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BELLTONES: Take Courage! You Can Cope With the Times

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Mar 1, 2012
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Several years ago, I was in London heading up a group of travel study students. A high point of this trip was a day in Stratford-upon-Avon. Passing through an industrial area, I was gazing out the train window when I saw an old brick building that had two words painted on the side in huge letters: TAKE COURAGE. In my mind I made up a scenario where the sign had been put up during World War II to encourage troops traveling by rail. After all, there are reminders of the war everywhere you turn in England.

Well, I was wrong. Turns out it was an ad for a brand of beer called Courage! But I still like the sentiment and wonder if it has affected other travelers. The reason for this little anecdote is to lead into the topic of this column, which is positive responses to today’s hard times in schools and libraries. Many of us have to build up courage in order to get by from day to day with jobs and budgets in peril. We need all the tools we can gather for getting through hard times. Some of these include staying connected, getting involved with activism, nurturing a curious mind, remembering our love of the children, and keeping our sense of humor.

In my previous column, I talked about some practical steps educators can take to help cope with shrinking budgets. This time I want to broaden the topic and talk about how we can use the internet to mitigate negativity resulting from any type of hard times. There are five areas in which I think we can boost our spirits and improve our situations by using technology:

* Connectivity

* Activism/advocacy

* Continuing learning

* Remembering the children

* Maintaining a sense of humor

These factors are interrelated, and separately and in concert they can contribute to getting through our current hard times with positive attitudes and maybe even some positive results.

Stay Connected

Back when I first started my career as a librarian, I heard and then experienced the fact that, unless there are multiple librarians per school campus, librarians are likely to find themselves feeling alone at times. My relationship with fellow teachers was a bit different once I was the one who doled out equipment and scheduled library access. My position required me to sometimes say “no” to requests when items or spaces were already obligated. There was a subtle barrier between me and my classroom-teacher friends. I began to feel I had no peer in my building, no one who knew all that I did, no one who shared my concerns.

Thus coming across LM_NET back in the mid-1980s was a welcome discovery. It became a mainstay of my professional life. I enjoyed answering other people’s questions and got great responses to my own. This group plus an active group of district librarians kept me feeling supported and gave me a place to ask questions and share concerns and successes. Texas librarians also have their own message board, TLC or Texas Library Connection, which has been around since the 1990s. Finally, I joined EDTECH back in the 1990s, where I found another group of helpful colleagues from the world of educational technology. These three groups are composed of wonderfully generous professionals who love to help others and share ideas. It is impossible to quantify how much they have meant to so many members over the years.

Furthermore, these days there are a plethora of other options for educators. We have wikis, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and many other great resources. I know that my Twitter use is 100% for professional use, and a great deal of my Facebook communication is work-related as well.

There has been some discussion about whether “old” listservs will run their course in the face of newer environments. Count me in as one who does not think this is the case. I believe all these resources are different and fulfill different needs. Twitter is great for sharing links. Facebook shines when you want to share visuals, whether they are photographs, videos, or websites. Pinterest, Delicious,, and other site-sharing services are great for highlighting interesting and important webpages. But when it comes to reaching a large number of people for a survey, nothing beats the listservs. I can post a question or survey and see answers start pouring in within 5 minutes. During these hard times, like-minded people need to stick together and work toward common goals.

Activism and Advocacy

When something is wrong, the best therapy is to do something about it rather than brood. A natural extension of connectivity is activism and advocacy. For a long time I have enjoyed communicating with Carolyn Foote, who is the librarian at Westlake High School, a part of Eanes ISD in Austin, Texas. We actually met for the first time at an Internet@Schools conference and stayed in touch via listservs and Facebook. Carolyn is an amazing activist. In spring 2011, Austin ISD announced it was eliminating school librarians due to the dire budget crises brought on by a “sudden” budget shortfall in Texas. Carolyn did not just sigh in resignation and thank her lucky stars she was working in another district. She was rightly incensed that the state capital, home of Texas’ flagship university with a stellar College of Library Science, could just let its librarians go.

