Advice for new school librarians

Advice for new school librarians

I wrote this page when I was still working in my last post as a school librarian, but I think the advice is still relevant!

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School librarianship is a wonderful job, but the down side is that many of us have no obvious source of support, particularly at the beginning. As sole workers, we do not always know where to find help. It is lovely that so many people have found their way to this site – this is why I created it after all! Also, a great many new school librarians email me asking for advice. I am happy to give help where I can. But, I do not pretend to know everything there is to know about the job, even though I am experienced, and I do feel that there are people better placed to give the right support.

In addition, my time is very limited. My family circumstances are such that I should really concentrate on them when I am at home. Work is also extremely busy and interesting and I need to put everything that I have into my job. My spare(!) time is spent on my own interests and developing this site.

For these reasons, I am making this page to give some basic advice and pointers to sources of help.

Some basic pointers for new School Librarians:

  • First of all, do you have a schools library service in your area? If so, they are your first point of contact for support and training and also links to other school librarians.
  • Next, join the School Librarians’ Network (SLN). This mailing list is a vital source of ideas and support – especially if you are not fortunate enough to have a schools library service.
  • You also need to join the SLA – most of us join as a school library, i.e. we pay the fees out of the library budget. They do a brilliant magazine and great training courses. They also have a good range of publications, many of which will be relevant to you. Also, if you are a CILIP member, make sure that you join SLG.
  • My strong advice is to join a trades union – they will support you if you have problems with pay scales, contracts or any student complaints. To my knowledge, very few librarians have had any serious problems with this last issue, but many teachers have, so we need to have a union’s support. I cannot advise as to which one.

As for the early days in school. It is hard to advise in detail, but here are a few ideas in no particular order. Please remember that these are my own thoughts:

  • Be clear about who is your line manager and ask for a proper induction into school procedures etc. You need to have a clear understanding of how the school works. Get a staff planner/handbook – this will set out things like the structure of the school day, basic information about the curriculum and pastoral systems, staff lists etc. Student planners can also be quite informative as well!
  • The basic thing is that school librarians have a foot in both camps as “teachers” and support staff – we need to know about the school curriculum, the pastoral system, behaviour policies etc. So make sure that you get copies of all school policies.
  • Attend staff briefings, meetings and any curriculum or middle managers meetings so that you are seen as contributing to school life and you continue to extend your knowledge of the school.
  • Get to know the important staff – caretakers, office staff, accounts department, head’s PA, reprographics assistant, receptionist, ICT technicians and the cleaners. These people will tell you what is really happening in the school.
  • Talk to teachers and always have coffee/tea and biscuits to hand!
  • Start slowly. You will quickly pick up the library/admin procedures that your predecessor had in place. What you need to concentrate on is building relationships – with staff and students. To do this, you need to be able to get out of the library regularly – to attend meetings, see staff formally and informally, see and be seen around the school. So build in some closed time – I never open at morning break for example and also, in a previous post, closed on Thursday lunchtimes to have reading groups and train my helpers. You will feel great pressure to be always open “for the good of the pupils”, but you must have proper breaks and meet people. Resist the urge to swamp yourself with bookings – you need time to assimilate everything.
  • Do not try to do everything at the beginning! Look through any library reports and development plans to see what has been done in the past. But, pace yourself in the first year – you are on a steep learning curve. The first year or so in a school can be quite difficult, especially when it comes to getting to know students, but it does get easier. This is true even if you are an experienced school librarian.
  • Try not to do a major weed at the very beginning – learn about the curriculum first. People give similar advice about gardens – wait a year to see what comes up before digging up and discarding! In my new post I have completely discarded this advice – mainly due to the condition and age of the stock!
  • Do something that you really enjoy – reading group, Carnegie shadowing, whatever – this will cheer you up when or if you hit difficulties.
  • Have clear ideas about your ethos – read school policies about behaviour and classroom practise, then formulate your own “rules” that fit with these. I, for example, insist that any students using the LRC have a signed note from the teacher and send students back if they come without. Also, booked classes have to line up outside and come in to the LRC in an orderly way and conform to classroom rules about seating, raising hands before speaking etc.
  • Act like a teacher and a head of department – this advice came from my husband who is an ex-teacher and HOD! The library is your space and you set the rules. Yes, and do be very firm with students from the beginning. You are not “just the Librarian” but a member of staff!
  • Set sensible limits for how many students you will handle when on your own. For example, some of us work out the number we can safely seat and stick to that. This, of course, depends on the size of your library – if it seats 150, then that would be far too many for one sole librarian to manage on his or her own! If you have an assistant, you could manage up to 60-70 students at lunchtimes between you, but only around 30-40 if one is away. I base this on the average class size that a teacher would be expected to manage. The argument that a lunch-time supervisor deals with far more does not wash with me. We are not just supervising students but actively engaging them in educational activities, so a ratio of about 1:30 is about right. Even so, if, for some reason (rain or wind for example), students are not behaving well across the school, then I will limit numbers even more if I feel that safety could be compromised. There do not seem to be any firm guidelines about this – but again, my advice is to think like a teacher. If you are challenged to “babysit” more students than you can safely handle, use sound educational arguments and quote Health and Safety. Remember, our safety is just as important as that of the students (and very important to our families!).
  • Talk to the students – are there any existing student helpers? They will tell you how things have been done in the past, but use your instincts to work out if they are “trying it on”! If there are no student helpers, then do develop a system, but please do not call them “librarians”. We have trained for many years to get the right to call ourselves this. Ok, this is a particular irritant of mine!
  • Lastly, note down everything that you do, especially things that impact on students. This then becomes the basis for reporting to your line manager and SMT and eventually self-evaluation. I used to send a termly quick list to the Head and a newsletter to all of the Senior Management Team with positive actions, and write an Annual Report in September and a Financial Report in April/May. These are based on the notes that I have made through the year. Keep notes about meetings with staff, which lessons have gone well, what students can and cannot do in terms of reading or Information Literacy. I also keep statistics about issue figures and bookings, but it is really your impact on teaching and learning which impresses SMT.
  • One more point: look after yourself. Make sure that you have regular refreshments and definitely go out of the library for a proper lunch break. Do give a bit extra for an important meeting or event, but do not be a dog’s body! No-one will respect you for it anyway. Your health and welfare are more important to you and your family than any job. This may sound a bit like “Auntie Anne’s Advice Column” but those of you who know my background will agree that I have learned the hard way!

Hope this is helpful – you will meet with stress at some time, but remember that there are loads of us out here to support you. Good luck and have fun in what I think is the most important job in Librarianship – make a difference!

Best wishes to you,

Anne
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