When entering into our Teen Internship Program, I was prepared to mentor our teens in critical job skills to equip them for their futures. I wanted them to learn to work as a team, to gain confidence in their natural abilities, and to see that they are unique and important contributors to their communities. But my experience with our internship program taught me – once again – that the relationship between a teen and their librarian is different from any other. And I discovered that the most important lessons teens learn with us aren’t necessarily those we plan.
Because teens are still growing up and learning to handle an array of life skills, they bring all their learning needs with them to whatever they do. We think they are coming to an internship just to learn job skills, but they have more needs than that. And they might just turn to us for help. I don’t know exactly what it is about librarians that makes us more accessible than others. Perhaps it’s because we’re adults who are respected, but not authority figures. Perhaps it’s because we stand by the gates of knowledge (holding them open) and they instinctively associate us with the ancient figure of the “priestly advisor.”
Whatever the reason, I’ve found this special role requires being emotionally sensitive and available to our teen patrons. This summer, I discovered it to be crucial for our teen interns. Being the intern coordinator required a balance of being a job-skills mentor – directing events, guiding projects, and showing the ins and outs of the library – and being a life-skills mentor – a confidant, comforter, and encourager. My job was not just to teach things like how to successfully manage a program, but also to be keenly sensitive to any personal struggles. For one teen in particular, I had to understand the affect her struggles had on her performance and be patient so as to allow her time to regain her equilibrium. I mentored her through life lessons that were not related to job skills.
In some ways, I doubted our success in fulfilling the purpose of the grant because the most important skills learned were not career centered. Then I realized that success in the job world requires more than just a set of technical skills and job-centered ideals. A person must have certain personal qualities. I remembered the idea of emotional intelligence and did a quick search. I discovered that according to Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, there is “Intrapersonal Intelligence.” This intelligence is the “capacity to be self-aware and in tune with inner feelings, values, beliefs and thinking processes.” These are the qualities the teen intern developed over the summer. Qualities she will need in her work life as well as her personal life. And –wait – it sounds very much like the goal “to gain confidence in their natural abilities.” So in the end, being an “accidental” life-skills mentor was being a job-skills mentor.
Emily L. Shade is a Library Assistant at Jefferson City Public Library.