L.A. Unified’s librarians on trial
Soon after I became a school librarian, a teacher came to me about Mario, an eighth-grader who had never read an entire book. Mario struggled to read at all, and English was not his first language, but he was a bright kid whose teacher believed in him. I recommended a short, funny, mysterious book that appeals to reluctant boy readers. Mario took it home, read it in a week and came back with his friends in tow to check out the remaining titles in the series.
When he was ready to tackle more challenging content, I started him listening to audiobooks while following along in the text, a strategy helpful for building fluency and comprehension. Mario would come to the library even when his track was on vacation, and he’d sit for hours, headphones on, reading. Soon, he was able to transition into reading the books on his own. By the end of that one school year, Mario had read 42 books, exceeding the goal set by the state of California for eighth-graders. He was ready for high school.
Kids like Mario are the reason I made the transition five years ago from classroom teacher to teacher-librarian. That decision has now put me at high risk of losing my job.
Like dozens of other teacher-librarians in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I have received a “reduction in force,” or RIF, notice warning me that because of budget cuts, I may not be hired back next year. I have been a teacher with LAUSD for nearly 11 years, which should put me beyond the reach of the layoff notices, but the district is seriously considering eliminating teacher-librarians at more than 80 schools. Even those of us with years or even decades of classroom teaching experience have been told that that doesn’t matter. If we have been librarians for five years or more, we are assumed to be no longer capable of handling a classroom, so giving up our libraries and returning to the classroom is not a likely option.
The district doesn’t seem to understand that the reason we spent long hours pursuing advanced degrees at night and during vacations was that we had all seen firsthand that being a teacher-librarian required teaching skills of an extremely high level.
When I taught seventh-grade English, I saw how critical it was that my students read. Those who loved books and read a lot found school easier and were more successful. I didn’t fully understand, though, until a school librarian taught me, that I could help the students who didn’t like reading become readers. By reading what my students read, I could learn what they liked and show them how to find other books they would like. I could create lovers of literature.
I soon got into the habit of, whenever I felt in over my head, turning to the school librarian for help. I once taught a class of highly gifted students whose curiosity and abilities stretched my limits as an educator. Our school librarian suggested reading with them a memoir called “Finding Fish,” the story of a boy who overcomes insurmountable obstacles to create the life he wanted for himself. As we read this powerful book, we worked with the teacher-librarian to explore the social issues and ethics raised by the story. Then students crafted their own memoirs.
That experience and others like it demonstrated to me that a school librarian performs the toughest, and most crucial, kind of teaching. Seeing it done well inspired me. Ultimately I returned to school to earn a library media services credential and a master’s degree.
I have never regretted the decision — until now. I believe I have the best job on campus, though by no means the easiest. School librarians sprint all day, trying to meet the needs of an entire school community. I help one child find information about shipwrecks, the next about electric eels. Teachers come to me for help in planning lessons. At night I read, looking for books that might light up a lonely kid who desperately wants friends, or an angry child facing difficult circumstances, or the voracious reader who has already zipped through most of the library’s fiction. It is wonderfully exhausting.
Sometime soon, I may be called for a hearing in the basement of a downtown building, where RIFed educators have been fighting for their jobs in recent weeks. I have listened as other teacher-librarians have endured demeaning questions from school district attorneys, and I wonder how it has come to this.
The basic question being asked is whether highly trained and experienced teacher-librarians are fit for the classroom. LAUSD’s lawyers seem determined to prove they are not. One librarian, who would like to go back to an elementary classroom if her library is closed, was asked to recite the physical education standards for second-graders, as if failing to do so would mean she was unfit. Another teacher, who wants to return to teaching English, noted that she spent all day in the library effectively teaching English. But her inquisitor quickly started asking questions about the Dewey Decimal System, suggesting that since it involved more math than English, the teacher was no longer practiced in the art of teaching English.
This week, Gov. Jerry Brown said he will direct some of the state’s unexpected revenue windfall to public schools. Perhaps that will help. If things continue in the direction they seem to be headed, however, 87 teacher-librarians will be forced to leave LAUSD. The libraries at their schools will be closed, and many of the district’s finest teachers will no longer be serving children who need them.
Is that any way to run a school district?
Nora Murphy is the teacher-librarian at Los Angeles Academy Middle School.
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