Faculty Column: Dr. Mary Frances Zilonis, Director of the Simmons GSLIS School Library Teacher Program

Thumbnail image for Franzilonisphoto.jpg"We have more jobs than students to fill them. There are currently 31 school library positions in the state that I did not have anyone to send to for an interview," said Dr. Mary Frances Zilonis, Professor of Practice and Director of the Simmons GSLIS School Library Teacher Program (SLTP), about school library teacher vacancies. After receiving distinction as one of the top ten leading school library programs in the 2013 U.S. News and World Report rankings, the SLTP's award-winning faculty, comprehensive network, practical curriculum, and community are all part of  "a ladder for students to achieve success," stated Zilonis. Since Zilonis became director of the GSLIS SLTP in 2010, 100% of the students seeking employment after graduation have secured school library jobs.

Statistics support Zilonis' findings that school library teachers are in demand. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics, elementary and secondary schools employed the largest percentage (35%) of librarians, who held 156,000 jobs in 2010.  As a family-friendly career, the school library teacher position offers opportunities for growth and challenge. Empowering Learners: Guidelines for School Media Programs outlines the six roles of a library teacher's job: leader, instructional partner, information specialist, teacher, program administrator, and technology leader. Zilonis believes today's innovative technology allows school librarians to envision new opportunities, such as the creation of maker spaces, as well as to develop the vision for K-12 online education, which will include how Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are incorporated into learning. To accommodate these developments, Zilonis advocates that every school should have a virtual library, such as the one found at Waltham High School.

With more than 30 years of experience, Zilonis displays all the hallmarks of a great teacher as she carefully outlines a detailed strategy to keep the Simmons GSLIS's SLTP ranking as one of the best school library programs in the nation. She also ensures that employers seek out Simmons GSLIS graduates. To maintain Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education accreditation standards, the SLTP courses require frequent updates to keep up with ongoing changes and trends, such as incorporating sheltered-English immersion content. The SLTP is also adding the new LIS 532H School Library Programs and Services course in Spring 2014. The class will focus on school program development, including how to integrate new technologies to enhance educational curriculums. Using innovative tools such as the iBook app, students create an e-book, publish it to a site, and enable others to access their works.

"Classroom teachers are excited about how such developments can stimulate a love of learning," says Zilonis. In addition, she has recruited recognized leaders, such as Susan Ballard, the past president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), and award-winning instructors, such as Linda Braun, to teach and share their expertise with Simmons GSLIS students.

The SLTP is an excellent model for other educational tracks. "Our curriculum provides the skills needed to get jobs. Our students show rather than tell school administrators what they can do," says Zilonis. The practicum component places students in realistic elementary and secondary school situations.

Beyond the classroom, the SLTP offers a comprehensive network of GSLIS alumni and association member partners, such as the Massachusetts School Library Association, which builds a community of support for students. About 70 GSLIS students are currently enrolled in the program and are encouraged to attend a variety of school-sponsored events, such as a pizza party in September, as well as conferences. A fall career meeting recruits previous May graduates to talk about the job-hunting process. The spring conference usually has at least 50 school library teachers and leaders in attendance, some of whom give presentations about innovations in the field, and offer a networking opportunity for students to find sites for their practicum experiences.

Two student scholarships are offered every May allowing students to attend either the bi-annual AASL conference or the MassCue (Massachusetts Computer Using Educators) instructional technology conference, earned when a student wins GSLIS essay contest in April. Simmons SLTP students are involved in the Massachusetts School Library Association's Special Interest Group, in which they are able to assume leadership roles on campus. Another program staple is the Simmons GSLIS's School Library Teacher Program Handbook, which outlines the program's expectations and provides useful career tools for students. The handbook was recognized as a guide "that every school in the Commonwealth should have," according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.   

The admissions process for the Simmons GSLIS SLTP may seem daunting with the addition of an interview with Zilonis, who also conducts interviews with students after they are accepted into the program to discuss job expectations. [Addendum: Interviews are no longer required for admissions to the School Library Teacher Program, June 2014]. The interview provides information and possible guidance to students as they develop their goals.  "Wanting your summers off is not a reason to become a teacher. Beyond grades and experience, I'm looking for students who are passionate and committed to educating children. One has to want to work with every teacher, student, administrator, and parent associated with the school. Having dedicated professionals in the field who are willing to become indispensable educational partners is essential to continuing the legacy of school libraries," says Zilonis.  

The SLTP may appear to be more work than other Simmons GSLIS tracks as a passing score on the Communication and Literacy Skills reading subtest and the Communication and Literacy Skills writing subtest of the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) exam is required of all SLTP students. However, Zilonis assures, "A 5th-grade grammar book is the study guide for the MTEL Communication and Literacy Skills subtests." Candidates taking these two subtests are asked to demonstrate that they have the basic communication and literacy skills necessary to communicate and write effectively.  Since these skills are taught in elementary and high school and reinforced through early college composition courses, candidates are asked to provide evidence that they have passed both of these subtests as a criterion for the practicum application process. There is no subject or content test for school library teachers to take. The PRAXIS licensure test is recommended for those seeking to teach outside Massachusetts.

While it is best to know sooner rather than later whether you want to participate in the SLTP, the decision to switch tracks is always an option for students who are currently enrolled in a Simmons GSLIS master's degree program. For example, if a student has already taken LIS 407 Reference/Information Services and decides to pursue later the SLTP track, the 25-hour practicum required for SLTP can be conducted at another time during the program without the students' having to pay  extra fees for the course. Dr. Zilonis is the advisor for this requirement. Simmons graduates can also participate in the post-master's SLTP and receive a 50% tuition discount.

The Simmons GSLIS post-master's programs also enable school library teachers to increase their marketability in the workplace. The Instructional Technology Licensure post-master's certificate is an online, four-course program that prepares school library teachers for instructional technology roles in Massachusetts; reciprocity with other states may be available depending on other state requirements. Simmons graduates receive a 45% tuition discount on the post-master's Instructional Technology licensure program.

When she's not teaching courses and managing the SLTP, Zilonis has supervised doctoral dissertations, including Harriet Wallen's Teachers' Perceptions and the Evolving School Library Program: A Case Study and Action Research. In addition, she gave a presentation in August entitled, "The Evolving Role of School Libraries," which included information about maker spaces, such as Google Maker Camp, to administrators, teachers, and school library teachers in the Winchester school district. She plans to hold a series of classes that will guide school librarians to think about how they can integrate maker spaces into their schools. "The school library is the perfect place to provide hands-on experiential opportunities that allow children to move beyond rote memorization. School libraries enable them to become experts by allowing them to apply information to 'create knowledge,'" said Zilonis. She will also be partnering with Chris Swerling, who is an adjunct GSLIS Professor and teaches LIS 431 Instructional Strategies, to deliver two presentations, "Go for the Grant! Creativity, Collaboration, and Professional Development," and "Be Smart and Take Action!: Using Your Educator Plan Goal for Action Research" at the American Association of School Librarians Conference, on November 13-17 in Hartford, Connecticut.

"Research on free voluntary reading has shown that children are intrinsically motivated to read and  develop their reading ability and comprehension when they can choose from a broad array of appropriate books in fiction and non-fiction and are provided with support. Books and reading are important, but they are only one part of the job. School librarians teach students to love to read, which is necessary for students to become effective learners," said Zilonis.

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer


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