Saturday, February 20, 2010

Media Center Survivor!

Oh what trying times are these. The economic news is bad and badder, and if you're like me, you're just holding your breath, hoping that we can hold the line, and nervously wondering about the impact on the hard-working school librarians in North Carolina and across the United States. Advocacy, ubiquitous as the phrase has become these days, doesn't seem like a big enough strategy to shield us from the shifting political realities and economic downtime we live in.

In January 2010, East Carolina University held their annual Librarian2Librarian Networking Summit and as NCSLMA President, I was invited to join other distinguished NC library leaders to talk about surviving in the lean times. The theme for the Summit was Media Center Survivor and here are my comments from that panel discussion.

Who knew that all the hours I spent watching reality TV would pay off one day? With homage (and apologies) to the good people of Survivor, here's my take on how to be the player that can "outwit, outplay, and outlast" in the game of Media Center Survivor. Whether you're dropped off in the wilderness of the Australian Outback, Samoa, Kenya, or say, Greenville or Raleigh... what are the top ten strategies of the ultimate survivor? Here's what my viewing experience tells me...

10. Create alliances
Think strategically about whom might be a good ally. Consider: who are all the stakeholders for the library program and how can I cultivate their support? What's in it for them for my program to flourish? Who can I go to for information, help, or support when I feel that my program's status is in danger? Remember that you can find allies in surprising places and that your allies can come from different tribes, like students, parents, community members, administrators, and school board members, (as well as from our own friendly tribe of library peers).

9. Know how to start a fire, read a map, and build a shelter
Make sure your basic skills are sharp so that you are seen as a contender and can hold your own back at camp. Better yet, stay abreast of new information, resources & tools; take advantage of opportunities to develop professionally; learn new skills and teach others. Joyce Valenza, a player that I'd love to have in my tribe, has blogged about "how to retool yourself ...a roadmap of at least 14 ways" to develop professionally. Best of all, a lot of the professional development resources she recommends are ready-made and easy to use. Who doesn't love Common Craft videos, Teacher Tube, bookmark sharing sites like Diigo, ALA toolkits,and much more? As Summit attendees giving up your Saturday to be here today, I'd say that this group has a head start on surviving under tough conditions!

8. Work hard around camp, learn to speak the native language, and be a stand-out performer at immunity challenges
Work hard and let your efforts be visible; when there's too much to do, as there often is, set priorities & focus on the most important things. Do the essential things that benefit your entire tribe in an immunity challenge.
As for communicating with the natives, make sure you speak their language. Translate our unique language about concepts like information literacy and make it meaningful to the players outside the school library tribe. Initiate conversations with other tribes about assessment and data -- then use that data to inform your collaborative planning. Demonstrate that you can (and DO) make a difference in student learning and you can help your tribe win immunity.

7. Know when to speak up at tribal council
First of all, make sure that you have a seat at the council... serve on the School Improvement Team, the Leadership Team, Curriculum Committees, district-wide task forces, etc. If you're not chosen or elected to serve on one of these committees, ask to attend anyway and offer your ideas. In his Blue Skunk blog, Doug Johnson, another great survivor, has posted a series of entries about leading and managing the library program in lean times. He makes the important point that "if you have a chance to take a decision-making role and do not, then you've lost all your whining rights about the choices that are made for you". Don't sit on your hands, and don't get voted out with the immunity idol in your pocket. You must take advantage of opportunities to speak out for your program at Tribal Council!

6. Be the strongest player
The strongest player in every tribe has a variety of talents and excels in nearly every area. The strongest player also possesses deeply-felt convictions, a vision for the future, and a belief in their ability to succeed. So, be the strongest. Maintain a strong skill set by keeping up with the pace of change in the world around us; look to peers that have strengths you need and learn from them; share what you know with other teachers, and NEVER stop learning. Do you have a personal learning network? Are you exploring and using social media like Twitter, nings, or Facebook to develop new professional relationships, skills, and knowledge?

5. Never go fishing, swimming, eating, or bathing alone
...because you don't know who or what they're talking about back at camp! What's more, some of the most valuable information and alliances are built on shared experiences. Cultivate personal relationships with staff in your building, at the local public and college libraries, and with other school media peers in your district, region, and state. Join your professional organizations and be an active member. Develop a personal strategy for advocacy and be ready with an elevator speech about your library program. Don't be afraid to share ideas and strategies with others in our profession. Back at your own camp, make sure that your space exudes warmth and welcome: keep a jar full of chocolate in your workroom and share it with other teachers; look for reasons and opportunities to communicate with parents and engage in two-way conversation often; use your technology skills to connect in more than one way. Bottom line -- don't go it alone! Pursue relationships with others... don't wait for them to come looking for you in the library.

