If the classroom teacher is the ‘school parent’, then the teacher librarian is an aunty. They are a caring, supportive presence in a child’s life. A person with responsibility and a high level of investment in the child, who are a central part of the safety net all kids need from time to time.
Every young person needs a variety of adults to serve as role models. The most obvious are parents who interact with a child daily, offering examples of how to love, care, work, cope, persist – the list goes on. As children grow, they naturally begin to look elsewhere. They have seen how their parents approach life, their successes and failures, and want to see how others are managing.
An aunty or uncle is well-placed to be such a role model. They occupy a special social space between parent and peer. One of Australia’s leading family psychologists, Steve Biddulph, has written about the need girls and boys have for role models such as an aunty (Biddulph,2017) or uncle-figure (Biddulph,2007).
They have an important positive influence on the wellbeing of children, especially during adolescence, and are a significant member of a young person’s support team, especially when relationships with parents or peers are strained. Many school children have a tendency (mostly subconsciously), to treat their classroom teacher as their ‘school parent’. I’ve heard of so many instances of a child calling their teacher ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ that it must almost be a daily occurrence. While potentially embarrassing for the child, it shows the strong connection between learning, teaching, caring and nurturing.
My suggestion is that if the classroom teacher is likened to a ‘school parent’ then the teacher librarian should be likened to a ‘school aunty’ (given that “over 80 per cent of teachers in a library role are female” (Mitchell & Weldon,2016). I’m going to utilise the female pronouns and roles). She is removed from the classroom and usually located in a different space that is welcoming, less structured, yet ordered. She is not responsible for the day-to-classwork responsibilities and (usually) doesn’t assess performance or assign work. She can be more adaptive to students’ interests, preferences, and needs. The main part of her job is to understand the information needs of your child and find ways to help meet those needs. She is a problem solver, a ‘sense maker’(Lehman,2018), who helps your child engage, interpret and connect with the world around them.
In an article about care-based policies and practices, Meghan Harper(2017) writes about the positive influence teacher librarians can have on students and a school community. She points out that there is strong evidence for the positive impact of a qualified teacher librarian on academic outcomes. She then goes on to discuss “how a school librarian positively affects students’ feelings of being cared for…[and] aid[s] them in coping with stressful or painful situations” (Harper,2017, p. 41).
Our teenagers are facing enormous challenges that prior generations never faced and thus are challenged to help with. The rising tide of mental health illness is beginning to seem like a tidal wave. And while one teacher librarian can’t stop that tide, she has a huge influence and can be “the non-threatening, safe adult with whom students converse and confide in when they are struggling with day-to-day challenges of growing up” (Harper,2017, p. 43) just like an attentive, invested, enthusiastic aunty.
An aunty is someone a child or teen can go to when parents can’t (or neglect to) provide the direction and guidance needed. If parents drop the ball (which, let’s be honest, we all do from time to time!) on important discussions like puberty, relationships or careers, an aunty is well placed to sub in and keep the ball in play. Similarly, a teacher librarian is especially well placed to connect students with the materials and compassion that could assist them with their struggles. Whether by helping them wade through the avalanche of information available to locate credible sources or by encouraging healing, understanding and joy through bibliotherapeutic reading (Merger,2020). She might see a gap that the classroom teacher doesn’t and has the authority and ability to fill it.
My kids have nine loving aunties who are involved in their lives, and I couldn’t imagine parenting in today’s world without them. They are a backup crew, a safety net, the last line of defence, ready for when my kids need them. Hopefully, this analogy of an aunty teacher librarian serves to help parents, classroom teachers, principals and other decision makers see how valuable a resource a teacher librarian, or a team of them, is for their school community. The problem is that most schools in Australia do not have qualified teacher librarians, and most parents assume they do. Is your child’s school library all that it can and should be?
Cherie Bell is a mother of four and a member of the leadership team for the Students Need School Libraries campaign.