Last year I spent a lot of time thinking about classroom management as we welcomed students (a large number of whom had not set foot in our library, or any library, for a few years…) into our school building. The trouble was, I don’t have a classroom. I have a revolving door of 9th-12th grade students each period, each day, that can include all 500+ students throughout the year, and as many as 150 any period. So, all the classroom management advice about community creation of norms and setting expectations in the syllabus and the like that are standard fare for teachers with classrooms and classes of students that are indeed a classroom community day in and day out just doesn’t fit. I suspect I’m not alone.
Last year, as we welcomed our students into the building we knew there was going to be a major adjustment for these students. I started the year with grace, gently addressing behavior violations (noise, cell phones, food, etc.) without formal discipline in the expectation that students would learn the ropes, and, grateful for the grace, adjust their behavior. Alas, that was not what happened. By the end of the first term my assistant and I were so fed up with rearranging disarrayed furniture, picking up trash (orange peels, half-eaten bananas!) and gym shoes, silencing serial chatters on the quiet floor, and picking up books knocked to the floor by students who sat in the aisles of the stacks, we decided to crack down. We collected cell phones–our policy for phones visible in the building–assigned demerits, and called in the Dean of Students to do extra walk-throughs during troublesome times. And it worked, sort of, for a while. We rolled through cycles of this throughout the rest of the year and vowed to find a better way.
But what is the better way? I’ve read enough in the past year to know that I’m not alone, that what I’ve termed the squirrliness of our students was a fairly universal issue for educators in the past year as we navigated the effects of the pandemic with our students. That said, traditional classroom management advice doesn’t apply well to the library. The context just isn’t the same. Fortunately, one of the joys of being an educator is that every fall we get to try again. So, here is my plan for library management.
1) Make expectations incredibly clear from the very start.
Lots of folks get the chance to talk in our opening assemblies, but the librarian was never one of them. I successfully convinced my administrators of the importance of sharing library rules directly and in person with our students within the first few days of school. This will certainly undercut the students’ ability to tell me “I didn’t know” or “I thought the library was the exception” to schoolwide policies about phone use, eating, and the like. I know students don’t read the handbook, so the best way to assure that they are clear on the expectations for the library is to have a genuine opportunity to tell them.
2) Start strong, then ease up.
Clear expectations need to be followed with consistent consequences. I am aware that a good part of my troubles last year came from the grace I gave at the start of the year. As a parent of young children I’m well aware how important clear boundaries and consistent discipline are for developing brains, and yet somehow I let my sympathy for students get in the way of what would help them, and me, best long-term. Aside from being firm and consistent from the very start, I’m toying with a riff on the OSHA workplace accident signs as we start off the school year. I’m curious if noting daily violations in the space, with a hint of humor, will show both that the community rules are enforced and also demonstrate improvement over time.
3) Use space to my advantage.
The unexpected amount of time I spend considering space as a librarian is a post all its own. Space is absolutely related to student behavior, and I need mine to support students in utilizing library space. I learned the lesson in my first year not to have couches with the back to a wall, for example, something I always keep in mind now. I don’t expect students to scan the room and immediately think, “oh, it’s arranged this way so Dr. Gamble can walk around and see what we are up to,” but they are also less likely to start streaming Netflix when their screen faces towards a path I regularly walk.
I keep seating on our quiet floor spaced out–mostly carrels and smaller tables with fewer chairs to discourage clumping–which leads to chatter, while on our collaborative floor I have seating spaced in ways that groups of various sizes can readily find the right place to work. This year I’m fortunate to have some new furniture pieces added to my space (see point 4) which I hope will help keep students from resorting to the aisles of the stacks for places to sit and will include some small portable C-tables that will make our couches and soft seating more conducive to schoolwork. Space matters, and I aim to harness it to support our library expectations as best I can.
4) Advocate, advocate, advocate.
Some of the things I’m excited to add this year, like addressing the whole student body in the first week of school, and adding additional seating, are products of extensive advocacy over the last year or more. As behavior issues and annoyances came up throughout the year, rather than simply handle them myself, I handled them and then shared those challenges with the dean of students. By having those frequent conversations, inviting him to come by during the busiest periods, and letting him know what I needed, I was able to secure face-time with the student body. Our furniture additions also were made possible by showing the right folks how crowded we were, the head counts from busy periods against the number of seats we had, and noting it frequently. We all know what they say about squeaky wheels, and I’m going to keep squeaking when I need to.
Advocacy with my students is also important, and an area I know I need to work more with this year. One small step last year showed how a bit of up-front work can go a long way. Mid-morning snacks from our dining services led to a parade of food into the library. Realizing this, I was on alert at snack time–it was a lot easier to catch kids coming in with snacks and say “thanks for not eating that in here,” than to clean up the messes left behind later. This approach reminded them of the rule while reinforcing their ability to make the right choice. It also let them know that I saw they had food, and those students were much less likely to be sneaky about eating than ones I hadn’t addressed. Furthermore, it made the norm more visible, such that after a while students who walked in with snacks or bagged muffins from the coffee shop would hold it up as they passed me and say “Don’t worry, it’s for later,” or “I’m just grabbing a friend and heading outside.”
My students NEVER push in their chairs, they move furniture around and leave it, even with just-in-time reminders like stopping by a few minutes before the bell to tell them to put things back in place. One morning I asked my regular morning crew–regular culprits in leaving the furniture akimbo–how I might rearrange things so that they could sit the ways they wanted but also not leave me to clear furniture out of pathways every time they left. With the utmost honesty, one student said “bolt the chairs to the floor.” I’m more optimistic that this student, I still hope there’s another way.
Please feel free to share your
classroom library management tips in the comments!