She began a campaign to oppose this hasty proposal. She posted about the situation online. She motivated parents to protest. She helped organize marches and rallies. She ended up testifying more than once before the state legislature. Did Austin ISD back down? It did indeed retain some librarians, though staffing was reduced. Without the ongoing activism, though, things would have been dramatically worse. And I am optimistic that Austin ISD may improve its support for school libraries and librarians as the economy improves. If it does not, it will have to answer to Carolyn and her army of activists.

Not everyone can take to the streets and march, organize rallies, or testify before the legislature. But we all can phone, email, or mail letters to people in power and advocate for libraries and librarians. I can say from experience that it feels good to do this. Some of the shortsighted, greed-driven, and damaging governmental actions that have dominated education in recent years are certainly enough to make people who care about schools, educators, and kids frustrated and angry. Translating that anger into action can be very therapeutic for ourselves as well as beneficial for the situation.

Continue Learning

When I am discouraged or downhearted, one thing that can almost always boost my spirits is learning something new. I suspect this is true for all librarians—it is part of why we love our profession. It is hard not to get into a rut and just think about the negatives that are making our lives difficult and frustrating these days. Listening to or watching political talk shows can bring down more feelings of doom and gloom. One way to escape the cycle is to turn off the TV and feed your mind.

Here’s a novel idea (pun intended): Try reading! Also, keep up with the constantly changing world of internet sites related to education, libraries, and research. Recently I have been giving myself permission to try out more new and different Web 2.0 resources. One that I just adopted is Pinterest. It has been around for a while, of course, but I was not aware of how much fun it offered until I set up a couple of pages very recently. I am also making a concerted effort to learn more about the capabilities and uses of my smartphone and iPad. Finally, in fall 2011, I spent a lot of time asking librarians and technology specialists how they were managing to keep up spirits in hard times. At the same time, I raised my own spirits by learning and using two new Web 2.0 resources, Wallwisher and Stixy. Then I collected words of wisdom from fellow librarians and technology specialists through all my online connections. The results are a mix of humor and courage (with some venting thrown in as well). These two pages can be accessed at and

The things I learned from colleagues were the result of connectivity, and the mastery of new applications gave me an additional morale boost. Time spent exploring new things is far more rewarding than time spent feeling sad and discouraged.

Remember the Kids!

The reasons we do the things we do are not for the exalted pay or the high honor in which society holds our professions. Schools and education should be about one thing first and foremost: the children. Sadly, this simple truth gets lost far too often these days in the morass of testing, conflicts over funding, competing technology and programs, and unfair criticism. Many of the words of wisdom shared via Wallwisher and Stixy stressed this verity. While I do not think educators lose sight of this fact, I do fear that society at large and certainly the political arena have strayed afar. That is why we need to be activists as well as teachers and librarians!

Nurture Your Sense of Humor

I do not think this is frivolous advice. It is something that wise people have known can make the difference between success and failure in coming through hard times relatively unscathed. Abraham Lincoln notably expressed this sentiment: “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.” Newspaper man Norman Cousins was hospitalized for cancer and given only a short time to live. He checked himself out of the hospital and into a luxury hotel across the street. He ordered gourmet room service and arranged to have continuous access to films that made him laugh, such as those featuring Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. He soon recovered completely, and he devoted most of the rest of his life to researching and sharing the value of humor in life. Sharing makes humor even better, and once again there are many options for the downcast educator. I am having fun with a Pinterest page I call “Ma Bell’s Medicine Show for Raising Morale,” where I share websites that make me laugh or at least smile.

Never Give Up!

This section is very personal, and I hope you find it appropriate. In December 2010 we lost my dad. He was the most universally loved and respected person I have ever known, and he lived 98 long years. I was fortunate to be with him during his final days. It was a bittersweet time. During his last week, he said a number of amazing things. On one day, his mantra was “never give up.” He said this over and over. He said it to every person he saw, visitors, shift nurses, and family. He would grasp our hands and say, “Never, never give up. Whatever you are trying to do, don’t quit. Never, never give up.” I know that educators have a high calling and that we try every day to do our very best for students and all patrons. Never mind the naysayers, the politicians, the cynics, and the greedy shysters. Never, never give up!

I believe these hard times will not last forever. Our country has been through crises before. If it survived the Civil War, it can survive the current polarization and economic downturn. Maybe the slogan I saw was just a beer ad, but I am sticking with it: Take Courage!


Contact Mary Ann at

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