Librarians as Teachers and Information Skills Developers, Elizabeth Hutchinson

I was recently asked to talk at the SLG training day and this is the talk I gave: 


School libraries are in crisis. Fake news and misinformation are rife and it seems to me that Google is taking over the world. Our role as school librarians and teachers is to bring our expertise to education and the curriculum and through doing this help our schools understand the value that our libraries bring to their students and teachers. 

I am not sure about you but I know that when I finally decided that I wanted to become a librarian I never thought about the fact that that I was signing up to teaching as well. I was a late starter so after leaving school at 16 I worked in Newcastle City library until I got married when I left to bring up my children. So I was 36 by the time I got my degree in Information and Library Studies, I knew that I was going to work for Schools Library Service in Guernsey and in no way did this prepare me for a job working in school libraries and if someone had asked me about teaching at that time I would have laughed.  

I think back in 2003 my understanding of school libraries was very much from my own experience from school. A space where I could hide at lunch and break time, read books not chosen by my mother and somewhere that we were taken for the odd lesson to find a book on a subject we were studying. This was a memory from my middle school and I am sad to say that I don’t remember my secondary school library at all.

I am glad to say that this has all changed over my 16 years of working with school libraries both within Guernsey and beyond. I believe that I joined the profession at the right time. A time where the internet was beginning to take root and our skills as librarians were needed more than ever. No longer were we the people who only look after the books; we had so much more to offer.  The issue, however, has always been how can we transition through the barrier of expectations to reality. The definition of ‘teacher’ is one whose occupation is to instruct

Teachers by definition have a body of knowledge that they use to instruct  i.e. subject specialists. Librarians, on the other hand, instruct what? I would say that our specialism is information literacy but where has that come from?  

We know that school librarians have knowledge of curation and expertise in research and this should bring us front and central into teaching but with no training or support how do we go about teaching it. Although, knowledge, passion, drive, commitment and ability to instruct could be our greatest asset we have such a fragmented profession we seem to be unable to communicate to schools why this is important. Part of the reason for this is we have no instruction on instruction and secondly we are de-professionalising the profession. Where do we learn how to teach let alone work out what it is we need to teach? It is important that we make sure that we are doing all we can to give ourselves a fighting chance. It is no longer possible for us to wait for things to change, we need to be the change. 

So how do we do this? Sadly there is no blueprint for how school librarians teach and instruct research skills. There was no-one there to teach me how to teach, so what do you do when you suddenly find yourself in front of a class for the very first time? I think like most of you I began to realise that if this was going to be part of my job and I had to find a way through it.  

However, most of us have not got 16 years to work it out so I thought I would give you my top 4 survival tips to teaching that you can take away today…

Tip 1 Know and understand your own expertise

Our skill set is resource management. In simplest terms we know how to:

·      Find good quality information quickly, efficiently and ethically

·      Critically evaluate sources

·      Give credit for what we find and produce bibliographies

These are all skills that our students and teachers need. Don’t be fooled that your teachers and students know more than you do. Just because they can turn on an iPad and type a question into Google does not make them experts in research and critical thinking.“Teachers forget that learning how to do research is not an innate skill and is not the same as being tech-savvy” A Quote from a recent JCS blog. (‘How school librarians are meeting the challenges of teaching information literacy | JCS’, n.d.) 

Without question, they need your expertise but maybe they just don’t know that yet. However, do you understand your own level of expertise? I would like to explain this by using Neil Gaiman’s famous quote “Google can find you a million answers a librarian can find you the right one” How many of us have shared this quote? I have to admit that I am one that did so this is not a criticism! However, over the years I have begun to understand that if this is how we see ourselves we are going along with the stereotype and misunderstand our own level of expertise.  

Librarians as teachers are not about putting the answer into the hands of our students but to teach them how to access and make sense of the information they find. This begins to point to a different role for the school librarian, where the librarian and teacher collaborate to help students build knowledge from information.  

This moves away from the traditional role of the school librarian. 

  • The teacher asks the student to find X, 
  • The student goes to the librarian and asks for X, 
  • The student takes X  back to the teacher. 

Everyone is happy but who has learnt anything? 

You have so much more to offer! 

