Learning to be a Teacher-Librarian:
A Research Report

Dianne Oberg
Department of Elementary Education
University of Alberta




Learning to be a teacher-librarian is a complex process that involves much more than academic preparation. In the literature of school librarianship, however, there is little that acknowledges or explores that process. This contrasts sharply with the literature related to the education of those professionals with whom teacher-librarians most closely work, classroom teachers and principals. This difference can be seen by examining the results of a sample literature search related to new or beginning teachers, principals, and teacher-librarians. Full-text searching of CD-ROM versions of the ERIC and Library Literature databases for the period 1986-19 90 provided 624 records related to new or beginning teachers and 49 related to new or beginning principals but not one related to new or beginning teacher-librarians.

This paper reports research that was carried out during the first year of work of two novice teacher-librarians in Alberta, Canada. They agreed to share their thoughts and experiences over the 1989-90 school year with two researchers from the University of Alberta, Dianne Oberg and Linda LaRocque. Oberg teaches in the school libraries program in the Department of Elementary Education; LaRocque in the Department of Educational Administration. The research discussed in this paper was supported by a United Library Services Research Grant, awarded by the Learning Resources Council of the Alberta Teachers' Association.


Context of the Study

It is important to be aware of the context within which the research was carried out. The school library program model recommended by the provincial ministry of education is an instructional program integrated with the curriculum. The means by with the program is delivered is through cooperative planning and implementation, that is, through the collaborative planning, teaching, and evaluation activities of the teacher-librarian, classroom teachers, and principal. This approach often means considerable changes in the way that a school organizes and thinks about teaching and learning. Teacher-librarians are expected to provide informal leadership in t he school related to the program. Not all schools or school districts in Alberta have teacher-librarians in their schools; where the re is no teacher-librarian, the implementation of the instructional program is the responsibility of the principal and classroom teachers.

The large urban district in Alberta within which the novice teacher-librarians in this study work serves approximately 30,000 students in over 80 schools. The instructional role of the school library program is not a regular feature of the schools in the district. The hiring of two new teacher-librarians, the first in many years, was greeted with delight within the local school library community, and out of the discussion of the challenges they would soon be facing came the inspiration for this study. Both of the novice teacher-librarians were experienced teachers who had recently completed their Diploma in School Libraries. Their experiences provided the researchers with a unique opportunity to understand the process of learning to be a teacher-libra rian; without their openness and generosity, this study would not have been possible.

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Research Methodology

The two teacher-librarians were interviewed on three occasions throughout their first year. A semi-structured interview approach was used, that is, the interviewers had established with the teacher-librarians the general topics and direction of the interviews but the specific questions arose from the description of their experiences and their reflection on those experiences. Each of the interviews was tape recorded and transcribed. After the teacher-librarians reviewed the transcripts, they clarified and elaborated upon their earlier comments and the interviewers asked questions that arose from the transcripts and from the discussion based on the transcripts. Each of the transcripts was studied by the two researchers to discover categories and themes in the discussion. The categories and themes outlined in this paper have been reviewed by the teacher-librarians to ensure the trustworthiness of the analysis.

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Findings of the Study: Five Themes

The learning of a new professional role is often a painful process and one often regarded as best forgotten, as quickly as possible. First year experiences are rarely shared openly with other colleagues, at the time or later in one's professional career, except in the most superficial ways. It is part of the expectations within most school systems that neophytes take on the same roles and responsibilities as their experienced colleagues, from the first day of the school year, and that they do this in a self-reliant and private manner. These expectations make the process through which a classroom teacher learns to be a teacher-librarian more difficult because it seems that the individual is alone in the struggle to learn. In addition, the feelings of uncertainty and frustration, which are an inevitable and necessary part of any significantly new learning experience, are generally not acknowledged. By allowing others to share in their experiences, these novice teacher-librarians make an important contribution to the field of school librarianship, one that few would be prepared to make.

Five themes, that is, five ways of learning to be a teacher-librarian, were discovered in the transcripts: academic preparation; classroom teaching experience; other personal experience; consulting the experts; and first-year experience as a teacher-librarian.

Theme 1: Academic Preparation

Their academic preparation, eight courses in school librarianship, children's and young adult literature, and educational technology, was successful in providing them with an image of the work of the teacher-librarian. In terms of Alberta's model of the integrated library program, Focus on Learning (Alberta Education, 1985), they had developed an understanding of the instruction, management, and development components of the library program. They understood the need to balance the more traditional literature appreciation aspects of the program with the newer emphasis on teaching the research process. They knew that the program would best be implemented through working with the classroom teachers, through cooperative planning and teaching. Flexible scheduling was viewed as critical to the success of the program as was minimizing the clerical and technical aspects of operating the program. In general, their academic preparation had given these novice teacher-librarians a clear image of the program model recommended by Alberta Education and by other experts in the school library field (see, for example, Canadian School Library Association, 1988; Haycock, 1981).

