to have another department book the library for research on that very same subject! And yes, I know there’s the internet but often the reason for a research lesson is to try and get students looking beyond Google. A co-ordinated approach would ensure an efficient use of resources as well as avoiding such clashes and the librarian can provide this. One argument for including them in curriculum meetings and involving them when planning topics to study. Librarians are also very aware of trends be they superheroes, Minecraft or Pokemon (though it’s hard to miss the latter). This information can be used to inform lessons; how much more interesting would gothic art or literature be if it coincided with the vampire obsession?

But the librarian has a wider remit than that of curriculum co-ordinator, one that involves us in a pastoral role, a position that is often overlooked and undervalued.

The library is a safe environment, with a member of staff who is not a teacher, and students quickly recognise this. During breaktimes, there’s no pressure on them to complete specific tasks within a timeframe (unless they happen to be trying to get their homework done before the next lesson), they can sit and read, browse and take a step back from their busy schedule. At the end of lessons, both students and teachers are usually rushing off allowing no time or opportunity to talk during the day but this isn’t true in the library, which means students will often hang about the issue desk, chatting about all sorts of inconsequential matters and this is often when a seemingly innocent remark will set off a trigger, an internal alarm that makes you think “there’s more to this”. It’s hard to explain but those who work with children will know what I’m talking about.

Librarians will have undergone safeguarding training so are aware of issues to look out for and the people within a school to contact if we have any concerns. This may seem a bit “big brother”-ish but it’s not. The mental health and well-being of all the students we work with is important, worries and fears they have need to be dealt with in order that they can develop, not only academically, but also emotionally. If a child is being bullied, has issues with gender identity or is trying to deal with family illness, it will impact on their behaviour and attainment. Thus it’s helpful for librarians to know any relevant background information yet I’ve known schools where this is withheld on a “need-to-know” basis. Surely if a student has a parent with cancer or a grandparent recently deceased, anyone working with them should be informed so we can ensure they receive the right care and response?

Seeing students regularly means that librarians are quick to notice when things are not right – the student that is suddenly quiet and withdrawn; the one that isn’t included in their usual friendship groups. Often a quiet reassuring word is all that is needed and you discover that the problem is minor and transient but sometimes it’s more serious and then we’ll pass on concerns. Schools need to have “the complete picture” when dealing with students and they can only get this is everyone feeds into the system.

It’s also interesting how often a teacher has a completely different view of a student than that of the librarian. Many assume that if they’re not borrowing books from the library they are not reading and yet I always notice whenever students bring in their own books from home or the public library. I’ve had students focus and concentrate in the library whilst their teachers have remarked “they don’t behave like that in the classroom”. Students with Asperger’s that keep to themselves for most of the time will join in library activities. Others will happily take on library duties and responsibilities yet not want to be involved in anything else within the school.

So what can school librarians do about this? A few suggestions:

  • Ensure you are on the mailing list to receive relevant information including any SEN and IEP details.
  • Create a curriculum overview to highlight where departments study similar topics and share it with your curriculum manager and Heads of Departments.
  • Make friends with your pastoral team and pass on details about any useful resources you’ve purchased or websites you’ve come across.
  • Email tutors of individual students if you have any concerns but also share positive news.
  • Keep an eye on trends such as a reduction in book borrowing in a particular year group or a drop-off in the use of subject-specific resources and share this with the appropriate staff including the literacy co-ordinator.

The librarian’s knowledge and viewpoint of students is extremely valuable and is underused by most schools, which is a shame as these observations, carried out in a totally different environment from that of a classroom, allow us to get a complete picture of each student, building up a relationship and getting to know them as individuals. It is important to remember that a school community works best as a team involving all of its members, including their librarian.

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