In the spring of 2001, I found myself at a crossroads after finishing my first year as a teacher in a South LA middle school. Brought in on an emergency credential, I had been placed in my position with little experience and no formal training. As I struggled with whether I was truly meant to teach, I sought the advice of a mentor, who plainly told me in a fatherly way, “If you can do this, and not very many people can, you must. And you can.”
Over the next several years, as I gained confidence and competence as a teacher, I found myself inspired by Teacher Librarians (TLs), whose libraries were the centers of student and teacher learning. More than once, these librarians guided me towards better, more effective teaching practices that profoundly improved my students’ abilities to achieve.
When I taught 7th grade English, I knew without a doubt it was critical that my students read. A lot. I knew they needed to check out library books and read them at home, that we should read and discuss books in class. What I didn’t fully understand, until a Teacher Librarian taught me, was that I could also discover why students didn’t like reading and then change that. I could read what my students read, and show them how to find challenging, mind-boggling material on related topics. I could do more than plod through classics; I could create lovers of literature. It was a Teacher Librarian who showed me a way to analyze a student’s reading history, to question him on his reading habits, and to pair him with the perfect book that would send him on a quest for more.
I once taught a class of highly gifted students whose curiosity and abilities stretched my limits as an educator. My Teacher Librarian suggested reading with them a memoir, Finding Fish, the story of a boy who overcomes insurmountable obstacles to create a life he has chosen for himself. As we read this powerful book, each student found his or her own inspiration, and we worked with the Teacher Librarian to transform this experience into an exploration of social issues, ethics, and family, until finally the students crafted their own profoundly personal memoirs. These children learned to read beyond the stories presented by authors and saw their own stories within. I could not have done this without my librarian.
It occurred to me then that the librarian is a person who works closely with every single person on campus. This person can improve a teacher’s craft and help students tackle difficult, academic questions. Upon reflection, I found that I wanted to be that person too, so back to school I went, earning a Library Media Services credential and Masters degree.
At that point, my classroom changed from a small, cramped space where 150 kids tramped in and out each day, to a spacious library where I got to interact with up to 500 people every single day, students, teachers, and parents alike. My conversations with students began to include shipwrecks and electric eels, World War II, origami, post-apocalyptic fiction and Captain Underpants. I spend time helping students read difficult passages for their research, helping them select reading material, and teaching them to navigate complicated technology and intellectual property issues. They come individually, in small groups, and as whole classes where I team-teach alongside content-area teachers. I became the queen of all content. As my predecessor often said, “Librarians don’t know everything, but they know how to find everything.” I had the best job on campus, but by no means the easiest. TLs sprint all day long trying to meet the needs of an entire school community. It is wonderfully exhausting.
Soon after I began my work in the library, a teacher came to me about Mario, an 8th grader who said he had never read an entire book in his life. Mario was a struggling reader, an English Learner, and he needed my help. I recommended a title that I had learned about from one of my mentors, a short, funny, mysterious book that appeals to reluctant boy readers of that age. Mario took it home, read it in a week, and came back with a horde of his friends to check out the remaining titles in the series. When he was ready to tackle more challenging content, I started him on a program of listening to audio books while following along in the text, a strategy helpful for building fluency and comprehension. Mario would come to library while on breaks from school (we are a year-round school) and sit for hours, headphones on, reading. I was able to work closely with him to develop techniques for tackling difficult passages and muddling through the strange vocabulary, later transitioning him back into reading the books on his own, no help from the audio. By the end of that one school year, Mario had read 42 books, meeting the Million Word goal set by the state of California for all 8th graders. From zero to forty-two in one short year; Mario was ready for high school. This is the power of the school library.
