by Beth Shaum
“Life is a balance of holding on and letting go.” - Rumi
In 2014 I started teaching 8th grade English at the Catholic school I attended from 5th-12th grade. Coming back to this school almost twenty years after I was a student there filled my heart with happiness and nostalgia. When I first attended the school as a 5th grader, it was on the heels of my parents’ divorce and at a time (though I didn’t realize it then) when I needed school to be my stability. And it was. I flourished as a student there.
So when the opportunity came available to teach at this school, it felt like I was being called. As a teacher, it was both strange and wonderful to work with many staff members who were former classmates and also former teachers of mine. The principal who hired me was my 5th grade teacher. I felt like I was returning home because in a way I was. Back then, my life at school was much more stable than my life at home. Just as I thrived as a student, I also thrived as a teacher and it wasn’t long before I became known as the person people came to when they needed a book recommendation. This eventually led to me being offered the librarian position for the grade school and middle school on our K-12 campus. I was so grateful that I had a principal who saw potential in me because being a school librarian turned out to be a dream job.
I used my love of books and passion for reading as a way to advocate for the library, a place that is often neglected in so many schools, just as it was at my school. When I first stepped into the librarian position, I asked the school secretary what the annual budget was for books, and her response was, “Nothing. There is no budget. Ten years ago when so many Catholic schools in our area closed, we inherited the books from their libraries.”
My snarky response at the time was: “So no books have been published in the last ten years?”
But after expressing my frustration, I referred to the guiding principles of Everyday Advocacy of being smart, safe, savvy, and sustainable (principles that had become an everyday part of my life as a teacher) and began to form a strategy for how to better advocate for the library. I joined our parent teacher organization as a teacher representative to seek out parent allies. I wrote a proposal to the public school district that paid my salary as a shared time employee for why my position needed to be full time and not part time. I showed my face in classrooms delivering book requests to students and recommending titles to teachers. And... after the hard work of proving myself, making allies, and turning the library into a space that students, teachers, and parents alike flocked to, I was granted that line item in the annual budget for new library books that I had been asking for.
This wasn’t just a job in which I was surviving. I was thriving.
But then our principal left and it quickly became apparent that our new administration did not value professionalism nor intellectual freedom. The new principal’s volatile behavior caused me to have multiple panic attacks, eventually leading me to see a therapist. It pained me, but despite the emotional connection I had to this place and all of the good advocacy work I did to make the library the heartbeat of the school, the relationship I had with my administrator wasn’t just toxic, it was bordering on abusive. I knew it was time for me to move on.
I was blessed to find a new school librarian job that not only paid more, but it was a significantly shorter commute. There is so much good about my new school environment and I am working to replicate what I did at my previous school in my advocacy for the library.
While I still grieve the loss of working in the place that nurtured me and gave me stability as a child, what I recognize now is that developing an Everyday Advocacy mindset isn’t just about knowing when to fight and what to fight for, but also about when to let go. Had I not internalized Everyday Advocacy’s guiding principles of being smart, safe, savvy, and sustainable, I might have tried to stick it out and felt an obligation to stay in a place that was not serving my needs as a teacher simply because it was a place that once felt so at home to me. But in this case, home no longer felt safe and sustainable, so I went searching for safety and sustainability elsewhere.
When I sought a new environment, I was armed with my Everyday Advocacy toolbox and made sure I wasn’t the only one being interviewed; I interviewed my potential new principal as well. For that reason, the relationship I have developed with my administrators at my new school is symbiotic. Just as I know what they expect of me -- a passionate, energetic, and principled educator--I also made clear to them what I expect of them: a safe and sustainable environment where teachers are nurtured and supported. Because I feel taken care of in my new school, I’m hopeful that this is a place I will stay and fight in smart, safe, savvy, and sustainable ways for years to come. But if not, well, those same guiding principles will let me know when it’s time to let go.
Beth Shaum has been an educator for fifteen years. She taught middle school English for ten years and is now a K-8 librarian in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She served on and chaired the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award committee for young adult literature from 2017 to 2021 and has presented in several sessions at NCTE about the value and complexity of young adult literature. She also serves on Penguin Random House’s Middle School Advisory Committee. When she’s not reading or recommending books to others, you can find her chasing her dogs Reggie and Hazel around her backyard and/or sending her friends funny TikTok videos.