Things I Learned in a School Library

I worked in a secondary school library for just over one year, not very long in the scheme of things, but that experience taught me a lot and also helped me into my current job. Apologies for quite a long post but I thought I would share some of the things I learned.

Customer service

  • I gained so much customer service experience and improved my skills as a result of working in a school library. Verbal communication was a daily challenge. Explaining library procedures to 12 year olds required real care so that they could take in the information. Instructions needed to be as concise and clear as possible, if-then statements worked, and always say please and thank you!
  • Which brings me to the improvement in my manners because treating people how you want to to be treated is essential when working with young people both to model good behaviour and maintain credibility. If I had to tell a student off, I then tried to be extra nice to them to show that even though their behaviour/attitude was out of line, I still respected them as a person and wanted to help them as best I could. It’s unrealistic to expect to be respected if you’re disrespectful yourself.
  • Consistency is another important aspect of customer service, especially in a school library. Consequences for overdue/lost books had to be applied consistently and information given had to toe the line as well.
  • Creative thinking was another aspect of customer service I developed because I spent a lot of time helping reluctant readers find books. This involved asking questions, figuring out what they were interested in outside school, making comparisons to pop culture, connecting improving reading and literacy with a life goal (like passing your driving theory test)…you name it, it was worth a try. Those experiences forced me think creatively and develop my interpersonal skills.

Teaching and instruction

  • Observing many teachers teach every day, something was bound to rub off. Through my school library experience, I learned a lot about teaching, learning styles, different instructional approaches and special educational needs, as well as Ofsted, school governance, assessment and national curriculums. I did also gain some experience in instruction and delivering material myself, which was one of the main goals I had set for myself for that year. I delivered training on the Accelerated Reader scheme to students and staff, both formally in training sessions and informally across the library counter.

Behaviour management

  • This was a major aspect of the job as I was working with students most of the day in lessons and supervising them in the library outside lesson time. I had very little experience of behaviour management previously, so I was learning on the job. One advantage was that since I worked with so many different teachers, I could observe what they did that worked (or didn’t) and then try to implement that myself. I had to be very proactive about improving this skill as the behaviour was quite poor. This meant asking advice from others on how I could have dealt with a situation better and blagging my way onto a behaviour management training day put on for the teachers. I also had to learn to shout and sound angrier than I was, neither of which I ever got very good at.
  • The key thing I learned was that you had to be consistent all the time, because if you let a student off once or ignore something, you then undermine the whole system. However this was extremely difficult as it takes so much energy and of course everyone across the school had to be on board.
  • Positive redirection was another important concept. For example if a student was off task, instead of saying, “Stop doing that. You’re not doing what I asked. Why aren’t you doing xyz?”, you would get them to think and redirect themselves back on task by saying something like, “So what are you going doing to do next?” Smiling and looking really expectant helped too. Basically the idea was to focus on the positive rather than emphasising negative behaviour which only reinforces that this is what gets attention.

Solo working

  • Though I supported lessons and teachers all the time, it was really a solo job. There was no head librarian, it was just me. This taught me about taking initiative, seeking advice and feedback, and time management. I also got involved with support networks such as SLN who were a vital lifeline when I needed support from other school library folks.

Subject knowledge

  • The library collection focused on titles that were on the Accelerated Reader scheme that would be of interest to our users. Unsurprisingly, most of the stock was young adult fiction. I was familiar with many of the books such as Harry Potter, Eragon and Twilight, but I sure did learn a lot about this subject area and the many wonderful authors who are also great library advocates – Alan Gibbons, Cathy Cassidy, Neil Gaiman, Tom Palmer, to name a few! I wish I could have read more of them (The Book Thief is still on my list). Whenever I go in a bookstore now, I enjoy having a quick browse of the teen section to see what’s new.

So there’s a year distilled into five points. I hope it was informative. If you are interested in school librarianship, here are some more resources to check out:

Heart of the School blog – A blog by school librarian Caroline Roche.

Barbara Band blog – Blog by school librarian and current CILIP President, Barbara Band.

