ON LIBRARIES: Dealing With Difficult People

 Difficult people are everywhere.  Although they are in the minority by far, when they show up they add stress to your life.  The stress is even greater when you are confronted by them on the job.  Students, teachers, and administrators can all potentially prove difficult. If this happens you want to have the skills to manage your emotions, sometimes deal with their emotions, and keep things on an even keel. When you encounter difficult people it’s important not to react or you will get sucked in and the confrontation will escalate.

Students are the ones who are most frequently difficult. Every place has some so the idea is to be able to reduce the numbers. Take a proactive position with those students who are misbehaving upon entering the library.  The likelihood is that something set them off before they arrived.  Saying things like “Calm down, you’re in the library” don’t work. Has anyone ever calmed down because they were told to do so?  They might not know how to get themselves under control from the place they’re in.  Instead, you might say, “I can see you are very upset. Did something happen? Can I do something to help?” Speaking in a friendly tone can interrupt what is boiling inside. If you can reduce their anger level to a simmer you have a much better chance of things going better moving forward.  Will it work every time? Definitely not, but it’s a tool to keep in your arsenal.

Disruptions in the middle of the period (or class) are usually caused by one student aggravating another. If you don’t respond quickly, a fight can ensue and then you have a major problem to deal with. Identify both “culprits” and move to separate them.  If possible give them different tasks to do to keep them occupied with something more positive.

Exiting the library is another point when students can get out of hand. Having a standard procedure in place minimizes these occurrences.  Using exit tickets is one strategy that helps. Asking a few quick questions related to what they did in the library is another.

Having the library be a safe, welcoming environment for all is a core part of your responsibilities. While I know some schools are more volatile than others, keeping the number of confrontations down, will help you achieve that goal.

Teachers and administration present a different type of challenge.  You need to strive to have at least a professional relationship with them.  The library is for everyone, and you don’t want to create distance between you, the library program and them. That being said, there will be some teachers who are known for being confrontational.  When you feel you are being attacked, the natural response is defense. Once you go there, the exchange usually gets more heated.

Many years ago, I started a new position in a high school library with a good-sized staff, including a co-librarian, 12-month secretary, 10-month clerk, and a circulation clerk. (It sounds unbelievable today.) It was in the early days of automation and, at the time, you could only use numbers on barcodes.

I was in my office when this teacher comes barreling in and starts haranguing the circulation clerk.  I immediately went to see what was happening.  The clerk certainly didn’t deserve to be harassed that way.  The teacher quickly turned on me.  She had just learned that not only was her barcode her social security number, but the information was on a Rolodex behind the circulation desk, “where any student could access it.”

My first thought was, “How is this my fault?  I am here only a few months.  This has been in place for years.”  Instead, I responded, “I understand your reasons for being upset.”  I said we would immediately change her barcode to the last five digits of her social security number, “return” all her books (she had quite a lot in her classroom) and recheck them out.  We would change the other teachers’ barcodes at the end of the year.

Had I said what I was initially thinking, the situation would have become worse, and I expect the principal would have become involved. By validating her anger, I defused much of it. She was mollified and eventually became one of the biggest library supporters.

I handled a similar but, in some ways, a more challenging incident with an assistant superintendent. He was highly intelligent and known for “shooting from the hip.”  He never pulled his punches. As the leader of the district librarians, I was speaking to him about trying to pilot a flexible schedule in the elementary schools. He angrily said he had observed one librarian showing a filmstrip (and it was on the way out even then) about how books were made starting from a tree.  It seemed to him that a teacher could have done the same thing and what would be different about making the schedule flexible.

To calm things down, I responded to his message, not this method of delivery.  I told him I recognized his point. My solution was to talk about effective lessons at the monthly librarian meetings I led. While I never got the flex schedule for that level, I did earn his respect and overall value for the work we did.

If you’re having trouble with someone, take a breath before responding. Focus on how you can help the situation not on how you need to fix the person. Hopefully, some of your more difficult people will eventually become allies of your program.

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ON LIBRARIES: Saying Yes – and No

It’s important for leaders – and you are a leader—to step out and take on new challenges. Moving out of your comfort zone is how you learn and grow.  I would venture to say you’ve already done this in so many places in your life, not just in librarianship. My personal leadership journey took a leap forward when I started volunteering in my state association, then called EMANJ now NJASL. Over time, however, I’ve learned when it’s important to step into a new opportunity and when I need to say no. “No” can be a very effective leadership tool.

