ON LIBRARIES: Stressed Out?

The school year has just begun and many of you are already feeling stressed out. Some degree of chaos is normal when you get back to work, and even if you aren’t in a new job inevitably there are changes you need to incorporate into your workday.

First – it’s important to decide if you are experiencing stress or distress. We tend to confuse the two. Stress isn’t all bad as I will discuss a bit later.  Distress is something else.  To deal with the issue, determine whether you are stressed or distressed.

When you are distressed you can’t focus.  Your brain bounces from one idea, one task to another. You

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can’t decide what to do first.  You tend to feel irritable and anxious and everything becomes hard to do. In addition, you are exhausted because you don’t sleep well, and that exacerbates the problem. An element of fear frequently comes into play as you wonder if you will ever get your situation under control.  For newbies, worrying about being able to do the job only heightens the fear.  Experienced librarians who have been thrust into a heavier schedule often caused by being given an additional school or a change in grade level also undergo periods of anxiety.

If you are in a state of distress, you aren’t leading.  And as leading is critical to the success of your program, you need to move from distress to stress.  Yes, you need to move to stress.

Since feeling continually out of control is one of the key elements of distress, begin by writing down all the things that are causing the situation. This will immediately reduce the swirling and noise that’s going on in your head. Identify by numbers which are the most important/serious and which less so.  Put a star next to any that are in your control to change and a minus next to the ones that are out of your control. You can also consider an extra star for those items you know you can change somewhat quickly.

Next, come up with a plan to address the most serious situations that are also within your control and deal with it.  As you eliminate these “distressers’” your anxiety level will go down. Once you have dealt with the ones in your control, review the ones that are out of your control.

What has caused them?  Some can’t be changed this year.  Others are the result of factors outside the administrators’ control.  However, a few will be caused by erroneous perceptions of administrators or others. For these, develop a plan/strategy to change these views remembering to not be defensive or accusatory in your communication.  When you have a plan to follow, you will slowly distress.

By contrast, stress is a normal part of our lives. When we manage it well, it has us moving efficiently from task-to-task, from problem-to-problem. Sure, we’ll have rough days, but they’re a part of what can be normally expected. If we have too many stresses or too long without an abatement the stress can become distress. Be alert for the possibility so you can put the de-stress techniques into play early.

An article entitled 7 Ways Mentally Strong People Deal With Stress, Amy Morin is mainly talking about distress, but her techniques work at both ends of the scale. She says mentally strong people accept that life always has setbacks.  I find it calming to recognize I have had huge problems before and managed to deal with them.  I will do it again.  Look to your past successes.

Next, she says, They Keep Problems in Proper Perspective. Just because something goes wrong and you don’t immediately start a downward spiral.  For example, you have a lesson prepared and the internet is down. Unfortunate, yes, but you are creative and flexible. Revise your plan. It doesn’t mean the whole day – or even that lesson – will be a disaster.

Third, They Take Care of Their Physical HealthIf you don’t feel well everything is harder to deal with.  Make sure to incorporate healthy living as a priority in your life.  This includes eating well and finding an exercise plan that works for you.

Along with that one They Choose Healthy Coping Skills. Hobbies, meditation, bingeing on a favorite television series help.  So does “allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions.”  Bingeing on chips and sweets? Not so healthy.

Number five is They Balance Social Activity with Solitude.  Socializing with friends and family puts us in a positive frame of mind.  We also need quiet downtime.  Our days are filled with talk. Sometimes you need silence. (I know we aren’t shushing librarians.  This is just for us.)

I particularly like They Acknowledge Their Choices.  I had a friend who stayed in a job she disliked because she chose to be near her ill mother.  She streamlined her job and stopped doing the “extras,” and accepted the conditions as part of her commitment to her mother.  We all make choices.  Sometimes we need to get out of a situation, but other times we need to recognize what got us here, what keeps us here, and what we plan to do about it.

