In your philosophy and in your vision or mission statement you undoubtedly have a phrase about the library being a safe, welcoming environment. It’s intrinsic to how we view our role and relationship to students and teachers. The words are important so we let others know we value that atmosphere, but what do we do to create it?
Safety is also a factor in strong leadership. It’s one that few think of and yet has particular importance. By becoming aware of both of these aspects of safety, you will be able to integrate them into how you work with others.
Safety in the Library
Certainly, many of you have worked hard to change the look of your facility. High school libraries in many locations have banquettes or high tops to convey the message that the library is not just for school assignments. The ability to move chairs and tables easily allows students to work comfortably in groups of various sizes.
The move to a Learning Commons is a further extension of the concept. Increasingly libraries have changed to meet the new ways students –and teachers—discover, work, create, and share knowledge. Today’s school library is a far cry from the heavy furniture and range of bookshelves that defined them almost to the end of the last century.
But what about safety? Historically, we know that kids who are bullied or feel friendless seek out the haven of the library. They come during lunch periods and find a corner where no one is likely to spot them. Even when they are with a class, they seem to be somewhat separate from their peers.
It may not be as obvious in the elementary grades, but you can spot them there as well. In story time they sit at the end of a back row, feeling more secure by having minimal physical connection with the other students. They may not answer many questions directed to the group. During a research project they prefer to work alone if it’s possible.
With all that you do, it’s not always easy to be alert to these non-verbal signals, but these students need you. It’s what you mean when you say you want to create a safe environment. At the elementary level be attuned to how their classmates react to them when they do answer a question. Look for body language as well as how they behave and interact with others to identify these students.
Learn their names. Quietly speak with them. Find out their interests and then look for books and other resources to meet them. Follow up by discussing what they read or chose to do with those resources. Sometimes these kids are homeless, are a minority that a significant percentage of the student body neglects, have a parent away in the military or in prison, or are dealing with traumatic home situations. Yes, this is the job of the guidance counselors, but they, too, are overworked and don’t get to see these students in the context of their school day. You can connect with the guidance counselors to get advice and to work with them to help these kids.
As you are aware, many of these students are LGBT. Especially at the high school levels, does your collection have fiction and nonfiction books to help them realize they are not alone? That others have gone through what they are dealing with? Are you aware of online resources that can help? NOTE: In some communities it is a challenge for you to acquire books on the topic. While I strongly believe it is the role of librarians to have materials to meet the needs of all their population and am a strong supporter of intellectual freedom, I recognize the fear you might have about losing your job.
If your resources are limited, consider connecting with the public library and seeing if you can borrow materials from their collection. Depending on your situation, you can have the student take the books home or read them in the library, returning them to you when they leave. You may save a life.
By showing everyone your Mission and/or Vision is not just words you put up on the wall, but are core to the library program, you demonstrate your integrity as a leader.
Librarians need to do whatever it takes to make the library a safe, welcoming environment for all.
Safety in Leadership
Until very recently I had never recognized the role safety plays in leadership. I now believe it is one we need to integrate into our relationship-building and observe how it plays out with other leaders in education, business, and the world at large. It began with a YouTube video of a TED Talk.
Simon Sinek gave a TED Talk entitled Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe directed primarily to business people. He spoke about a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who was asked why he risked his life to save others. Like many in the military he responded that they would do the same for him.
Sinek sees this as originating in cave days when our world held dangers from predatory animals and assorted other sources. In essence we drew a circle of safety around those who lived with us and the multiple threats to our existence lay outside this circle. Within this circle were people we could trust to have our backs and we would have theirs.
Advance forward to modern days. While corporate America had many negatives from the beginning, at one time people felt secure that by working for a large company that they would have a job for life. That has changed, accelerating when the economy hit a tailspin in 2008. Layoffs abounded. It became a dog-eat-dog world and you couldn’t trust your co-worker not to stab you in the back to protect his/her job at the cost of yours.
Sadly, education as a field has taken on some of these characteristics. Faculty feel threatened from outside and from within the education environment. Morale has suffered tremendously.
Show a new aspect of leadership by making your library a safe haven for your fellow teachers. Do what you can to have their backs. Keep what they say confidential. Be ready to provide resources that might help them in difficult situations.
I urge you to watch the full TED Talk and give some thought to the implications it has for your own leadership. What will you do differently? What new perspectives has it given you?