Tip 2 Widen your vocabulary

  • Know your own tools and how they link with the curriculum
  • Online catalogue 
  • Online resources
  • Finding more than one source
  • Website evaluation, fake news, misinformation, e-safety 
  • Learn “Teacher speak” 

If you have a library management system or any online resources, learn how to talk about them as digital literacy tools. Know the features that will enhance student learning and research and offer to share this with teachers and then to support them in the classroom the first time they want to use it with their students. Find out the tips and tricks that make searching these tools easier and use the same terminology as the teachers.

·      Pedagogy (The methods of teaching in other words how do you teach?) 

·      Heuristics (Allowing students to learn by discovering for themselves)

So, for example, I now use the phrase that FOSIL is a pedagogy tool to support student heuristics. Sound great doesn’t it? All it means is that FOSIL is a tool that supports students learning for themselves. 

There are many more but the more you learn the easier it is talking to teachers. When I hear something new I try and learn what it means and then use it when appropriate. Don’t hide behind your library terminology, widen your vocabulary and speak to them in their own language even if we mean the same thing. We need to move into the teaching world as they are really not going to move into ours.  

It is important that we understand that we are learning to become a teacher and the more we comfortable we are with this, the easier it will be to talk with authority. We are not pretending to be teachers we are learning to become teachers. 

Tip 3 Commit yourself to an ongoing process of purposeful professional learning. 

  • Joining in CPD from school
  • Building up a map of your school curriculum 
  • SLG
  • SLA
  • FOSIL Group forum 
  • IFLA Guidelines for school libraries 

It is important that we are proactive in our own learning. How does this look for you and how will you achieve this? 

The majority of us have arrived in the school library without teacher training so how do we go about finding what we need? We know that there are training opportunities within our own schools. Make sure you are part of the same training offered to teachers. Building up a picture of what is going on in school. In primary schools, make sure you have a map of the curriculum and can confidently talk to teachers about what they are planning to teach. In secondary knowing what the expectations are for exam boards. i.e in Geography they need to reference and caption a picture. If you know that is what they need to do you then have the opportunity to start a conversation. 

SLG and SLA provide training opportunities which do cost money, however, before you say that you know that your school won’t pay or give you time off you need to understand that it is still an opportunity for you to raise awareness of the importance of your own CPD. It is essential that you ask every year and tell them why you need to attend. Don’t make this a tick box exercise really find out about the courses and generate a good argument. This professionalism speaks volumes! 

IFLA – International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions guidelines has been put together by the international association of school librarianship giving an inspirational and aspirational vision for what a school library ought to be with Free practical workshops to move you forward in your journey as a school librarian. 

A shameless plug! I run an online forum for school library staff #LibraryStaffLoveLearning in order to read books, articles, blog or listen to podcasts or TED talks to create a place for learning in a safe environment. I did it because I did not feel that I was reading enough myself and wanted to provide something that was not too expensive and to provide something for others. You can read it all without having to sign up but if you want to comment you do need to register and apart from the occasional cost of a book the only other commitment is your time. 

I would also add that if you have asked to be sent on training and the answer is no then a follow up asking for a book to join in CPD in your own time is more likely to be allowed. 

Tip 4 Practice, practice, practice

Once you have started on the above 3 it is important that you learn how to talk about what you can do and why you do it and the only way to do this is to practice talking about it. With your colleagues, with your teachers, with your friends (ok not too often unless you want to lose all your friends)  

I once said to Darryl that I would never be able to talk about what I do the way he did and he said to me that the more you do it the better you will become. Which is true. Everyone has to start somewhere and sometimes you are not going to get it right. You are going to leave a conversation and go.. I wish I had remembered to say …But each time you do this the better you will get at it. 

Remember that you are the only one who knows what you are capable of. You are the only one who can make this happen but you are not on your own. We have a wealth of knowledge and expertise around us and we just need to be prepared to find it and use it.  

And finally what has kept me going into classrooms and teaching all this time? This one simple phrase that keeps getting said over and over again by teachers I have worked with. “I wish I had been taught that at school.” This to me says that my role in the classroom is important for future generations of children and teachers. 

The survival of our profession is more than the individual librarian in their schools. We have to look beyond ourselves where we are, to where we need to get to. The only way we are to survive is to lay the foundations for those who are coming behind us. If we are only looking to our future we are helping to sell our profession short. 

We are teachers, we do know what we are talking about and it is time to unleash our own potential.

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1 Response to Librarians as Teachers and Information Skills Developers, Elizabeth Hutchinson

  1. Rachel Hodgson says:

    Thank you for sharing this for those of us who couldn’t make the training day. It’s an inspiring and motivational read.

    Liked by 1 person

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