CILIP School Libraries Group – useful if you’re a CILIP member.

SLA (School Libraries Association) – supports anyone involved with school libraries not just professional librarians.

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The Acquisitions Department

Since I don’t manage my own library budget, I’m in a rather interesting situation with regards to buying new books and replacing stock. I started advocating for some new book stock in about March. I had made a list of reasons based on student feedback and my own observations about our collection:

  • Students were consistently requesting more non-fiction titles, particularly boys but also some girls.
  • Our selection of higher level books (within the AR collection) was very, very sparse. Considering some Year 7s were already reading at level 6.0 and higher, and they still had two years to go on the scheme, there was a real need to increase choice in that area or else these students would literally run out of things to read.
  • Keeping the collection current: I wanted to get new, recently published books in series or from popular authors.

So I presented these reasons to management and was told to go for it. Once I knew I had some money to spend, I also started specifically asking students for recommendations, especially the reluctant readers. This turned out to be great move because by asking reluctant readers what they want, the library will then better reflect their interests (and so hopefully they’ll be more interested in reading) and it will give them a sense of ownership in the library since books they’ve suggested will be on the shelves. If only the turn around was quicker!!! So I’ve been putting together and submitting various book orders and they’ve all started arriving in the past few weeks. I enjoyed to a large degree pointing to the library store cupboard and saying to students ‘there are loads of new books in there so next year will be awesome…’ I also spent time before term finished adding shelves into the bookcases to make more room for all these shiny new books. Now I’ve just got to catalogue them all!

Postscript: we are going to be starting some reading intervention with Key Stage 4 (Year 10-11) next year. This is aimed at students whose reading ages are two years or more below their chronological age. I’ve raised the issue that we’ll need to get some more books in for them as well, particularly high interest/low ability and non-fiction books. So the ordering continues…

Delivering training on Accelerated Reader

Term has finished so I’m catching up on my a few blog posts that have been brewing since oh, about May… At the end of April I delivered some training to staff on the Accelerated Reader scheme. I lobbied for the training because we’ve had a lot of staffing changes in library lessons, and the extent of some people’s understanding of it consisted of a 2-minute conversation sotto voce with me at the beginning of their first lesson! So I proposed that we do some training for all staff involved in AR, and since no one else volunteered to run it I planned and delivered the session myself.

I had 1.5 hours to work with since the training was taking place after school during one of our ‘twilight’ CPD sessions. Several members of SLT (senior leadership team) were slated to attend – what an advocacy opportunity! – but for various reasons could not make it. So I had about 13-14 members of teaching staff present. One thing I took away was to actually count how many people attend anything you do. Ah, metrics and stats, how we need you.

Since I had a fairly long chunk of time and this was coming at the end of the day midweek, I was at pains to break the session up into chunks, rather than having a long, dull lecture. So the first half covered the basics of Accelerated Reader, how it works and how we do it at our school. Then there was an activity/sneaky ploy to reinforce everything they just heard. I created an Accelerated Reader ‘Treasure Hunt’ which took participants around the library finding books at certain levels, figuring out what content level a book was, looking up a book online on the AR Bookfinder, etc. The first team to complete it first with all correct answers got a bag of sweets. To my pleasant surprise, it was a big success as there were a lot of competitive people in the session. I’m actually planning to adapt the game for use with the new Year 7s in the autumn because I think actually figuring out how it works for yourself or within a team helps information sink in better than listening to me give a long spiel.

The second half of the training covered common issues and problems with Accelerated Reader and some solutions. I also put in a couple slides to advocate for the library which I called ‘What I can do for you’ and ‘What the library can do for you’. This included handling IT issues in lesson, recommending books and the capabilities of the library space and resources available (laptops, etc.). Finally the last 15-20 minutes was questions and discussion amongst participants. This was brilliant as there were several individuals in the room who had significant experience with AR and so shared a lot of best practice with everyone else.

We’re planning some more training for the autumn and also getting in a remote training session from the AR people, so will report on that as and when it happens.