ON LIBRARIES: Teen Talk

Whether a teen is well-adjusted – or as well-adjusted as any teen can be – or one dealing with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) – they need an adult they can trust. And they need to find the library a safe, welcoming space.  For that to happen, you have to build a relationship with them. This starts with communication.  So, how do you open the conversation and build on it? If you are going to be successful at it, you should like the students and have empathy for the emotional stew in they are living in.

Having just completed the manuscript for my upcoming book Classroom Management for School Librarians, I am mindful of the importance of being able to reach teens.  Among mammals, the young adolescents push at the boundaries, learning their strengths and how far they can go before being stopped.  In our world, there is an underlying disagreement about how grown up they are.  Teens want to be treated as adults in the very areas adults think they are not ready.  At the same time, adults want teens to take on certain responsibilities that teens feel they shouldn’t have to do because they are still kids. It’s an ongoing challenge.

In the school setting, you rarely get involved in the same sort of push-pull tension that occurs between teens and parents.  However, you do have to get past any resistance they may have to you and to school in general. The best way to reach them and create a relationship is to interact with them as adults, while being quietly mindful that there are areas where they are still decidedly kids.

In a post on We Are Teachers, Alexandra Frost explains Four Ways to Show Teens Respect So You Can Earn It from Them.

Treat your students like an old friend you enjoy hanging out with – This is about talking with the students not at them.  A brief conversation when they are in the library, or even smiling as you see then enter creates connection.  You are letting them know you see them as a person.Do be careful here.  You are not their buddy.  You are still an adult, but hopefully one they can trust.

Ask something not “basic” – The conversation may be brief, but it shouldn’t be superficial. “How are you doing?” is not a good opening.  You are most likely to get a one-word answer.  A better question is, “What are you working on?” Or “What is your favorite app?  I learn so much from my students.”  Once you get to know them better, you can ask about upcoming plans or a movie they have seen.

Be awesome in your field – You are awesome, but you need to share it.  If you have found a great website or app, say, “Do you have a minute?  I have something to show you?”  Follow up with “Let me know what you think of it.” Not only will this keep the conversation going, you get clues as to what the student finds interesting – or not.  Give them a book you think they will love. Of course, be there to help and guide as they work on academic or personal explorations.  You are a master in the field, and they will appreciate your knowledge as long as you are not treating them as though they know nothing.

Use courtesies you would with a coworker – Show respect and you receive respect. When you interrupt a conversation with a student to help an adult, you are showing the student they are not as valuable. Be mindful. When you are giving a direction, say “Please.” Offer “thank you” when necessary.  These are small things, but students notice and it sets up positive expectations for future interactions.

That’s four suggestions, but Frost gives one more, and it’s my favorite.

Show them your mistakes – Let them know you are human and show them how to handle mistakes. When you do that, you are also teaching them that failure is a part of life and wise people learn from it.

In your dealing with teens, you want to be a role model for a caring, trustworthy adult.  In showing them the respect they crave, you will make them feel safe and welcome in the library and with you.

ON LIBRARIES – Building Relationships with Students

Students are our priority. No matter what else we do, what programs we create, what books we choose, everything we do in some way should further their development as lifelong learners, users, and producers of knowledge. We build relationships with teachers because they are the gateway to the students, but we also must build direct connections to students.

We want the library to be viewed as a safe, welcoming environment for all.  For students to feel safe and welcomed a relationship needs to be in place.  Students need to see you as a trusted adult with whom they feel safe in asking questions of all types.  Students (and adults as well) tend to avoid displaying ignorance and so may shy away from asking for help.  We know it’s in the questions that we all learn and grow so creating a place where they can ask is important.

To begin, smiles are an obvious way to welcome all. It’s not just for the opening week but how you want to always greet students and teachers.  Think positive thoughts as you do so to ensure your smiles are seen as real.

Using proper names is a good next step.  Unlike smiles, these can be a challenge for librarians because we have the entire population to learn.  In a large school, it is probably impossible, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep working at it. Try to add at least five or six names each week.

Sometimes we get help. Elementary librarians should have rosters for their classes.  Mark it with the correct pronunciation and students’ preferred nicknames.  You can use tents, fixed seating, and other similar techniques for the first few weeks until you learn names.

For middle and high school librarians who see students mainly as teachers bring their classes in, you can have them introduce themselves the first time.  There are a number of mnemonic tricks online to help you remember but apologize in advance because you will be asking them to repeat their names as you work to learn them.  You will soon know any regulars by name. And show your willingness to not know something by asking students to repeat their names when necessary.

Brief conversations can also help you remember names. Orientations are a good time to start.  Don’t ask kids what they did during the summer.  Some had terrible ones and are thrilled to be back where it’s safe. Instead, ask, “What do you want to learn this year?” It’s an excellent way to learn about their interests. Use their names in conversations to help you learn.

In ASCD’s May issue of Educational Leadership, Mary Ann Ware and Jodi Rath wrote an article entitled “4 Must-Haves for Positive Teacher-Teen Relationships.”  Although targeted toward high school, their recommendations work with even the youngest students.  You are probably implementing some of them even unconsciously. Their four must-haves are:

Consistency – Students need to have routines and boundaries.  It makes them feel safe if they can count on how you will react to situations and their behavior.  It helps them develop their own self-discipline.

Respect – Everyone deserves it. You will never get it if you don’t give it. Kids will reflect back to you what you demonstrate towards them. Be mindful of interrupting a conversation with a student in order to respond to an adult who came into the library.

High Expectations – Show you believe in students by letting them know you expect them to perform well.  You are still there to guide and coach them to reach their goals, but you don’t make things easy.  There is pride in completing a difficult task. This builds their self-confidence and motivates them to continue tackling other challenges.  Acknowledge their achievements specifically including their perseverance when things didn’t go right.

Kindness – The world is a tough place, and school is often no different. There are articles now about burnout in kindergarten. Be observant and note when a student seems distressed and, if possible, quietly ask about it. They may need to just be by themselves for a bit or sometimes talk to someone.  Your noticing and taking the time to reach out is how the library becomes a sanctuary and safe haven for so many students.

Your students are your priority and your advocates.  How you treat them and how they feel about you becomes known to their parents and teachers.  But most importantly, by building positive relationships with them you help them become global citizens who embrace learning and growing.