Culture and Approachability in the “Heart of the School”

Last week I was preparing for the first meeting of a new book club that had been reading  The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read the whole thing, but I did open up the table of contents a few hours before the meeting to select a chapter or two I could consume before then. Chapter 11 in the section entitled “Share Vulnerability;” is called “How to Create Cooperation with Individuals.” Like I’m sure many of you have found, I find that my best interactions with students engaged in a research process are in one-to-one research meetings, so I opened up this chapter. Either I picked exactly the right one, or I ought to read the whole book.

In this chapter, Coyle meets an IDEO designer named Roshi Givechi, who is prized by her colleagues for her ability to help others solve problems. She is described as a relatively quiet person who puts others at ease with her air of serene competence and approachability. When a design team is facing a sticking point in their process, Givechi is able to help them discover new approaches by “asking the right questions the right way” (151). Coyle is impressed by her term for when this happens – “surfacing.” By making people feel comfortable, listening fully and taking interest in their interests, and asking good questions, Givechi doesn’t offer answers but creates a situation in which the problem solvers can make connections that reveal solutions. In reading about Givechi’s talent, I thought “this is just a super deluxe reference interview!” 

These are some basic elements at the core of our profession that I think we generally internalize, but it doesn’t hurt to give them some extra thought sometimes. Simple but important, “approachability” is listed first among RUSA’s Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers.

Steven Bell at Temple University, who was the keynote speaker at the 2016 Summer Institute, blogged last year about the basic importance of being friendly, approachable and trustworthy in library services (https://tinyurl.com/y8x8xb7y). Our Marsha Hawkins in her great conference presentation last month on the “Boy-Friendly Library” talked about this simple idea too, when she said that she greets every student every day by name. Making ourselves accessible and approachable creates the shared vulnerability that builds trust in a community.

I don’t really have an office; I work at the 105-year-old reference and circulation desk in the middle of the library. From my workstation, this is what I see:

The Front Door

When students come in this door, whether to come to the library or go to class, this is the first thing they see: 

Just imagine the pumpkin is me.

Working at a computer at the desk, it is way too easy for me to, as Steven Bell writes, “fail to quickly and adequately acknowledge another person’s presence.” My monitor and the desk itself are physical and psychological barriers between the students and me, and it’s my job to break them. I want to make eye contact, say hello, “happy birthday” and “good luck at the game today” to students as they walk in the door, giving them the cue that they are welcome and in the right place, and usually/often I do. But sometimes when engrossed in a task, I find that I haven’t looked up in a while. Maybe a student will say hello to me and draw me out of that place, making me feel sheepish for failing to greet her and acknowledge her presence. On the other hand, maybe I’ve greeted her enough times that the relationship is there and her greeting can remind me of why I’m standing in the middle of this room in the first place – to be approached, to be open to what the students need and help their ideas surface, and to be at the heart of a school culture that supports and gently pushes at the same time.   

References

Bell, S. (2017, August 21). There’s a reason why eye contact and smiling improve the experience [Blog post]. Retrieved from Designing Better Libraries website: http://dbl.lishost.org/blog/2017/08/21/theres-a-reason-why-eye-contact-and-smiling-improve-the-experience/#.WvtlCGbMzVo

Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: The secrets of highly successful groups. New York: Bantam Books.

“Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers”, American Library Association, September 29, 2008. http://www.ala.org/rusa/resources/guidelines/guidelinesbehavioral (Accessed May 15, 2018) Document ID: ce1dea7f-f77b-c194-2967-b53adb4b40ed

Hawkins, M. (Presenter). (2018, April 17). The fundamentals of a boy-friendly library: Practice and research instruction. Presentation given at AISL annual conference, The Lovett School, Atlanta, GA.

 

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