Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Squeezed teachers; frustrated librarians

As a public librarian, I feel that teachers are my sisters and brothers.  The education and nurturing of our community's children is our mission; we are guided by often missionary zeal to empower kids with the knowledge and understanding they'll need for the rest of their lives.

As a proud member of the Librarians' Guild (ASFCME Local 2626), I understand the importance of a strong union, and I sympathize with the fears teachers have when faced with new and complicated ways of evaluating performance, such as the value-added analysis suggested by the LA Times last year.

And yet, as a parent with two kids who have spent over 2 dozen years between them in public schools and as a librarian who has walked into hundreds of classrooms over the last couple decades, I know that there are teachers in classrooms who should not be teaching.  Not only do their students not learn much, but in one year, they can negate much of the love of learning that a child might have brought to their classroom at the beginning of the school year.

Most teachers care deeply and want to be as effective as possible.  Most teachers would love to get rid of the bad eggs who are currently protected by contracts and rules.  But it's going to take some guts.  Not only will teachers have to buck their own unions, but they will have to be willing to be evaluated by new and unfamiliar methods, and they may be dismayed by the results.

Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa, in his 2011 State of the City address today, declared education the focus of his last two years in office.  He decried the fact that CA is 47th in per capita student spending and he asked teachers to take hard but necessary risks when it comes to evaluation, saying "We can fulfill the promise of public education by agreeing to a new contract with ourselves - a promise to put aside the concerns of a few adults in the interests of all children."  The Mayor has no direct authority over LAUSD, but he does have influence over the school board, so his call for reform isn't entirely empty.  However, the bigger problem is LAUSD's massive budget crisis, which matches the City's in size and horror.  How that will be solved, I can't imagine.

Teachers are being squished from all sides - even when they aren't being laid off, their schools don't have enough money; they are considered public enemies #1 for their pensions and their balky unions; and their jobs are challenging enough as it is.

Librarians know teachers are super-busy.  They don't have time to keep up with all the new books coming out, nor do they know all the resources public librarians have to offer.  The challenge is getting the message about these resources to the teachers, schools, and district.  Seems easy enough?  Sure, teacher by teacher, and even school by school if the principal is extremely excellent and proactive (which is not so easy to find).

But district-wide?  LAUSD has over 1,000 schools and almost 700,000 students!  The administrative bureaucracy is vast and labyrinthine.  Administrators don't return emails or phone calls.  There is often little communication between departments.  If there is a good way to give concise, crucial information on library services to top administration and have it trickle and spread down to all layers and schools and teachers and students in the district, I haven't discovered it.

So our branch librarians keep making contact with their local teachers and schools, one at a time, and I chip away at the district from the sides, sending emails, making calls, and giving presentations to whomever will take me - LA's Best, Beyond the Bell, smaller regions within the District, and so on. But it's inefficient, time-consuming, and frustrating.

John Deasy is taking over from Ramon Cortines as LAUSD Superintendent this Monday.  He's in favor of reform.  I hope he's in favor of information and communication as well, because if he's ready to listen, we have a lot to tell him about how public libraries can help LAUSD students and teachers.

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