ON LIBRARIES: Overwhelmed

No fancy title needed.  It’s just what it is. At this point in the school year most of you are feeling this, and so are the people around you especially teachers and administrators.  It leads to short tempers, feelings of not being good enough, and exhaustion. It also affects your ability as a leader.  And while you are in overwhelm you don’t want to even think about being a leader.  It’s just one more thing you have on your plate and no time to do it.

You know the effects of overwhelm, its dangers, and perhaps how to deal with it. Your school may even have done a Professional Development session on this topic to help with times like this. But while you are in it, you have no time to put any tools into practice.  It’s a catch-22 situation. To get to the point where you can implement strategies for dealing with overwhelm, there is one simple remedy which is good, because you need simple at this point.

Breathe.

That’s it. Go to a place in your library where you won’t be disturbed.  Or go to the restroom. Close your eyes.  Take a deep breath in, and then let it out slowly. Take another and another.  When we are tense and overwhelmed, we shallow breathe.  This adds to the problem and ramps up the feelings.

Once you have made this method into your “first response” to feeling overwhelmed, you can employ special breathing techniques such as “square breathing.”  Breathe in for four seconds.  Hold for four seconds. Breathe out for four seconds.  Hold for four seconds.  The effects are immediate. And immediate is also good.

Now that you have a way to deal with those moments, you need a plan to minimize the frequency of attacks.  If you live in an almost constant state of overwhelm, your logical thinking is affected, you don’t bring your best to your family and friends (actually, you probably bring your worst), and your attitude sends negative signals to teachers and students.

Our world seems to be a 24/7 place. Information, questions, and problems keep coming in, and you feel duty-bound to respond—sometimes immediately.  This gives you little time to think and set priorities and the result is becoming more overwhelmed.

Breathe.

We are hardly alone in this challenge. The business world deals with this as well, and the Harvard Business Review offers a post from Rebecca Zucker on How to Deal with Constant Overwhelm. She offers five suggestions. (Keep breathing as you read on.)

Pinpoint the primary source of overwhelm – In the moment, we tend to give everything equal weight, but that’s not reality.  Something is stressing you more than other things. Is it a project? An aspect of your schedule? A personal issue? You may not be able to take it off your plate, but by identifying it, you can analyze why it is weighing so heavily on you, and maybe discover what can be done to reduce the stress somewhat. For example, if it’s a project, break it down into pieces so you don’t feel the weight of the entire thing all at once.

Set boundaries on your time and workload – This is hard for some.  We can’t work late every day and spend weekend hours doing more work for school.  Make sure you give yourself at least two days when you leave at a regular time and one day free on the weekend. You will have more energy and because of this, you’ll be able to produce more in less time.  This is one of those cases when less can lead to more.

Digitally generated My brain has too many tabs open

Challenge your perfectionism – Not everything needs to be completed to the same level of “perfect” whether it’s a display or end-of-day cleanup.  If you are working at two (or more) schools, stop trying to do full-time work in all your schools.  Discuss priorities with your administrators letting them know what you think is most important and what you cannot do because of your schedule.  Ask them for their advice and work with it.  (This is related to boundaries on your workload.)

Outsource or delegate – This can be a challenge (but then again, what isn’t).  Can you get student volunteers?  They may be more work at the beginning when you’re training them, but they can help.  Can you incorporate some tasks into your lessons? At the elementary level, kids can learn to put returned books on the cart in shelf order.  Little things help. Or how about a parent volunteer committee? On the home front, perhaps you can hire someone so your weekend doesn’t also have cleaning or lawn care as part of it. Even once a month can make a big difference.

Challenge your assumptions – What would happen if you didn’t do one of your jobs? I used to be upset about having new books and racing to get them on the shelves. Instead, I let teachers and students see them.  If they wanted one, they could borrow it. I would make a note of it and process it when it was returned. It got material out faster and was a lure to be the first to take the book out.

