I will confess that my first reaction, when I recently heard the news that my school will be losing its wonderful principal to another local school system, was a bit melodramatic. He has been a strong friend and advocate for our library, helping us line up funding sources, supporting our professional development, protecting our staff during layoffs due to budget cuts, and doing whatever is needed to support our collaborative and instructional efforts with the rest of the faculty. It is impossible to predict what a new principal will feel toward our program, depending on what his/her prior experience with libraries may be; after all, we all know that there are those who do not represent our field well, and we all have met stakeholders and decision-makers who unfortunately do not realize that those negative few are not the norm.
But of course, now that I have drowned my sorrow in French fries and a giant milkshake, the obvious thing to do is to get proactive. We have a chance to start positive with a new principal. Regardless of their previous attitudes and expectations, it is up to us to show them the good things we are doing and make them aware of the value we bring to the school as a whole. So in my end-of-year meeting with my current principal, I asked him about how best to convert a new principal from a library skeptic to a friend. Here is his advice:
• Start every conversation with how what you’re doing affects kids. We can’t defend libraries for their own sake and expect to win anyone over, but if we defend libraries for the sake of students and the school as a whole, we can build a compelling case.
• Contextualize your numbers. Principals need data in the current educational climate, but statistics in a vacuum don’t do them any good. So as we present those numbers on how many classes and individual students we’re serving, we need to make sure we’re building a narrative around what those numbers mean and—again—how they indicate what we’re doing for the kids.
• Focus on school initiatives, not just library initiatives. So if you use Accelerated Reader to match students to appropriate reading levels or use Lexile data to help correctly level students in their academic classes, discuss it in terms of what it means to the school instead of in terms of what it does within your library walls.
• Discuss library administration in broad strokes. Principals may not have the background or interest to discuss the minutiae of our latest TitleWise analysis, but they will be interested in the idea that we are weeding out-of-date items to make what’s left more accessible, focusing on quality over quantity as we respond to modern students’ changing needs.
• Emphasize your leadership role within the faculty. The time we spend helping teachers learn to navigate their new email clients, sitting on committees, offering training sessions on how to use the “clickers”, using our birds-eye view of the school to identify gaps in student knowledge and help teachers find ways to address them, and promoting professional development are all invaluable services that we are uniquely situated in the school to provide.
• Make it clear that you’re part of the life of the school. Display pictures of your book club, be seen at the PTSO meetings and the football games, socialize with teachers at the inservice breakfast, and get out of the four walls of your library once in a while.
While I am a bit nervous wondering who will head up our administration next year, I am also excited at the prospect of change. As supported as I have felt for the last two years, it is entirely possible that there is an even better boss on the horizon. If we get a principal who has not previously been a friend to libraries, the opportunity to win them over is a beautiful thing. And the process of framing our story, communicating about the work we do, and making sure we live up to the value we have promised will make us better librarians and help us strengthen our program.
Sarah Culp Searles is the school librarian at West High School in Knoxville. firstname.lastname@example.org