Classroom Perspectives, Reading and Literacy, Special Education

Collaborating in a School With No Library

Collaborating in a School With No Library

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2019 Issue

By Lisa Gay-Milliken

Do you remember the first time you entered the school library as a child? I do. There were books everywhere. The librarian told me that I could borrow any of the books and take them home. Amazing! This excitement continued throughout the years. I couldn’t wait for book fairs. I joined the audio-visual club. I still was able to check out as many books as I wanted.

Fast-forward 16 years later. I accepted my first teaching position. I was a special education teacher in a public high school and there was a beautiful school library. The librarian, Cleo, was remarkable. I fondly remember her creating a special bookshelf for my students who were significantly challenged, to assist them in finding books easily. It was a rewarding 15 years with Cleo; therefore, I assumed that all students and teachers have similar experiences. Unfortunately, I was wrong. There is no library in my current school.

Today, I work in a private day school in Virginia. Special education students who are not successful in their home school, due to challenging behaviors, come to us by way of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) team decision. The students are still “owned” by the public school yet are unwanted in regular schools.

In private, specialized day schools, we open the door to academic success by focusing on new ways of interacting with students and teachers. The challenge is to make learning fun again while acquiring the skills to deal with any behavior that holds students back from attending a public school. The ultimate goal is always to get the student back to their home school as soon as possible.

We are constantly communicating and collaborating with the public school special education teachers and case managers. The funding is limited in a private day school, which is why there are no libraries in our school buildings. We have a room with some books that have been donated by the local Moose Lodge and Ruritan club (local organizations that do charity work), but that it is not enough. Private day school students need and deserve a library as much as their peers. So, why are we not using the public school library and collaborating with the librarian?

Barriers to Collaboration


Recently, I went back to school to earn my school librarian endorsement; therefore, the topic of collaboration resurfaced for me. I found myself seriously considering the reason for this forgotten private-public collaboration with a public school librarian. Some potential barriers:

  • Travel time could certainly be a problem. A private day school is in a separate building. The school accepts students from surrounding cities and counties. Several students are on the school bus for well over an hour.
  • Whether it is the public school librarian traveling to the private school or the students being transported to the public school, transportation could be costly.
  • The students in the school may have challenging behaviors. Perhaps these behaviors are remembered and there is a reluctance to allow the student back in the school library?
  • School administration is not supportive of the collaboration.
  • Lack of technology to support virtual collaboration.

Breaking Through the Barriers

Regardless of the reason, it is a forgotten collaboration for school librarians. It might represent an opportunity that most librarians do not even know exists. Libraries make learning fun! Reluctant students need learning to be fun. The students in private, day, specialized education facilities are all reluctant learners and will certainly benefit from collaboration between special education teachers and the public school librarian. Here are some ideas to help get the conversation started:

  • Run a brief training session for private day educators on how to access and use the public school’s online library catalog. Get permission for students to access it just as they would if they were attending the public school.
  • Become a traveling librarian. Collaborate with the private day educator. Load a bunch of books, related to the students’ interests, on a cart and take them to the private school for students to check out.
  • Curate various e-books and teach the private day teachers/students how to access them.
  • Invite the private day students to your makerspace, your book fair, or any event that you have for general education students.
  • Collaborate with private day teachers as you would with the public school teachers. Ask your principal for permission to visit the private school to co-teach a lesson with one of the teachers.
  • Create a pathfinder for the private day teacher. For example, a teacher may have a 4th grade student in the elementary classroom. Create a 4th grade pathfinder (a collection of information sources to help students begin their research) about weather for the science SOLs and send the link to them.
  • Skype in so the class can see you on the interactive whiteboard and lead a literature circle discussion about a book they’ve read.
  • Private day teachers work with the public library in the community to offer benefits to students similar to the school library.

Time remains a challenge for all librarians. Adding more teachers and students who are not located on the school campus might seem to be too much. But it is important to remember these students will be returning to the public school and to your library. Why not work hard now to build positive relationships with them? The benefits will go a long, long way.

Lisa Gay-Milliken taught high school special education in Bridgewater, Virginia for 16 years. Currently, she is an administrator in a private day school for students with disabilities and a graduate student in the School Library Program at Old Dominion University. She has a B.A. in Special Education and an M.Ed. in Special Education and Education Administration.