I received this great e-mail last weekend from my friend and colleague Gary Hartzell, and he has given his kind permission to let it appear on the Blue Skunk. BTW, I consider his book, Building Influence for the School Librarian, as probably the most important book written for our profession. Bar none.
I just read your "Head for the Edge" column in the new issue of "LMC" - page 106, vol. 28, no.1, August/September 2009.
I think you are right on the mark with point #6:
The librarian will always be the sole determining factor of quality of the library program. I’ve yet to see a great program run by a mediocre professional or a good professional that could not make significant improvements under the worst conditions. We are impatient, we hold ourselves to incredibly high standards, and we dream big. Those aren’t bad things, but we also need to remember that our greatest accomplishments are when we improve, even a little, the life of an individual student. Providing that one book that was “just right,” that one piece of illusive information, or that one life-long skill may have longer lasting ramifications than all the formal lessons we’ve planned or taught.
I got into a ripper fight with a consultant ... hired for a project I was invited to work on a couple of years ago. She made the outrageous and completely ignorant statement that the goal was to "institutionalize" a library media program - and that, if you did that successfully, it didn't matter who the librarian was; the program would execute itself. In a less-than-diplomatic moment, I told her that she was feloniously ignorant of the way schools really worked.
The library media program turns on the quality of the librarian, just as the quality of a classroom experience turns on the quality of the teacher. The notion that a curriculum executes itself or that classes are so
intrinsically interesting that it doesn't matter who runs them is more than naive; it is dangerous. No curriculum has life in and of itself - it always requires someone to breathe life into it. And this universal truth
runs into other areas as well. How many conferences have you been to where the topic was vital and the presenter wasn't?
This mistaken belief that teaching or librarianship is formulaic is a cancer in the educational body today. It clear is what is wrong with most history teaching in the U.S. Students find history dull because the people
who teach it are dull - usually tied to sterile textbooks. If students find libraries and information literacy skills boring and irrelevant ("Google will tell me what I need to know") it is because their librarians are boring - and, consequently, make themselves irrelevant.
The life in every bureaucracy is dependent on who occupies the boxes in the organization chart - not how the boxes are arranged - and if schools are nothing else, they are bureaucracies.
I remember one of my great experiences at UCLA when I had a couple of classes with Madeleine Hunter. She was forever touting the steps of her procedure, from setting the scene to closure. I had been in Texas that year - where the legislature had adopted her model as the framework for teacher evaluation. I asked her once - since I was a high school principal at the time - what should I do if I observed a teacher (and this could apply to librarians as well) who had the students' interest and enthusiasm, ran a classroom where good things were happening in the session, and the kids were clearly learning -- but the teacher was not executing all the steps of Madeleine's format. That was when the old girl came through: She looked at me as if I were not quite bright and said, "Gary, you lie. Mark the evaluation sheet with positives and move on to the next classroom." I semi-loved her after that .
You can do a lot of work to enhance and develop the talents and skills that a person brings into the job - but he or she has to bring something into the job. I helped people earn administrative (and even library media administration) credentials and ran the administrative doctoral program at the University of Nebraska for 15 years - and I never "made" an administrator out of anyone. The people who ended up good at what they did "brought their gifts to the party"; all I did was help them develop them.
So that's the end of my rant. I'm going to go back to the beach now.
Keep hammering at the LMC audience.
Gary Hartzell, Professor Emeritus
Department of Educational Administration
University of Nebraska at Omaha
In response to Gary, I wrote:
Of course, the effort to “teacher-proof” the curriculum continues unabated. (Your argument about good teachers who didn’t do Madeline Hunter can be applied to good teachers who don’t use technology as well.) I seriously doubt than many creative teachers in the classroom today would choose teaching as a career were they do to it over. I see SOME charter schools that seem to honor individuality. The irony, I believe, is that when we think back on our “best” teachers, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that they are all idiosyncratic in some way. Personally, I preach subversion to teachers whenever I can.
And Gary replied:
Two quick thoughts:
The first has to do with the irony of it. If you can create a teacher-proof curriculum, why then push to tie teacher performance to teacher pay? If – what’s the phrase? – every student deserves a qualified and quality teacher, how then can any kind of programmed curriculum be sufficient unto itself? This just another example of the cross-currents we have in educational thinking.
Another quick example is that education seems intent on ignoring the research on cultural differences. I don’t mean ethnic cultural differences here – although that may be one piece in the mosaic. I meant organizational cultures; the cultures of schools. Just internally, at the most immediate level, there are profound differences between elementary, middle, and high schools. They differ in goals, objectives, organization, size, structure,
operation, personnel attributes, and student/client attributes. Add to that the attitude differences that come from district level organizational structures. All elementary districts are different from K-12 districts are different from just secondary districts, and all differ from public to private. Beyond – and compounding – all that is the set of differences between schools set in inner city, general urban, suburban, and rural environments. Then add to that all the cultural and physical differences that exist between schools in such disparate areas as Hawaii, Alaska, Utah, Texas, Nebraska, New York, Massachusetts, and Louisiana and Mississippi – and the whole notion that what will work in one school will necessarily work in another crumbles. This takes us back to the quality – sometimes contextually defined (there are great high school teachers who couldn’t last a week in an elementary school and vice versa, for the simplest example) – of
the teacher or librarian in a given context. That’s where your quality is. But educational “authorities” (using the word to mean both academic experts and all levels of government officials) continually ignore the research demonstrating this.
Just madness – and very disheartening.
The second thought is that there is research evidence to support your contention that the quality of a program turns on the quality of the person who runs it. You can find it as far back as Philip Jackson’s 1968 “Looking into Classrooms” and as recently as Richard Nisbetts’s 1009 “Intelligence and How to Get It.” It
seems absurd to me to try to erase the human element from any professional endeavor.
Lots of food for thought in Gary's comments.
So, is it possible to "teacher-proof" or "librarian-proof" a classroom or library? Why do we insist on a cookie-cutter approach to training and expectations? Can kids become creative thinkers and problem-solvers in classrooms with teachers who are discouraged from beng creative problem-solvers themselves?
Oh, yes Angelina does have a Gary Hartzell t-shirt. Can't show her GH tatoo on a family blog though. Sorry.