I learned so much about leadership and leading when I became president of NJASL.  It was a bit scary at the time, but I had a lot of support.  And it built my confidence which was an important benefit. I took another leap forward when my position as president-elect and then president took me to the AASL Affiliate Assembly.  Suddenly I was swimming in a bigger pool.  There were so many leaders with more experience than I had, but they were easy to approach and always extremely helpful.

I also was developing a much broader perspective. I began learning what the other library associations in my region and the country were dealing with and what they were doing.  Many of their challenges were the same as my state’s, others were not.  Occasionally their issues surfaced in my state at a later time.  Not only was I prepared, I knew whom to reach for advice.

From the state level, I moved on to AASL committees. Each one focused on a different aspect of school librarianship.  I have been on so many over the years including an early one on strategic planning, programming for the AASL Conference, the Fall Forum, several Task Forces, and Advocacy.  Committees change over the years, but they were all key learning experiences. Almost every time I accepted an appointment to a committee or task force, I felt I didn’t know as much as I would like to be able to do a good job.  No worries.  The chair knew, and I was able to learn on the job.

I was very secure in my AASL niche.  Then I was appointed as AASL liaison to ALA committees.  Time to step out of my comfort zone. The pool became huge.  I understood school libraries, but now I was working with public, academic, government, and special librarians.  Their world was very different from mine.

When I am on an AASL committee I can count on knowing at least some of the members.  It’s not quite the same when it’s ALA, but the same welcoming response I found in AASL was here as well.  I have gotten to know presidents and past presidents of ALA and other major leaders and have a much larger perspective on how each type of library impacts all the others.

As a result of my ongoing volunteering for ALA and AASL (and I am going back to Affiliate Assembly as my state’s delegate after several years away), my ability to talk to those outside our field about the value of school libraries—and all libraries—has increased incrementally.  I have the vocabulary and the fluency to communicate these ideas. I have often said I should have received CEU credits from what I have learned.

Saying yes to new opportunities is a positive and an important aspect of leadership, but what about saying, “no?” When is that powerful?The answer depends on why you are saying it. I first blogged about “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” in 2015 and have expanded on it.  There are always reasons to say no. But too often these prevent you from becoming the leader you absolutely need to be.  But sometimes a leader must learn to say no.

When you have been a leader for a long time and are accustomed to getting out of your comfort zone, saying yes becomes your automatic response.  But recently I came face-to-face with the need to step back.

As a number of you know, a few weeks ago I had major surgery and for the most part was not able to take care of many of my daily tasks from online teaching to committee work for two weeks.  My natural tendency is to quickly get back to what I was doing.  But I had to accept I couldn’t resume everything at once.  I have to go more slowly.

It’s easy to help others.  It’s hard to ask for and accept help but that’s a component of leadership as well.  In addition to delegating, it’s important to trust others in the different areas of your life to step into the breach. In some cases, it’s empowering.  For example, one of my students took on a leadership role in getting her classmates to continue posting on the online Discussion Board and supporting each other.  In my personal life family members, including extended ones, have been there to help, some in unexpected ways.

I’m still impatient to get up to full speed.  I’m dealing with a steep learning curve with regards to some new (and hopefully temporary limitations) and reminding myself to draw on past successes to maintain my confidence.  Leadership is a continual learning activity, and I expect it will always continue to be one of mine.

ON LIBRARIES: Expect the Unexpected

THIS WEEK GUEST BLOGGER: Rona Gofstein

Last Tuesday, Hilda went to the ER with stomach issues and before the day was out she needed emergency surgery. As of this morning, she’s still in the hospital but will soon be heading to a rehab facility before going home. Needless to say… this wasn’t on her to do list.

As the first person who reads her blogs and then edits them, I offered to write one for her this week, and in preparing to do so I thought about the things Hilda focuses on most often: leadership, community, and communication.  I can tell you all of those things played a part this last week.

When the word went out among her friends and family, people called, sent flowers and a few headed out to the hospital. Community came together. There were comments and posts throughout social media, hopes for a speedy recovery pouring in to Hilda and her husband. There is nothing like a sudden health issue to make you feel alone and isolated. I know Hilda felt the connection of her community who reached out in so many ways to help.

As for communication,  being able to communicate clearly with doctors and other care providers is very important.  Hilda has worked hard this past week, starting when she was arrived at the hospital, to be clear about what was wrong, how long the problem existed and, now that she’s in a patient room, what she needs to be comfortable and support her own recovery. This includes asking for the support she needs to take regular walks, get what she needs for pain management, and reaching out to family for things she needs them to bring (I can tell you, her Nook was at the hospital almost immediately).

Then there’s leadership. What to say about leadership?

