Making time to support literacy in a crowded role: teacher librarians leading reading engagement in schools

The complexity of the current teacher librarian role is amazing.  
Teacher librarians
More demanded from teacher librarians

When I visited 30 school libraries in 2018 as part of a research project that looked at school libraries as a literacy resource, I was amazed by the complexity of the current teacher librarian role.  

I was already familiar with the evidence guides for teacher librarians which highlight some of the diverse facets of the role. However when I spoke to teacher librarians about what they do as part of their regular routine, it became clear that you have a chameleon-like role to play in your schools. While this enables you to meet many of your school’s needs, I was concerned that it could be hard for you to have time to support literacy learning given the challenges you face

I also wondered about how schools see what you do, and how they envision your literacy educator role. In 2020 I decided to analyse job description documents from recent job advertisements for the teacher librarian role. These were collected from most of the states and territories of Australia. This could give insights into what schools currently expect from you. If you are interested in how this compares with what is expected of UK school librarians, you might also want to look at this paper. 

Schools expect a lot from you
You are not imagining it; you are probably overloaded. I found that schools expect a lot from you, and that teacher librarians are required to have expertise across a wide range of areas.  

All job descriptions expected that teacher librarians played a significant role in teaching and facilitating learning. This really highlighted that the “teacher” part of the teacher librarian role is the most consistent expectation, and therefore the role cannot be substituted by someone without a teaching qualification. This point is relevant in light of the recent ACER report that notes that only 23% of school libraries in South Australian are led by a qualified teacher librarian.  

There were also many other frequently occurring expectations, with most (more than 50%) expecting that in addition to teaching, teacher librarians do the following: 

  • Show collaboration and teamwork
  • Perform collection and resource building and provision
  • Support literacy education
  • Support information skills in staff and students
  • Create a positive library and learning environment
  • Have excellent communication and interpersonal skills
  • Perform diverse administration and day-to-day tasks
  • Create events and displays
  • Take on delegated and unspecified responsibilities
  • Play a key role in curriculum development and knowledge
  • Facilitate professional development of self and others
  • Have the required qualifications, memberships and registrations
  • Support the school ethos
  • Teach library systems skills and manage the library
  • Provide ICT support for staff and students
  • Take on co-curricular and extra-curricular responsibilities
  • Ensure child safety and wellbeing
  • Maintain and advance personal ICT skills
  • Adhere to and implement policies. (Adapted from Merga, 2020)

There were also many other common roles, responsibilities and characteristics that featured at less that 50% of schools but were still often required.  

Considering that teacher librarians might need to rapidly switch from offering complex literacy support for a dyslexic student, to troubleshooting an issue with a student iPad application, to teaching a session for staff or students on correct referencing and plagiarism, and it is easy to see why the role could be termed as dizzying.  

The sheer breadth of expertise demanded needs to be examined and admired, but also problematised, as maintaining expertise across all of these areas seems to be an almost impossible prospect. 

How schools view you as a literacy educator
As a literacy researcher, I was also very interested in further unpacking what schools want from you as a literacy educator. The literacy supportive aspect of the teacher librarian role is very important given the importance of literacy for student achievement, and the challenges classroom teachers face in meeting the needs of struggling literacy learners. Now more than ever schools need the additional literacy support and expertise that teacher librarians bring in their roles. 

I found that you were expected to do the following: 

  • Provide and devise teaching for reading engagement and literacy
  • Promote reading and literature
  • Support student choice of reading materials
  • Have strong collection knowledge and collection building and curation skills
  • Foster and maintain a school culture that promotes reading and literature
  • Provide an environment conducive to reading
  • Model reading engagement and enjoyment. (Adapted from Merga, 2020)

I found it interesting that just the literacy education role has so much complexity within it.  

To achieve these seven expectations within the literacy supportive role alone involves skill in teaching, understanding of how literacy is positioned in the curriculum, and keeping across an ever-evolving body of literature. It involves being able to connect with students so that efforts to promote reading and literature are well-received. It also involves being able to recruit your colleagues as joint advocates for a school reading culture. It also requires sophisticated understanding of how to manage spaces to enable reading, and how to present yourself as a reader in order to model reading for pleasure. I don’t think we should take this important professional contribution lightly; it can make a big difference to student literacy. 

The challenge
The reality is that the literacy educator aspect is not the only part of the role that has a great deal of complexity. For example, “provide ICT support for staff and students” encompassed: 

  • Imbedding ICT across the curriculum.
  • Teaching ICT skills
  • Providing ICT support
  • Training staff in ICT use
  • Remaining knowledgeable of developments in digital information technologies
  • Being proficient in the use of assistive technologies for inclusive education. (Adapted from Merga, 2020)

It can be expected that the already complex role of the teacher librarians will become increasingly more diverse with changes in school requirements and technological advancements.  

It is absolutely essential that teacher librarians make visible what they do so that as this role creep occurs and more and more duties fall under your responsibility, you will have clear grounds to prevent your workload from becoming unmanageable.  

You need to be able to show what will be lost if your time is taken by activities tangential to your role, and therefore redirected away from crucial aspects of your role such as supporting reading engagement and students’ information skills. You will need to explain this to leadership in a way that many respond to; with reference to student learning outcomes and student achievement.  

It is also very clear that to meet current and future challenges in this space, your professional associations and advocacy networks will only grow in their value to you.  

I’d love to meet you at the National Education Summit where I will be opening the Capacity Building School Libraries Conference come along and say Hi!