Their academic work was much less successful in preparing the novice teacher-librarians for the work of translating this image of th e program into practice. At the beginning of their first year, they were largely unaware of what problems would face them in implem enting a new program in a school. They were not expecting the difficulties inherent in developing a school-wide program such as the need to acquire broad curriculum knowledge and the need to work with a wide variety of students and teachers. Worst of all, they had no specific, concrete strategies for introducing the program or their role to the school. During the third interview session, one teacher-librarian, laughing ruefully at her naivete, said that she had had expectations of the teachers coming to us and asking us to do this or to do that with them... You know, them coming in to us and saying 'would you help us with this and would you help with that and would you like to sit down and plan that?'... I expected more of a them-to-approach-us kind of thing, and that was a disappointment.

The other commented, also in the third interview, that although she had some expectations about what she could do, she had no idea of what she in fact would be doing as a teacher-librarian.

          I knew all summer I had the job and people would say, 'Oh, you must be busy planning', and I didn't know what to plan. I didn't have a clue where I was even going to start.

These candid comments reveal clearly the difficulty of getting a realistic view of what their new roles as teacher-librarians would involve. The roles were new and they had no models or mentors to help them develop a clear view of work that lay ahead. Until they had experienced something of the role, it was very difficult for them to think of ways in which they could address such concerns as long range planning, which would have to be carried out, given the demands of an integrated cooperatively planned program, in different ways from those they had used as classroom teachers.

Theme 2: Classroom Teaching Experience

Because their teacher-librarian training had provided them with few practical strategies for developing the program, the novice teacher-librarians turned to their extensive experience as classroom teachers. It is important to note here a very large difference between learning to be a teacher and learning to be a teacher-librarian. Teachers have generally developed a clear image of what it is to be a teacher long before that enter teacher training; they have been student s in classroooms observing their own teachers. The same is not true for most individuals entering teacher-librarian training; they have rarely seen teacher-librarians working in an instructional role when they were students in school nor have they experienced this as practicing teachers. This was the case for our novice teacher-librarians. Neither had experienced schools, as students or as classroom teachers, where there were teacher-librarians.

In Alberta, experience as a classroom teachers is a requirement for both training and employment as a teacher-librarian. This experience proved to be a mixed blessing for the novice teacher-librarians. The experience worked for them in that it gave them a real understanding of teaching and learning from a classroom teacher's point of view and it gave them strategies for determining the content and organization of instruction. For example, the teacher-librarians utilized their knowledge of learning centres and group learning in their library programs. They had both worked in team teaching situations and had enjoyed the sense of partnership that they were now looking forward to in their new role.

On the other hand, and very significantly, their classroom experience had shaped them in ways that made their new role very difficult indeed. As classroom teachers, they had taught primarily at the lower elementary level and they felt uncertain about working with much older children, particularly junior high students. They were accustomed to working in an intensive way over a year with one group of children, getting to know these children very well. As teacher-librarians, they missed one of the greatest rewards of teaching -- the psychic rewards (Lortie, 1975) of affiliation with children (Leithwood & MacDonald, 1981).

A deeper and more pervasive difficulty was that presented by the philosophical basis of teaching that underlies both resource-based learning and cooperative teaching. The novice teacher-librarians had prepared themselves to work with other teachers to develop opportunities for children to learn from a wide range of materials and to give children an increasing control of their own learning. However, their efforts to bring this about were constrained by a view of teaching and learning that is symbolized by the closed class room door (Jackson, 1968). They and their colleagues had been trained to teach in isolation, as masters of the classroom.

The teacher-librarians had difficulty discarding the view of teaching that holds that one is teaching only if one is performing in front of a class; they felt guilty about their role as 'teachers without a class' and uncomfortable about taking time during the school day to think and to plan. They had internalized the rules of the traditional culture of classroom teaching, includ ing those of privacy and self-reliance (Lieberman & Miller, 1984). They were uneasy about any activity that might be seen as interfering with another teacher's domain. This continued to be a concern for them even though the members of the school staff with whom they worked were accustomed to doing grade-level planning and even though they themselves had had experience as team teachers.

At first glance, team teaching might seem an excellent introduction to cooperative planning and implementation, and it had certainly resulted in the teacher-librarians having a positive attitude toward collaboration. Much of their team teaching experience, however, had involved alternating responsibilities for class activities rather than shared or joint teaching. They had experienced team teaching that was primarily supportive, but not collaborative, in nature.