As you start putting these suggestions into practice you may notice many require a change of thinking.  (See last week’s blog). These incremental changes will add up and hopefully lead to fewer times of overwhelm. Just knowing it’s possible can be a good start. But since there is no getting rid of it completely, just remember:

Breathe.

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ON LIBRARIES: It’s All In the Mind

The brain handles more than our cognitive functions.  Our emotions are lodged there, controlling our thoughts and actions. Whether we are talking about mindfulness or mindset, our minds are the root of it, and anyone in schools today can quickly find themselves in an emotional minefield. Mindfulness has become an integral part of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and it’s being used with trauma-infused learning.  With so many of our students (and adults) living with trauma, knowing how to create a climate of mindfulness keeps the library a safe, welcoming space. And knowing what mindset to use at what time can be key.

Students with ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) can act out unpredictably. Since you don’t know the root cause almost anything can set them off, and they go into flight/fight—and sometimes “flee” mode. It’s bad enough when it happens in a class. In the library atmosphere, the effects can be magnified.

While your first reaction may be to tell the individual to calm down, recognize that no one has ever calmed down by being told to do so.  You have to be able to connect with the student in order to reach them. As always, it helps if you have developed a positive relationship with them.

This is where to use Mindfulness.  Students in this situation need to be brought into the moment and out of the fear and panic that are driving them. One strategy is to re-direct their breathing. When anyone goes into fight or flight, breathing becomes shallow and rapid.  By slowing the breathing, calm is more easily restored. Rather than instructing the student to take deep breaths, join them.  Say, “Let’s just breathe together for a while. One breath in. Hold. One breath out. Hold.”  Do the breathing with the student.  It will help calm your jittery nerves as well.

Once the student has settled a bit, ask what they need or offer suggestions. Do they need quiet time or do they want to rejoin the class? By giving some choice and not imposing your will, the episode will likely be shorter, and the student will come to trust you. NOTE: This is in general.  Sometimes nothing works, and you need outside help from the administration or security.

Mindset is related to mindfulness.  It’s how you view and react to any given situation. As the saying goes, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.”  There is much talk about fixed vs. growth mindset, and how to move from the former to the latter. Those with a fixed mindset believe that their traits and abilities are all they have to work with. Believing “I’m not good at math,” puts a limit on how well you will ever be in that subject. A growth mindset, assumes you are able to learn.  “With some practice and a little help, I can understand this mathematical concept.” You can find a good explanation (and an infographic) at  Carol Dweck: A Summary of the Two Mindsets and the Power and the Power of Believing That You Can Improve.

Most of you are familiar with these different approaches.  A growth mindset is incorporated into the AASL National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries. The term is specifically used in the Key Commitment for the Shared Foundation Explore: “Discovers and innovates in a growth mindset developed through experience and reflection.” (AASL Standards Framework for Learners, p. 4)

We work to have a growth mindset for our students and ourselves. It’s a part of lifelong learning. Our own inner battles with finding a positive way to look at a difficult situation help us understand our students’ struggles to do the same.

A growth mindset always struck me as an excellent way to develop a positive attitude toward life as well as learning, and I recently learned something that takes it to a new level. George Couros started with two columns from Carol Dweck’s work added a third- the Innovative Mindset.  His blog post Moving Beyond a Growth Mindset is worth reading.

He got me thinking with the first situation he presents on Challenges.  The Growth Mindset (where I was), says “Challenges are embraced, stemming from a desire to learn.”  His Innovators’ Mindset states, “Challenges are sought out as an opportunity to learn and grow.” That’s a very different focus. The remaining four: Obstacles, Effort, Criticism, and Success of Others are equally eye-opening. It’s obvious leaders can’t just have a growth mindset.  We need an Innovator’s Mindset.

Couros’s perspective throughout the article is compelling and memorable. It gives us another choice, another angle as leaders to make the changes and meet the challenges that can support our programs. I know I am going to be working on developing my Innovators Mindset to the work I do.  I hope many of you will join me.