4. Hold your nose (if you need to) and find a way to eat the gross stuff
Be a devoted team player, even when the challenges are inconvenient, unpleasant, not part of your usual duties, or involve a disgusting thing to eat. Volunteer and be visible; stay for after school meetings and come back in the evening for report card night, math night, and PTA meetings; get your hands dirty with messy tasks. Join the PTA, serve on their board as a teacher representative, and actively participate in their family events; help to raise funds for other programs at school; and offer your library as a place for meetings
and activities of all kinds. This is all part of creating and maintaining important alliances as well as developing personal relationships with other players. You want to be seen as an indispensable member of the tribe. As Joyce Valenza says, "as schools are making tough budget choices, if the librarians aren't at the center of the school culture, they're on the cutting board."

3. Lead quietly, but lead nonetheless
Don't grandstand, demand, or be seen as a pushy or negative force. Good leaders collaborate, build consensus, make others look good, and develop strength within their own tribe. If you watched last fall's Survivor episodes from Samoa, you know that a very powerful and strategic player lost in the final round to a seemingly lesser tribe member. The reason? Others didn't like his tactics. While his former rivals couldn't defend against his impressive skills and strategy, they wouldn't abide this powerful player's conduct, and it showed when they cast their votes for a winner at the final tribal council. Reflect on your professional practice, embrace your strengths as well as your weaknesses, and use that information to grow into the leader you were meant to be. Use your expertise to stay abreast of legislation that impacts your work, use your technology skills to advocate in a variety of ways, and call on your personal network for advocacy resources and support.

2. When the going gets rough, remember how much you love the small things like your toothbrush, a soft blanket, or a hot shower -
Don't forget the things that make your professional life so special. Appreciate and enjoy the things that brought you to this profession in the first place... working with students, sharing your love of books, the fun of learning with technology, or helping others with problem-solving. Even when times are lean, we can still enjoy these simple pleasures along with the opportunity to be creative in the very best job there is.

However, there may come a time when holding onto the small things isn't enough.
Sometimes when conditions warrant, players make a bold move to improve their standing in the game. In a state where site-based management is the norm, advocacy has to happen in your own local camp. The host of Survivor can't make the case for your program. Only you can do this. If or when advocacy falls short of your hopes, then swapping tribes, or making a change to a different school or district can bring new opportunities, recharge your professional engine, and give you new chances for staying in the game you love. From my own experience I have found that what is lean in one place may not be as lean in another. Different tribes organize in unique ways and value different skills and attributes. So, don't be afraid to explore your options and make a bold move if the time is right. And finally . . .

1. The challenges are different every week -
One week the challenge is swimming and the next week it involves solving puzzles. Then it's on to launching coconuts at a target, followed by balancing on a moving platform. The best players prepare and step up to these challenges. They practice, take advantage of opportunities, and they don't give up. They dig deep because they know how important it is to win immunity. Just like in the game of Survivor, our challenges are different every week too. To stay in the game we need to be nimble, courageous, balanced, skilled, and flexible -- change is the only thing that stays the same!

In the game of Survivor, fire represents life. If your fire goes out at camp, you're cold and miserable without a way to cook food or purify water. At tribal council, when your torch goes out, you're out of the game and out of the money. In the library game of Survivor, your personal fire is just as important. Don't let others extinguish yours and don't neglect your own flame -- keep your personal passion for the work you love burning strong.

So, who knew that reality TV could be so helpful? Now, if only we could take home that million dollars... just imagine what we could do in our school libraries?!

Remarks by Kelly Brannock, presented at the ECU Librarian2Librarian Networking Summit on January 9, 2010.


  1. Although I have never seen Survivor (I know!) I couldn't agree more with your assertions. We need to be developing a brand for ourselves, our libraries and the services we provide. And then we need to market! market! market! Surviving in today's world takes more than just skills and abilities. It takes a strategy!

  2. Media Coordinators in NC wishing to take advantage of exactly the things you are talking about need to do some looking at the new Essential Standards in the English Curriculum as well as their own in Information Skills / Technology. There is an easy tie-in teaching use of materials whether in research or in pleasure reading within those standards.
    I also think you make some great points about how to make sure we are seen as necessary to the functioning of the school as a whole, not merely "our program." "Programs" are being looked at closely in order to avoid dealing with RIF policies and tenure. Those seen as important, but not necessary to the overall functionality of the school may well be facing some tough situations. It's better to be essential to the overall organization than irreplaceable in your field. Sometimes being irreplaceable simply means that since they can't replace you, they won't. It doesn't mean you won't be let go. After all, it doesn't matter how important we think we are, it matter how essential other's understand we are. Thanks for posting this thought provoking insight.