“Can we put a picture of you on our Homecoming t-shirt?”
This question was posed to me by Junior class leaders in the fall of 2018. Once I got past the initial “you have GOT to be kidding!”, we talked about their plan, which was incredibly silly but also a huge compliment – one of the most meaningful I’ve received during my career. At my school the Homecoming themes are determined by the Seniors, and the Juniors are always given something weird and difficult. In 2018 the Junior theme was “tertiary sources,” thus the visit to the library. We took a photo, they turned it into graphic art, and almost 90% of the students chose that as their favorite design.
So how does a school librarian get her picture on a shirt worn by 150 teenagers? It’s all about making connections.
When I started at my current school in 2004 I inherited a fairly uncomfortable relationship between the library staff and the students, with many challenges to adult authority and no shortage of irresponsible behavior. I spent years working to set a better tone and to gain the trust of the students, and over time our library has become a mostly happy and respectful place, where students want to hang out with each other, to share ideas and concerns with us, and to get some schoolwork done. Students now see us as partners in the educational process rather than behavioral adversaries. The library has become a place of fun and learning, where there is always time to discuss an upcoming research paper or the latest Colleen Hoover novel.
What I have learned over the past 18 years is that the only way I can develop meaningful connections with students is to take the time to be where they are. Sitting at my desk with the door open I can think I look available but actually I look busy, and students are hesitant to interrupt, or apologize for “bothering” me. So I get up often, walk around the library, ask lots of questions: “What are you working on?” “What have you learned that you found surprising?” And sometimes, “Wow that party sounds like so much more fun than your Ethnic Studies paper!” When a teacher brings a class to the library, I don’t leave after making a research presentation – I stay in the room, circulate to check in on each student individually, stop the class for a quick pointer when I hear the same question or problem from several students. Many students won’t ask a question in front of the class, but will ask for guidance when I sit at their table. When I walk past students in the Student Center I check in with them to see what they are working on (or to learn how to play the latest video game). But the thing students seem to appreciate the most is that I try to be available after school via email or text. Students often aren’t fully attentive in class, but questions arise when they do their homework in the evening. I tell them I’m only available until 10pm, and I warn them that sometimes I have a life and won’t be online, so don’t wait until the last minute to talk to me! Yes it intrudes on my personal time, but in fact there aren’t enough evening requests to feel demanding, and it offers students the support they need at the time they need it. What I enjoy about the evening interactions in particular (which now often happen on Zoom, thanks to what we learned during Covid) is that the conversations often turn into something more than just a research paper discussion, and I get to know my students better. Every one-on-one interaction informs my instruction, develops a personal connection, and makes me a more effective teacher.
None of this happened overnight. I arrived at my grades 6-12 school having spent eight years at an elementary school, where students were excited about “library day” and hugs were abundant. I was a bit intimidated by teens, didn’t know upper grade curriculum, and had a newly minted MLIS but little idea of how to put what I’d learned into practice. In my early years I was probably more authoritarian than was necessary, and I thought maintaining a “professional distance” from the students was the best approach. Gradually my students have taught me that if I want their respect and attention I need to show that I care about them as people, not only as students. I learned that silliness is the way into their hearts, and that by letting down the professional aura I can get to know them as the wonderful adults-in-training that they are while having a lot more fun on the job. And they in turn see me as someone they can comfortably come to for research assistance or for a conversation about a TV show they enjoy. Each librarian will have their own way of building those connections but whatever your personal style, the effort you put into making connections with your students will pay off in a better learning experience for everyone.
So, quite unexpectedly, positive relationships with students led to my picture being worn by the Junior class. I walked with them in the Homecoming parade, and when they did their class dance I danced with them (there is video proof, unfortunately). It was more embarrassing than I can describe, and it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. It was an unforgettable day!