 

ON LIBRARIES: Time to Go?

I have written about the difficult situations in which librarians find themselves and offered strategies and suggestions for dealing with them and improving conditions.  What I haven’t said is that sometimes nothing works. A recent post in the School Librarians Workshop Facebook group regarding teacher bullying made me realize there are times when a job becomes untenable. If that happens, it’s time to consider leaving.

I’ve had this experience and it’s not an easy one. In the district where I was working, I had an excellent relationship with my superintendent of schools but eventually found myself working for a new principal who was determined to keep my program from being too successful, believing that it took away from his own prestige. I managed the situation until my superintendent announced she was retiring in two years.  The handwriting was on the wall, and I wasn’t going to ignore it. I immediately began a job search. Once my superintendent was gone, the principal could act without restraint, and, given the nature of the district, I was fairly certain he would become superintendent a few years later.

Fortunately, I found a position in a short time and was extremely happy in my new school, where I stayed until my retirement. People asked if I was worried about losing my tenure, but I knew staying because of tenure was the wrong decision.  And my prediction about the principal proved true.  Four years after the superintendent retired, he took over the position.

Although the retelling makes the process sound simple, leaving a district is a big step and shouldn’t be taken lightly. As with anything that’s important, you need a plan.  You need to evaluate the conditions, and, if you decide to leave, ensure that the move improves your situation.

To help you evaluate, I recommend using a combination of the analysis tools SWOT (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) and SOAR (strengths/opportunities/aspirations/ results.  What are your strengths?  Don’t worry about your weaknesses.  What are your opportunities within your school?  How big are the threats to your program?  What are your aspirations and to what extent does the climate in your school impede them? What results do you hope to attain?

Be honest in your assessment. Eventually, you’ll have to ask yourself two final questions. Have you tried everything possible to change the situation?  Is it impacting your well-being?  If the answer to those questions is “yes,” it’s time to seek another position.

Jobs are not as plentiful as they were when I left a district, but they are available.  Let your school library contacts know that you are searching for a new position. Do not say anything in your school. Ask any vendors you deal with if they have heard of openings.  Check your school library association’s listserv for additional information. It may take a while to find a district that is looking for a librarian but don’t give up hope.  Keep planning for the move while focusing as much as possible on working with your students. If at all possible, don’t put in long days.  You need to limit the time you spend in an environment that is stressing you out.

Update your resume and make sure it doesn’t look dated. Create a portfolio describing the highlights of your program.  Include your Mission and Vision.  Put this on a thumb drive to bring to your interviews. Have enough copies to give to those doing the interview.

When you get a call for an interview, either take a personal day or schedule it for after school hours.  You don’t want to take a sick day for it. Do due diligence on the district in advance of the interview.  What can you learn about their priorities? The library program? The administrators?  What are the demographics of the school system?  You need to have as much knowledge as possible.

Check online for sample library interview questions to prepare you for what may be asked.  Make your own list of questions such as, What do they like best about the library program? (You will quickly find out what they know about the program.)  What don’t they like?  Why is the position open?  What is the library budget? And do ask to see the library.  If you don’t meet the librarian at the time, call and have a conversation with him/her.

At some point in the interview, you will be asked why you want to leave your current district. Do not make negative comments about it.  You never want to burn your bridges, and your response is a clue to the interviewers as to how you will speak of them. This is where knowing your goals for your program will come in handy. You can say you wanted more opportunities to… whatever would fit for the new district.

During the interview, listen carefully.  You want to leave your school, so you will automatically listen selectively for the reasons to think this would be a good situation.  Instead, listen for potential problems.  What would your schedule be like?  Are you teaching classes other than library?  Is the school fixated on traditional approaches or does it embrace a whole child approach?

Once you have signed a contract, and not before, inform your principal and send a letter of resignation to the Board.  It’s tempting to tell them just why you are leaving, but it’s better to keep it completely professional.  The administrators will know why, and again, you don’t want to burn bridges.  You never know if you will have to work with those administrators again, hopefully in a better situation.