I think John Allen Paulus said it best with, “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is.”  There is no way to avoid surprises whether that’s a class showing up in the library unexpectedly, a beloved principal retiring, or  your car not starting at the end of the day. It’s rarely fun; it’s frequently unsettling; and there’s no getting away from it.

As a leader, it’s important to use what skills you already have – and frequently these include communication and community – to make the situation into one which doesn’t take you away from your long term goals and mission. In fact, I think Hilda would be quick to remind us this is one of the marks of a strong leader, and one of the benefits of being clear on your mission and vision. If you know where you want to end up, then the unexpected won’t have the dramatic or long term results that they might other

I know you’ll join me in wishing Hilda a speedy recovery. And as we writers say, when life throws something unexpected at you, yell “PLOT TWIST” and keep moving forward!

 

ON LIBRARIES: More Ways to Be Heard

Last week I wrote about the first five recommendations for being heard – and therefore recognized – in John R. Stoker’s article “How to Achieve Recognition by Results.” These recommendations were:

  1. Continue to do the work
  2. Look to make a difference
  3. Support others in their work
  4. Humbly be right
  5. Offer concrete evidence.

Now, the next five ideas.

Stoker’s sixth recommendation, Be Collaborative in Your Efforts seems almost a waste of time to mention. This is at the core of your work. You have been trying to get teachers to collaborate with you and they haven’t been responding.  In the business world, this suggestion translates as “be a team player.” While you do need to be using ideas to get teachers to collaborate or at least cooperate with you, reach beyond the teachers.

We have seen repeatedly that having a supportive principal is a sure road to working with teachers.  Once you have that support, you need administrators to view you as a team player.  Listen carefully and figure out what your principal and/or superintendent want to achieve.  Then show them how you and the library program can help make it a reality.  Just a word of caution –  you don’t want the teachers to think you are brown-nosing.  You will lose them completely. They may not be as good at showing administrators what they are achieving, so show how your work involves them and any and all support they’ve given.

You may not realize that you need to Explain Why but frequently you do. This is particularly important with any staff you have—paid or volunteer.  When someone offers a suggestion on how to do something in the library and you ignore it because it doesn’t work, the other person feels you don’t value them. Explain to students, teachers, or anyone if you don’t adopt their great idea.  When you explain, you could discover you didn’t understand the underlying reason for their suggestion and a great idea might emerge – in collaboration.

It’s so important to Recognize the Contribution of Others.  Remember the story of my two principals.  As I mentioned in Be Collaborative, every time a teacher does a project with you, let the principal know about it. Focus on the teacher.  Have a bulletin board highlighting the achievements of students (and not just athletes) and teachers.  You might talk about their crafting skills or other talents.  People like to be seen as worthy.

Recognize that schooling and degrees does not guarantee intelligence and the lack of them indicate that someone isn’t smart.  I once had a volunteer who had only an eighth-grade education. Her whole manner seemed to suggest a lack of intelligence.  It turned out she was smarter than many teachers and saw things I missed.  I was fortunate to have her in charge of my volunteers for several years. And yes, I let her know how valuable she was to me.

Be open to advice from custodians, secretaries, and students.  The academic decathlon students I advised were fantastic computer nerds.  When the tech department considered purchasing a new firewall, they had my kids test it out. They broke through it in slightly over a minute.  The tech department was appalled. The kids were quite justifiably proud of themselves.  And I was glad they were on my side.  I applauded their skills although in this case and for obvious reasons didn’t publicize it.

Leaders don’t make followers.  They create Leaders.  Look to Develop Others.  When you commend their talents and help them become better at it, they develop into leaders.  And they also become your followers and collaborators.

Over the years, I have encouraged librarians to take on bigger tasks and many have gone on to do great things in AASL.  I have mentored scores of librarians and I hope that my books – and this blog – offer librarians the courage to step out of their comfort zones and become leaders.

Finally, and obviously, Continue Learning. We are models of lifelong learners but also learn from your colleagues.  Let them know how they are helping you.  I planned to be a high school English teacher.  When I got my first elementary library job, it was the teachers (good and bad) who taught me how to be successful at that level.  When I was transferred to the high school they asked me what I would do there, thinking I was trained to be an elementary librarian.

I learn every day from posts on the School Librarians Workshop Facebook group as well as the other library-aligned Facebook pages. I learn from the e-newsletters I get daily some from ALA and some from business and tech sources.  As I have said, you are either learning and growing or you are dying.

So, ten ways to be heard. I hope you heard that at the core of all of them is building relationships. Remember the quote attributed to John C. Maxwell and Theodore Roosevelt — “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”