The Onus of Collaboration

We are in the midst of a search for a senior administrator role at my school, and as I crafted my question for our open sessions with the candidates I got to thinking (again) about structures and unspoken norms within school communities. As librarians, it seems like we are always seeking, depending on, and managing collaborations. As an upper school librarian, my ability to get in a classroom requires collaboration. Even programs that are internal to the library cannot wholly thrive without buy-in or collaboration from other parts of the school. Here are my initial thoughts on the systemic ways our upper schools place the onus of collaboration squarely on the shoulders of librarians.

But first, two caveats. While some elements of this may ring true for LS/MS librarians, I cannot speak to that directly, so I am speaking particularly about upper schools. Secondly, what I say herein is about structure. Each of the issues in faculty-librarian collaborations I speak to here are not an issue with faculty, rather about why the expectation of collaboration resides unduly on librarians because of how our schools are set up. I expect we all have some examples of successful, ongoing, meaningful collaborations with exceptional faculty who really “get it.” Which is great. Truly.

And yet, in most upper schools, librarians teach at the invitation of curricular faculty. Our job descriptions all (I suspect) have a key statement along the lines of “support, collaborate, and co-teach with faculty,” a clear expectation that we will be working with faculty on research projects and instilling information literacy in our students through collective work with teachers. Do faculty job descriptions implore them to “collaborate and co-teach with librarians?” Nope. So, if there is no structural support that reinforces collaboration from both parties, is it surprising that the onus of collaboration lies on the librarians?

inequality by Creative Mania from Noun Project (CC BY 3.0)

Because it is part of our jobs, librarians can be evaluated on our collaborations and co-teaching, whether that is by the number of these collaborations or instruction sessions “co-taught” with faculty, or by the depth or impact of such collaboration. But, to what degree can that be a meaningful assessment when there is no equality to the expectation? A teacher may choose not to collaborate with librarians at all for a host of reasons–they feel they have too much content to cover to “give up” a day, they may not recognize that there is a connection between the library and the content or skills they are teaching, they may not have done it in the past and don’t want to do the work to change their course to find the time, or any number of other reasons. And while, sure, a librarian could keep at it with such a teacher, or work to convince them of the IL skills in the class they could help with, or even pitch a lesson idea, the only one invested in making that collaboration work is the librarian. I doubt many faculty have annual goals that mention library co-teaching, but I bet a lot of librarians have goals to work with more departments or improve or expand instructional collaborations.

Even successful collaborations can potentially fall apart from year to year through no fault of the librarian or ill will of the teacher–maybe they got sick and missed a day or two so they bump the library day to catch up, or perhaps changed an assignment that the collaboration was tied to so that the instruction session disappears. Or, a great collaborator teaches a different course, retires, moves to a new school. So now, the librarian has to explain why they have fewer sessions than in the past. Are teachers ever asked why they have failed to co-teach with the librarian?

Let’s also look a bit closer at the idea of co-teaching. According to Wikipedia, co-teaching is “the division of labor between educators to plan, organize, instruct, and make assessments on the same group of students.” When we consider the structure of a school, the “co” is undermined by the fact that one partner has a codified curriculum and one does not. Without IL as a formal curriculum in the school and without the librarian allocated time to teach, the underlying power dynamic will always disadvantage the librarian in collaborations and co-teaching. Inherently, this amounts to something more akin to librarian as guest-speaker than librarian as co-teacher.

If our schools are earnest about library collaborations and co-teaching, administrators need to distribute the onus of those collaborations between librarians and our faculty collaborators in a systematic way. If we are meant to develop information literacy skills in our students through faculty collaborations then we need to have school structures that support clear scope and sequence of IL curriculum as well as time to do that teaching. And, we need to be supported in creating and implementing assessment of that learning as well as the collaborations themselves. Then, when librarians and faculty come together to collaborate on a research project, or to plan to co-teach, it might look a lot more like sharing.

partnership by Gargantia from Noun Project (CC BY 3.0)

2 thoughts on “The Onus of Collaboration

  1. Stephanie–Thank you for this. I really appreciate your points about being a “guest” and power dynamics. Even creating tangible IL curriculum doesn’t guarantee collaborations. While in Library School, working to be a School Librarian, I was required to create lessons that connected to departmental standards. I often wonder if Ed School programs are requiring their aspiring teachers to create lessons that include collaborations with libraries/librarians or even IL standards.

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