I’ve been a librarian for 13+ years and I’m still learning every day. Through trial and error on the job I’ve learned about Follett’s Destiny circulation system. I’ve learned that Shel Silverstein books will never go out of style. I’ve learned that the right book at the right time in the right kid’s hands will fuel their love of reading. I’ve learned that keeping a tidy library is like stringing beads on a string with no end knot. I’ve learned that technology often experiences glitches when it’s truly most inconvenient. I’ve learned how to save time for teachers by focusing on what they’ll need, and, in best cases, before they even know they need it.
While all of that knowledge is important, very little of it was gained in traditional professional development experiences. The main problem for building specialists such as teacher-librarians is the professional development model in place in many districts is focused on classroom teachers and their needs, and building specialists are often left to try and find applicability where there is little. Or better yet, librarians are clumped together with music or art teachers or PE specialists in a corner table and we’re tasked with goals such as working collaboratively on a specialist schedule or planning assemblies instead of focusing on teaching and learning. If we are able to meet with job-alike colleagues, it’s often after-hours or at an annual professional conference, if we’re willing to fund our own way.
For the past several years, the librarian professional learning community (PLC) in my district has met for one full day, either in the fall or spring. Substitute teachers were provided for all of us, and we all met in a meeting room at our district headquarters. Last year, our annual meeting day was cancelled due to a district snow day. It was never rescheduled. When we finally met as a whole group this fall, it became apparent that our current instructional model was broken. It is impossible to form an open and collaborative culture when you’re literally meeting someone for the first time after they’ve been in their job for almost two years! Think of the implications of placing teachers in the same boat… Imagine seeing a teacher coming down the hall, saying “Hi” to that person and introducing yourself only to find out they’ve been teaching the exact same topics as you a mere two doors down. Wow! You’re not alone in this academic endeavor! You eat lunch with them, share a few stories, trade a few tips, then you each go back to your respective classrooms, closing the door behind you, emerging again to work together… twelve months later!
It was after this fall’s somewhat annual meeting that I realized, the system’s broken. It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Well, we’ve been doing the same thing over and over again, and the results aren’t only different than intended, they’re trending in the wrong direction. While it is certainly energizing and engaging to gather as a large group, waiting for those whole-group gatherings does not seem to be a sustainable instructional model. At the same time, I’m also hoping to extend our cohort model — moving from an in-district-only cohort, to beyond our district boundaries.
That is not to say that there is no value in attending staff-wide trainings and professional development offerings. Stephens writes about this in her blog post, Rethinking What We Do. “‘Do we need to go to whole-school PD? Yes!’ We are a part of a learning community…you can’t operate a successful school library program in a vacuum” (Stephens, 2013). But vacuums and being stuck in a time-wasting staff development meeting share a common trait… major suckage.
One emerging professional development model that is trending in popularity is the “unconference”. Rebecca Bagley provides a great description of the unconference: “The concept is fairly simple. At an unconference, no topics have been predetermined, no keynote speakers have been invited, no panels have been arranged. Instead, the event lives and dies by the participation of its attendees. They decide what topics will be discussed and they convene the individual breakout sessions. In other words, an unconference has no agenda until the participants create it.” (Bagley, 2014). In the world of education, unconferences have taken the form of “EdCamps”. A recent Scholastic Teacher article highlighted EdCamps. “EdCamps are all about the room being smarter than the individual.” (Borris, 2016). This is the disconnect that’s so pervasive with our current professional development model. Collectively our district library cohort has a wide array of skills and knowledge, but like so many organizations, our skills and knowledge are siloed. The unconference model seeks to disrupt the tradition of “stand and deliver” instruction, while empowering and encouraging all parties to take an active role in our professional development.
The Washington Library Media Association (WLMA) has held a multi-day professional conference, with sessions, keynote speakers, vendor booths, and all the normal conference accoutrements. But as Washington state schools and teachers alike have been forced to tighten spending over the past years, attendance, participation and membership rates have consistently diminished, so much so that WLMA has merged with the Washington Library Association (WLA) to save costs. Gone too is the annual conference. In its place, in October 2016 WLMA will be shifting to a one-day unconference: WLMA 2016 unconference. There are pros (free/lower-cost conference for participants, sessions are adaptable to the interests of attendees, all participants are encouraged to share ideas rather than only listening to presenters) and cons (can be an uncomfortable model of professional development for introverts, success is dependent on attendees’ participation, and conferences are on a much smaller scale). It will be interesting to see if an annual unconference model will be a sustainable one for WLMA in the years to come.
Another model of instruction that is worth exploring is on-demand and web-based professional development, often in the form of webinars or videos. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) provides archived webinars with topics such as “Brains Change @ Your Library” and “Coaching the Leader Within”. Pros: webinars can be completed independently, there are numerous free resources available, and they’re often available anytime/on-demand. Cons: access to full offerings often requires membership or other payment, there is often little interactivity in the delivery, and sound/video quality (as well as the quality of the presentation itself) can be inconsistent. One wondering I have is the feasibility of using webinars in a blended model, with independent viewing of the material followed by small and/or large group discussions.
Finally, I’m deeply interested in web-based (Hangouts & Google+ communities). As our district has shifted to a Google Education platform, it’s becoming easier and easier to integrate Google applications into our learning. A web-based community has many advantages over traditional in-person professional development, but it’s also not with its own issues. Pros: free access to community of job-alike colleagues from around the world, ease of 2-way conversation, no transportation requirements. Cons: our district has not opened access to Google+ for teachers, much like EdCamps these communities are dependent on members’ participation to bring value, and privacy issues — including some teachers who prefer to not be on camera.
Some examples of applicable Google+ communities: https://plus.google.com/communities/114899053206458405634 TLChat (538 members — invite)
https://plus.google.com/communities/117972083606648197914 School Library Media Specialists (2,258 members — open)
https://plus.google.com/communities/109025267965562834348 LSSD Teacher-Librarians (9 members)
Ideas and wonderings moving forward with online communities:
If I can’t convince the district to open up access to the Google+ features, what are my other options to get things started? Who will lead the sessions? Is it worth the time and effort if only a few colleagues participate? I think these applications have the greatest potential for meaningful job-alike professional development in my current role as teacher-librarian, and I think a few proof-of-concept sessions would go far to convince district leaders of the value to teachers. And an added benefit with these new approaches… I won’t have to wait two years any longer to meet the new-hires!
American Library Association (ALA). (n.d.). School libraries: Online learning. Retrieved June 1, 2016, from http://www.ala.org/onlinelearning/schoollibraries
Bagley, R. (2014, August 18). How ‘unconferences’ unleash innovative ideas | Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/rebeccabagley/2014/08/18/how-unconferences-unleash-innovative-ideas/#26b5f2045e12
Borris, C. (2016, January/February). Happy campers. Scholastic Teacher, 125(4), 24-29. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/how-edcamps-are-changing-face-pd
Evans, S. (2016, June 4). Our first Google Hangout for professional development [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://librarymediatechtalk.blogspot.com/2016/06/our-first-google-hangout-for.html
School Library Journal. (n.d.). School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.slj.com/
Stephens, W. (2013, October 14). Rethinking what we do: Professional development for school librarians. Retrieved from http://yalsa.ala.org/blog/2013/10/14/re-thinking-what-we-do-professional-development-for-school-librarians/