Theme 3: Other Personal Experience

Other personal experience shaped their understanding of the role of the teacher-librarian. Both novice teacher-librarians had worked briefly as library technicians. From this experience they had learned some of the technical and managerial aspects of library work; they also had experienced a considerable amount of frustration with this role, having to accept the limitations of a non-teaching position and imagining what they could be doing as teacher-librarians. They had come to value the contributions that teacher-librarians can make to students' learning. This conviction had come not only from their teacher-librarian training but also from reflection upon their undergraduate university years when they had not really known how to use libraries effectively and could have benefitted from instruction in library research strategies. They also mentioned that their experience as parents, helping their children research and write school reports, had made them more aware of the importance of effective school library programs.

Theme 4: Consulting the Experts

While these factors -- academic preparation, classroom teaching experience, and other personal experiences -- had important influences on their development as teacher-librarians, certainly the most critical learning experiences were those they encountered during their first year on the job. They consulted others who in some sense played expert roles. One of the teacher-librarians asked a friend who had had experience working with a teacher-librarian to describe what her teacher-librarian did within her school. Although both novice teacher-librarians thought about going to visit other schools to talk to experienced teacher-librarians and some initial contacts had been made, neither had made a school visit of this kind by the end of their first year. (There are indications, however, that in their second year of practice they are more actively seeking these collegial exchanges. It should be noted that networking, while very valuable, is often difficult to initiate. For these teacher-librarians, it involves developing contacts with teacher-librarians in other school districts.) During their first year, the teacher-librarians participated in some other professional development activities. They went to inservices for teachers which provided ideas related to program content and resources, and they went to inservices for teacher-librarians which provided the opportunity to learn more about their role and to affirm what they were attempting in their programs.

Theme 5: First Year as Teacher-Librarians

From their initial experiences, the teacher-librarians learned very clearly that being a teacher-librarian is different from being a classroom teacher. They were playing a new role, one that they were not clear about how to carry out in the beginning and one that called upon their resources in new and challenging ways. What they learned from this first year of experience might be categorized in terms of new attitudes, new understandings, and future plans.

A major attitudinal change was the realization that becoming a teacher-librarian is a growing process. They accepted that it was okay to feel like new teachers again, that feeling that way was to be expected. They tried to emphasize their successes and to learn from their mistakes; they realized that flexibility and an optimistic attitude would stand them in good stead.

The teacher-librarians began to understand that their role involved working with students and teachers in new ways. They had to accept that they would never be as close and intimate with students, now that they had to work with 600 students instead of thirty. They began to understand that teachers work from very different philosophical bases or 'platforms' (A. Oberg, 1986), which complicates the task of collaboration. The teacher-librarians attempted to accommodate such differences in belief and practice between themselves and the classroom teachers with whom they worked, but never did they initiate an explicit sharing or examination of these differing platforms. They were uncertain how to negotiate expectations with teachers as they planned and taught cooperatively; standards for student work were especially difficult to agree upon.

The teacher-librarians recognized that, in order to be effective in working with the teachers, they would have to be familiar with the entire school program. During their first year, they expanded their instructional knowledge, getting to know the curriculum requirements for all the grade levels, learning new approaches such as whole language, and learning how to use organizational strategies such as centres and stations within the library program.

Fourth, they realized that both they and the staff with whom they worked would need to continue to learn and to plan together to make the program an effective one for both teachers and students. They realized that long-range planning of the program is essential for the best use of teacher-librarian time as well as for ensuring that all students and teachers have access to the program. They realized that the success of the program is dependent upon teachers learning about and becoming involved in the program. At present, the teachers with whom they work do not have clear expectations for the teacher-librarians and the program; this can be addressed in future through school-based professional development activities.

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While the experiences that this research has explored come from the world of only two novice teacher-librarians, there appear to be embedded in their experiences some issues with broader implications.

  1. Schools and/or districts implementing an instructional program in their school libraries need to recognize and provide for the learning about the program for all those involved in implementing the program, particularly classroom teachers and administrators who are unfamiliar with the program.

    Meaningful change requires an investment of time. It is not enough to create a new position and make some money available for inservice. The people involved in the new program must be given the time and opportunity to develop and internalize an understanding of the program and the new ways of thinking and doing that the program entails. In the case of the school library program the teachers and the teacher-librarian must learn how to work together in different ways and how to work with their students in new ways. These changes challenge some of our basic assumptions about the nature of teaching (D. Oberg, 1990). The new program also affects the role of the principal. He or she needs to think about how this program fits in with school goals and with other school programs, and what changes in decision-making, budgeting and scheduling are needed to support the progra m (LaRocque & Oberg, in press).