Since then, I have had students share with me astounding truths about the crucial nature of the library program. Recently one 8th grade girl told me that she would never have learned to love reading if it hadn’t been for a book I recommended to her in 6th grade. She is now on her way to a prestigious college preparatory high school with a nearly full scholarship. Others tell me the library is their favorite place on campus, a place where they feel at home and safe to explore their own, blossoming interests. Some alumni of the school, now attending charter high schools without libraries, come back regularly to ask for recommendations and to beg me to loan them books.
During the 2008-09 school year, LAUSD started a massive layoff process that has finally weaseled its way down to the TLs. Thousands of educators have received RIFs (Reduction-in-Force notices). Some leave LAUSD for the purportedly greener pastures of charter schools and others become subs; some RIFs get rescinded at the last minute. This year, Teacher Librarians with seniority stretching far into the past (in one case, to the 1970s) also got RIFs.
Not only that, it seems that we are barred from returning to a traditional classroom setting as well, even if we ultimately fail to protect our libraries. A new recency rule (or a newly enforced one) states that educators who’ve been out of the traditional classroom for five years or more can no longer return to their original posts. This is in reaction to the utter failure of last year’s attempt to acclimatize teachers who’d been in an cubicle setting for a decade. Returning to the classroom after that long is difficult and should be considered very carefully. But Teacher Librarians have not been in cubicles, but in schools, working with students day in and day out.
I received a RIF last year, only to have it rescinded at the last minute. This year, I was RIFed again, and the recency rule is threatening to take me down for good. Even if my RIF is rescinded and I am able to return to the classroom, there is no indication that the library at my school, or any school, will stay open for the students next year.
I have spent three full days at the hearings in the last two weeks (and my library has been closed, the weeks just before state testing begins). Finally, today, I was meant to give my testimony, but a paperwork snafu caused the court to delay my hearing, if I am to be given one at all.
So, in the basement of the California Mart building downtown, hearings for RIFed educators have been taking place every day since April 25th, undetected by the bustling world above ground. Teachers come to these hearings to defend their qualifications in front of a judge, hoping that someone in the legal system will understand what the students of this city need. Union lawyers attempt to show that we (TLs) teach on a daily basis, that we are defined by our contracts with LAUSD as (implied by the title) Teachers. In these hearings, the burden of proof seems to be on the librarians, although our credentials are valid in every way.
LAUSD’s lawyers, our employer’s lawyers, do everything they can to prove otherwise. They say that using the Dewey Decimal System requires so much math that we are no longer practiced in the teaching of English. They ask us to recite PE standards for 2nd graders, implying that if we cannot, we should not be allowed near elementary schools. One teacher is asked to duplicate a history lecture in order to prove he knows the content. This, in spite of the fact that his teaching credential from the State of California indicates definitively that he has met competency requirements for the subject matter. Is LAUSD challenging the validity of the State of California’s measures for qualifying teachers? If so, it seems that a different conversation needs to be had, and without us on the stand.
If the RIFs stand and the recency rule stands, 87 Teacher Librarians will be forced to leave LAUSD entirely. 87 school libraries will close completely, or schools will be forced to knowingly violate state Education Code to keep them open with only clerical staff , no credentialed Teacher Librarian in sight. My school’s library is home to nearly forty thousand items, from books to DVDs to art prints. A million dollar value serving over two thousand students, this space may go unattended for years. Or worse, it may be slowly destroyed as well-intentioned teachers and students use it without the help of a TL to oversee, curate, and organize the collection.
There is not only the risk of a financial loss here, but an ideological one. Librarians are the keepers of knowledge and defenders of the right to access that knowledge. Without libraries, our students’ access to accurate, quality information, as well as current, compelling reading material, practically disappears. Without Teacher Librarians, our schools are left further behind the curve and behind the times. We should give our children what we know that they need, not just what we can afford, or what we feel like giving them at the time. In a state that ranks in the bottom half nationwide when it comes to student achievement, can LAUSD really afford to ignore what research has proven to be effective time and again?
During this process, I cannot help but reflect on the words of my earliest mentor. I can do this. I must do this. I am being told that I am no longer allowed to do this.