All school libraries are not created equal. There is one single indicator that predicts success, beyond community income levels or the skills and charisma of the teacher librarian. The academic research shows that single greatest factor in establishing an effective school library is the perception of the school principal toward the school library and the teacher librarian.
The literature indicates a persistent problem of perceptions among school administrators regarding the impact of teacher librarians on student achievement. A qualitative study followed the results of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) that gave schools the choice of whether or not to employ school library media specialists. Ten years after KERA, principals from the 64 districts in 176 schools were surveyed, and indicated that they did not perceive the school library media specialists as essential to the success of their schools (Alexander, Smith, & Carey, 2003). This finding stood in contrast to the perceptions of school library media specialists in Kentucky who perceived their role as very essential to student achievement and the overall success of their schools. While teacher librarians may view themselves as indispensible, school principals often do not share that view. This discrepancy in perceptions is problematic because it explains the decision making of principals in determining staffing, budgeting, and instructional leadership that are foundational to a successful school library program.
The perceptions of school principals with regard to school librarians are determined by four factors: their own experiences as children where the school library was peripheral to the classroom, professional training that did not include the school library or informational literacy, the nature of the work of school librarians which is to empower others, and the overall low profile of school librarianship in educational literature (Hartzell, 2002). These perceptions are compounded by occupational invisibility within the school that is caused by under-staffing that prohibits the teacher librarian from leaving the library to attend collaborative planning meetings and other opportunities for leadership and professional growth (Johnston, 2012). The school community acknowledges discipline area teachers as having direct impact on student learning, but because instructional support and co-teaching with the teacher librarian is collaborative those contributions tend not to be recognized or collected as evidence-of-impact on learning, which further reinforces occupational invisibility (Martin, 2011).
The gaps that exist in the perceptions of principals can have a long-term impact on schools when it comes to hiring a teacher librarian, especially because of the solo-practitioner status of the position. A qualitative study was conducted that included school administrators, library school faculty members, and library school students that was designed to probe preferred characteristics based on five categories: education, experience, recommendations, involvement, and compatibilities (Roys & Brown, 2004). Results indicated that school library students had a better idea than library school faculty about the characteristics sought by school administrators during hiring, but that school library faculty had a better understanding of the skills and characteristics required of an ideal candidate. School administrators registered a very low understanding of the characteristics and skills needed in a teacher librarian to fill the role effectively. Principals don’t really know what they want us to do, or what they should look for in a candidate.
A mixed-methodology study surveyed principals in South Carolina on their perceptions of teacher librarians, their hiring criteria, the competencies they considered important, and levels of satisfaction with their current teacher librarian. The premise of the study was that the school library program relies profoundly on the support of the school principal in terms of budgeting, staffing, the role of the library in the overall school culture, and in providing leadership opportunities for the teacher librarian (Shannon, 2009). The conclusions of the study were that principals generally rated themselves as “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their teacher librarian, and that their prime source of information about the value and impact on student learning of the library program came directly from the teacher librarian in his or her own building. The chief source of education on characteristics of effectiveness is the building-based teacher librarian, indicating a need for additional research on themes of the teacher librarian as an effective communicator, as having strong inter-personal skills, and the need to build strong relationships with building principals and school administrators.
The findings of a quantitative study on the ability of teacher librarians to expand their role as instructional leaders concluded that the single most important requirement was a supportive principal (Martin, 2011). The variables that were identified as indicators of support were determined to be the size and currency of the library print and digital collection, the hours of available service, the size of media and technology support staff, adequate library support staff, and the availability if a full-time certified LMS; all tied to budget decisions made by the principal (Hartzell, 2003, as cited by Martin, 2011). Developing strategies to disrupt and change the perceptions of principals is a high priority for teacher librarians seeking increased opportunities as instructional leaders with effective school programs.
It is necessary for teacher librarians to become more active in instructional leadership to facilitate the integration of information literacy and technology skills across all areas of curriculum. To achieve this goal it is necessary for teacher librarians to adopt new techniques, strategies and theories that will change the perceptions of principals and administrators, and create the conditions necessary for instructional leadership to take place (Castiglione, 2006; Johnston, 2012).
This is the time to assess the perceptions of our building principals towards the role of the school library in our schools, and take proactive steps to influence those perceptions. The research literature is clear that it is up to us to educate our principals through providing evidence of our impact on student learning, by sharing academic research that clearly states the critical role of effective school libraries on achievement, and to have goal-based budget discussions to improve library resources. (These goals should include adequate staffing in order for the teacher librarian to participate in curriculum planning instructional leadership opportunities.) If we don’t work to influence the perceptions of our principals we will continue to see inequities in school library service for the students of Massachusetts.
Alexander, L. B., Smith, R. C., & Carey, J. O. (2003). Education reform and the school library media specialist: Perceptions of principals. Knowledge Quest, 32(10-13), 10-13.
Castiglione, J. (2006). Organizational learning and transformational leadership in the library environment. Library Management, 27(4/5), 289-299.
Hartzell, G. (2002). The principal’s perceptions of school-librarians and teacher-librarians. School Libraries Worldwide, 8(1), 92-110.
Johnston, M. P. (2012). School librarians as technology integration leaders: Enablers and barriers to leadership enactment . School Library Research, 15(), 1-33.
Martin, V. D. (2011). Perceptions of school library media specialists regarding the practice of instructional leadership. Advances in Library Administration and Organization, 30(), 207-287.
Roys, N. K., & Brown, M. E. (2004). The ideal candidate for school library media specialist: views from school administrators, library school faculty, and MLS students. School Library Media Research, 7.
Shannon, D. M. (2009). Principal’s Perspectives of School Librarians. School Libraries Worldwide, 15(2), 1-22.
Robin Cicchetti is the school librarian at the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School