When you are in your new job, don’t make negative comments about your old one.  Stick to the reasons you gave in your interview for why you wanted to leave. Talking badly about an old situation doesn’t help to build trust in your new one. Instead, speak about the opportunities you hope to have in this new position and with this new district.

Stay or go?  The decision is yours.

ON LIBRARIES: You and Your Administrator

Your principal can be your biggest supporter or can make your job more difficult.  Most of you work on relationship building with teachers, recognizing it as the first step in collaboration. The same is true with your principal.  Considering how important s/he is to your success, developing or improving that relationship should be a priority goal for you.

To initiate the process, you need to know who they are. Discover what your principal’s interests are, both professionally and personally. What are their goals?  Vision?  Do they have hobbies?  What are they passionate about? Listening to what they say, what metaphors they use, will give you some clues.  Searches on social media and the school’s website will reveal additional information.

Interest is the first step in building a relationship. Do you share any of the same interests and passions? Let your principal know. We are drawn to people who are interested in the same things we are. It doesn’t matter if it’s British mysteries, sports or the importance of literacy.

Follow-through is the second step. Share any information you find about these interests. Again, this works for both professional and personal interests. It gives you another reason to connect and strengthens the growing connection.

Empathy is the third step. Let your principal know you recognize the demands of their position and the pressures they face. While the school may focus on Social Emotional Learning (SEL), it is likely your principal isn’t doing it for him/herself.  Show when you have something that can help them reach their goals.

Trust is the final step which develops when building a relationship. You can’t have a relationship without it, which means you cannot be manipulative in building this connection.  Although having this solid relationship improves your program, the larger picture is that when you have the principal’s support – and you support the principal – the whole educational community thrives.

When and how you initiate these four steps is also important.  Some will be done in casual conversations which is easy when you have a principal who is a presence in the building.  It’s a bit more challenging with those who stay ensconced in their office or if you serve more than one school.

Brief emails are the most common way to inform your principal about websites and other information you have come across. If you have a hard copy of a magazine or professional journal and want to alert him/her, write a brief note and have the secretary pass it along.  Inevitably, you’ll get some type of positive response.

Once the relationship starts to have a foundation, you can schedule short meetings– no more than fifteen minutes – to discuss a plan or something you are doing for the principal.  Be sure you don’t go beyond the time allotted.  Ending early is best. When you have established your relationship, plan on a summer meeting to share what your goals are for the year and take the opportunity at this time to learn what the principal’s goals are.  It is a slower time, and you have the best chance of being heard.

In an article for Southwestern Musician (yes, this time I went way out of our field as part of my learning) entitled Communicating with Your Administrators, Rick Ghianelli and Jeff Laird offer the following practical advice:

Understanding the role of the administrator: Administrators are under even more stress than you and the rest of the teachers. You can tell by how much turn over exists. Test scores and tight budgets.  Kids with trauma. Developing programs promoting diversity.  All the issues hit their desk—and they are accountable to parents and the superintendent of schools.  As someone once told me, “they are drowning in detail.” Be aware and empathetic.

What are you trying to accomplish? Be focused and get to the bottom line quickly when you are asking for something.  They don’t have time for the details. If they want it, they will ask.

What do they need to know? This is also about focus and will help you keep your meeting/request brief.

Addressing your concerns: I can’t improve on the advice Ghianelli and Laird give here:

  • Be passionate about what you do, but know the big picture
  • Have some suggestions to solve the problem
  • Be patient and understanding

Maintaining support.  Your relationship needs to be ongoing. To get support, give support. Advocate for others and show you are a member of the team. Keep your principal aware of what you are doing in the library. Send a short email of a highlight for the week and make an effort to submit quarterly reports. Look for opportunities where they can participate.

When a principal recognizes the importance of the library program and supports it, the teachers follow.  While you are spending time building relationships with your teachers, be sure you are also developing the most critical one – with your administrator.