Finally, They Look for The Silver LiningThis doesn’t mean pretending all is well. It means looking for what you can learn from it or what is good in the situation.  Has it helped you develop your coping skills?  Do you now have more empathy for others? Did it force you to learn new skills? Do you now prioritize better?

I don’t think I know anyone who is not stressed.  I also know many who are distressed.  You can’t afford to stay in the second group.  One of your new leadership skills will be showing how to move from distress to “healthy” stress.

 

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Farewell to a Friend and Leader

On Friday, September 7, the library world lost one of its stars, and I lost a friend with the passing of Ruth Toor.  Although Ruth withdrew four years ago from being an active presence in that world when Alzheimer’s made her unable to continue, her contributions were extensive and deserve to be celebrated, and I am honored to be in a position to do that.

Ruth became a librarian after her children started school.  For her entire career, she was the school librarian at Southern Boulevard School in Chatham, New Jersey.  She is still remembered there, but because of her commitment to libraries and librarians, her influence went much further.  Ruth was president of EMAnj (now NJASL) and in 1992-1993 was president of AASL.  She also was the recipient of the EMAnj President’s Award given to someone who “has demonstrated excellence and has advanced the profession of school library media specialist.”

During Ruth’s tenure as AASL President, the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund in conjunction with AASL created Library Power which invested $40 million in nineteen communities across the country to transform school libraries.  Schools receiving the funds had to have a school librarian.  Barbara Stripling wrote about the program after it had been in progress for several years.  It showed what we can do when the funds are there.

My connection with Ruth Toor began the summer of 1976 when we both took a course at Rutgers University leading to a Supervisory Certificate for librarians.  Purely by chance, we both chose the same topic, a Volunteers’ Manual, for our culminating project. Our classmates, all of whom were leaders or future leaders in the state found the manual to be such a good idea, they urged us to get it published.

Through one of my volunteer mothers, I was connected to an editor at a subsidiary of Prentice Hall.  He wanted us to go beyond just a volunteer manual. Seeing the possibilities he did, we expanded the book and The Elementary School Librarian’s Almanac was published in 1979.  No one had seen anything like it before.  Up until then, there were books on Children’s and Young Adult Literature and tools such as The Fiction Catalog.  No one had ever written about how to do a better job as a librarian.  It was assumed we learned it all in library school.  We were pleased to learn the book even reached high school librarians.

Because of the book’s strong sales, we were asked to do a 10-month newsletter for school librarians and the School Librarian’s Workshop was born. Ruth and I worked together almost once-a-week starting to get out the first issue in September 1980.  At the time, Ruth would do the final typing before sending it to the printer.  I remember how life improved when she, and then I, got our first computers.

Over the years we wrote many more books.  (You can still find many of them for resale on Amazon). The most recent ones we wrote for ALA Editions, and they are still available.  We started presenting first at our state’s conference and then at other ones across the country.  I remember when Ruth went to Alaska to give a week-long course to the librarians there.

These facts about Ruth are familiar to those who have been in librarianship for many years, but not many know about her past.  Ruth was born in Austria as Hitler was rising to power.  Her father wisely decided they needed to flee the country. Arriving with virtually no money, he took a job that paid far less than what he had been making (I believe he had been a lawyer.) and the family started over in the United States. By the time Ruth was fourteen, she had a job of her own working as a typist.  She was excellent at it, as she was with everything she did. And in the days before word processing programs, I was truly envious of her speed on the keyboard.  If I remember correctly, she eventually worked for the governor of Delaware.

Ruth and her husband have always been strong believers in “giving back.”  They funded a literary award at her alma mater, the University of Delaware and have also have been contributors to AASL.  She never self-promoted, and she and Jay live simply.  Ruth has been a role model for integrity and a life of service to one’s communities. Her husband, Jay Toor, has funded the Ruth Toor Grant for Strong Public Libraries in her honor so that her legacy and commitment can continues

In many ways, I lost my friend years ago when because of the disease, she could no longer remember me, but now it is time for a final good-bye.  Farewell, Ruth.  My life has been richer for knowing you.