  2. New teacher-librarians need to be aware of how their own experiences as classroom teachers may help and/or hinder them in their new role.

    The transition from teacher to teacher-librarian means that the nature of interactions with colleagues and with students will change. The impact of this will be particularly profound during the first year as the teacher-librarians are trying out new interaction patterns. Giving up the teacher role can be accompanied by feelings of loss, dislocation, and uncertainty. Awareness and acknowledg ement of these feelings will go a long way in helping novice teacher-librarians deal with the challenges of their new role; in fact, such discomfort may be an indication that a real and necessary transformation is occurring. Being able to observe and talk with experienced teacher-librarians can provide both encouragement and affirmation for novice teacher-librarians as they experience this transformation.

  3. Education for teacher-librarianship should not ignore or minimize the real challenges of implementing a program that is new to the school and/or district.

    Clearly, implementation of the school library program involves more than education of the teacher-librarian. However, the academic preparation of teacher-librarians should help them to develop realistic expectations related to program implementation and should prepare them to convey these expectations to their colleagues. This is especially critical in situations where novice teacher-librarians are introducing the program to the school and where neither they nor their colleagues have had practical experience with the program. They will be developing their own understanding of the program at the same time as they are helping other staff members learn about it. This can be an exciting and rewarding experience but it is demanding of staff time, effort, and commitment.

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Impact of the Research Project

The impact of research often seems very indirect and long term to researchers as well as to practitioners. However, the research process and the research findings, in this case, have made an immediate and very real impact.

The novice teacher-librarians have benefited from analyzing and reflecting upon their practice through the interview process. They have been able to use their new understandings by making changes in the ways that they way they carry out and continue to learn about their role as teacher-librarians. For example, as mentioned earlier, both have begun to access opportunities for continued learning through the workshops and networks of the local school library community. In addition and most importantly, they are beginning to communicate their role more effectively to the principals and teachers with whom they work.

Another immediate effect of this study has been major changes in the teaching of two courses taught at the University of Alberta, related to the implementation of the instructional aspect of school library programs. There has been more emphasis on providing students with a clearer understanding of the complexities of implementing school library programs. This understanding is developed by analyzing the school library program as a multi-faceted innovation that involves significant changes in the ways we have traditionally organized and thought about teaching and learning. Practical experience is provided in cooperative planning of resource-based units and school-wide program guides. Because the development of effective school library programs continues to be heavily dependent on the expertise of teacher-librarians, developing self-knowledge is an important theme of both the courses. Through journal writing, self-analysis activities, and collaborative assignments, students are encouraged to identify and develop the qualities and skills that will be important in order to meet and manage the challenges of implementing the kind of school library program envisioned by Alberta Education policy and the Focus on Learning model.

The researchers are continuing to follow the two teacher-librarians into their second and third years of 'learning to be a teacher-librarian' and will use this three-year study as a basis for developing further research projects. Through the study, for example, questions have arisen related to the role of the principal in supporting the school library program and to the effect of school norms on the work of the teacher-librarian.

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Alberta Education. Focus on Learning: An Integrated Program Model for Alberta School Libraries. Edmonton, AB: Author, 1985.

Canadian School Library Association. Guidelines for Effective School Library Programs: Rationale. School Libraries in Canada 8, no. 4 (Summer, 1988), 30.

Haycock, Ken. The Role of the School Librarian as Professional Teacher: A Position Paper. Emergency Librarian 8, no. 5 (May-June, 1981), 4-11.

Jackson, P. Life in Classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968.

LaRocque, Linda, and Dianne Oberg. Building Bridges Between the Library and the Principal's Office. The Canadian School Executive (in press).

Leithwood, K. A., and R. A. MacDonald. Reasons Given by Teachers for Their Curriculum Choices. Canadian Journal of Education 6, no. 1 (1981), 103-116.

Lieberman, Ann, and Lynne Miller. Teachers, Their World, and Their Work: Implications for School Improvement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Improvement, 1984.

Lortie, D. Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Oberg, Antoinette. The School Librarian and the Classroom Teacher: Partners in Curriculum Planning. Emergency Librarian 14, no. 1 (September-October, 1986), 9-14.

Oberg, Dianne. The School Library Program and the Culture of the School. Emergency Librarian 18, no. 1, (September-October, 1990), 9-16.
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This article was printed in 1992 in the Annual Conference of the International Association of School Librarianship, Everett, W.A.

Permission to place this article on the Internet was given by David Loertscher of the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL) on October 17, 1997.

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