30 Days of Back to School: Transitioning from a Public Library to a School

In August, I left my job at the Darien (Ct) Library to become the Academic Technology Coordinator at Hamden Hall Country Day School. While I’d begun my library career as an independent school librarian (at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in western Massachusetts), I have never been in the classroom before.’  Having now switched from a school to a public library and back again, I feel like I’m getting a pretty good sense of the overlaps between the two areas, as well as the significant differences. If you’re considering making the move to a school, here’s what I’ve learned in my few weeks on the job.

You’ve got a lot of names to remember. One thing that surprised me about working at a public library was that I didn’t really get to know the teens in the same way that I did as their school librarian. And already, I can see things swinging back in the other direction; when you see students every week, you do get to know them a bit more quickly, and perhaps even more deeply. I’d always assumed that working in a public library meant you could be more relaxed with your patrons–they can call you by your first name, you have more unstructured time with them, there aren’t teachers giving you dirty looks when you don’t shush the students (cough)–but in actuality, I found that I was more cautious with the teens, and they never opened up to me in the way that my students have. Now, I’m sure there are public librarians who will have had totally different experiences, so your mileage may vary. I will only say that as a teacher or a school librarian, you are a constant presence in your students’ lives, which can help build trust.

There’s a LOT to learn. If you are joining the ranks of the school librarians or becoming a teacher without any formal education or training, as I did, you are going to have to play a lot of catch-up. Not only are there new rules to follow, there are new resources, new politics, new challenges. And I have never worked at a public school, which I imagine is even more of a culture shock in terms of regulations and policies. In terms of school culture, I would recommend finding a mentor. Try to avoid putting your immediate supervisor in this role, though certainly that person should be a go-to resource and sounding board. A true mentor can help guide you through the uncharted territory of your new workplace and can listen to frustrations that you don’t necessarily want to run by your boss. Ask lots of questions: what is expected of me in this situation? What resources are available to me? What’s the best time to hit the caf? I noticed people wearing jeans even when the dress code says we can’t – what’s up with that? Schedule regular meetings with as many people as you can fit into your busy schedule: your boss, administrators, key teachers, the librarian (if you’re not that person). Ask for feedback.

And in terms of learning how to do your job, well, maybe that’s another lengthy post for another time, but in short: reach out. Use social networks to get human answers to your questions (as opposed to Google). I use Twitter constantly, both to ask questions of my network of friends and to follow professionals who post great ideas and resources. Follow the blogs of other teachers and librarians. I’ll list a few of my favorites at the bottom of this post. Use tools like Delicious, Diigo, and Evernote to keep track of resources, ideas, and schedules. Ask your IT manager to help you use your school’s intranet or website to its full potential. Sync whenever possible – use Google calendar to keep on top of your schedule from home and on your phone, and use Dropbox to make your files available no matter where you are.

Be open to new ideas. No matter where you come from, you’re going to take your prior knowledge and experiences with you. But you don’t know everything about your new job. Maybe you’ve been a librarian for ages; you’re still new to this position. It can be frustrating to go over things you’ve already been doing for years, but it’s still important. Every institution does things differently, and the act of learning from your colleagues helps you form relationships with them. It’s great to bring in new ideas and to share your past experiences, but it’s also great to sit back and watch and listen. Visit classes, have lunch with different teachers every day, and be open to both new ideas and tradition. (And at the same time, try try TRY to avoid listening to too much gossip. Gossip is everywhere, but there’s nothing worse than hearing something crappy about a colleague you’re starting to like, or getting discouraged based on other people’s opinions. You’re your own person; you create your own relationships and experiences.)

Give yourself time. Be easy on yourself. Don’t expect that by November you’ll know all the kids’ names (no WAY), get elected faculty liaison, and develop a brand new blogging program. It’s awesome if that happens, but it shouldn’t be your goal to be the perfectest, most wonderful librarian/teacher your school has ever seen. Take baby steps and learn how to be good – or at least competent! – at your core responsibilities. You are going to make a ton of mistakes, and if you’re like me, you’re definitely going to turn bright red in front of a couple of classes. It’s OK. Again, what does your manager expect of you? What area of your job is the biggest stretch for you? Focus on those things: classes. Updating the website. Keeping the pathfinders current. Emailing people back. Setting up meetings. Smiling at your students. Grading. There will be time for major projects. Promise.

You’re awesome. You want to work with teens, and that’s great. As long as you keep their needs and interests in mind, commit yourself to learning, work hard and stay honest, you’re golden. Have fun. Good luck. And I’m on Twitter if you ever need anything!

Suggested blog reading

About Sarah Ludwig

I am the Academic Technology Coordinator at Hamden Hall Country Day School in Hamden, CT. Prior to that, I was the head of teen, technology, and reference services at the Darien Library in Darien, CT. I started my library career as a school librarian at a small boarding school in Western Massachusetts.
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One Comment

  1. Thanks so much for these great tips and for recommending my blog. I spent time btw as a library media specialist at a PK – 8 school in central Harlem. I certainly hope the writing in my blog is helpful to those who are pursuing the profession.

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