ON LIBRARIES: A Safe Welcoming Environment

back to school. color pencils

Labor Day is over, and the majority of us are back in school. We are eager to welcome students to the start of a new year and want them to find the library a safe, welcoming environment. It’s so important that students and teachers feel this way about the library that the phrase is in many school library’s Mission Statement.  But are we doing everything we can to make it a reality?  Are we inadvertently doing things that create barriers to achieving this goal?

Let’s start with the term “environment.”  Some people say, “A safe, welcoming, space,” which is significant. The room needs to convey that atmosphere, greeting everyone who walks into the library.  As you enter your library this week, try to see your library with fresh eyes.  Walk in and look around. What do you see? What feelings does it communicate?  When I first walked into a library I was about to take over, I immediately noticed some old shelving stored on top of the high bookcases along the wall. Despite the library being summer-neat, those old shelves sent a message of disuse.

Libraries don’t have to be neat.  Good ones rarely are during the school year. But that kind of disorder conveys the feelings of activity with students and teachers exploring ideas and information for academic needs and personal interest.  The message you don’t want to send is one of dusty and musty, which is what the old shelving were saying.

What else does your library say to those entering?  I once visited an elementary school during the summer as part of a district-wide evaluation of the school library program.  The “rules” were neatly printed and posted on two different walls.  If I remember correctly every rule began with the word “No.”  And that was my reaction to the library – NO.  Even as an adult I felt unwelcome.

Your room may be safe and welcoming, but are your policies?  Too often we have set rules that are barriers for many students.  Just as you looked at your library with fresh eyes, you need to do the same for these rules. To make the library a safe, welcoming environment for all, rules (or guidelines) should preferably be developed with student input.  When reviewed with the incoming class, students should be asked whether they agree with the rules. What would they change? Add? When you do this, you give the students a stake in the library and the success of the program.

Recently, a regional library system eliminated fines because these were a barrier for patrons.  Although a large percentage of your users don’t think twice about the minimal cost of fines, for some every penny counts.

Having to pay for lost or damaged books can keep students from using the library the way they should.  Yes, they should be responsible, but it’s better if you can find alternate ways for them to pay for these items and do it in a way that won’t cause them to feel embarrassed. Some libraries allow students to “work” off the cost by helping around the library.

Not allowing students to borrow a book if they have overdues detracts from the library being a safe, welcoming environment.  What is more important — reading or being responsible for what was borrowed?  So many external dynamics can make it difficult for students to bring back books in a timely way, whether that’s custody arrangements, homes that are in turmoil due to substance abuse, physical abuse or illness or any of a number of challenges that are impacting their success.

Which brings me to the issue of diversity in your collection.  Students need to see themselves in the books they read as well as see others who are different from themselves to engender empathy and understanding. We have become more alert to this issue and I am heartened to read of the ways librarians are working to ensure that their collections have books about different ethnics, lifestyles, and home conditions. It can be difficult to accomplish the desired level of variety in some districts, but it’s imperative that we do the best we can to add as many titles of this nature as possible. From books, I learned about rural life, single parenthood, and many other lifestyles far removed from my own world.  It helped me become a more tolerant, empathetic adult. Think about the people and situations you encountered in books long before you encountered them in the world. What can you bring to your students to give them a broader view of the world?

Don’t forget to address students with disabilities especially in the physical layout of your library.  How high is your circulation desk? Are there students who have difficulty accessing computer-based information.?  What changes can you make to address these challenges? Speak with a guidance counselor to get a good handle on issues your students are facing. Then assess your collection and library arrangement to determine what changes need to be made.  If money is a problem –and it usually is—look for grants to help.

Another way to support student connection is to display student-produced work throughout the year which shows you value them and the many varied contributions they make.  Collaborate with the art teacher to bring these projects into the library, rotating them monthly. You might consider having a bulletin board for student achievements whether it’s a sports’ team, academic competition, the drama club production, or student-participation in a community service event.

There are many big and small ways to create a library with a safe, welcoming environment for all, and when you do so you create a lifelong difference for your students and teachers.