I love being a school librarian. Seriously, I absolutely love it. It’s the best job in the world. But…after my first year as a school librarian, I sought out a therapist to help manage my mental health. This decision was directly related to my career. Education can be a stressful profession for most, and it’s no different for school librarians. For me, the stress stemmed from feeling like I was on an island of my own and I didn’t have a boat. In my previous profession (also in education) I was an integral part of the school. My contributions were recognized, valued, and seen as essential. We all wish this to be the case for us as school librarians, but for many this is not a guarantee, especially when you are new to a school community. It was hard for me not to take it personally when no one was interested in collaborating with me; teachers didn’t understand the work I was doing or how I could contribute. It felt like there was something wrong with me and that no one wanted to be my friend. In therapy, and through building relationships with other school librarians, I learned to correct my thinking. Those relationships also turned into a great support network, and I eventually built similar relationships with colleagues in my building. Getting professional help was essential for me at the time. Recognizing that is hard and important. I no longer feel the need to participate in therapy because of my job. I am happier than I have ever been professionally, but I believe therapy is great for everyone at any time so I still see a therapist occasionally. However, that doesn’t mean that I am never stressed about work or that I always take care of myself in the way that I should while working. Self-care should be intentional.
To be as effective as possible in our work, we first must take care of our own health and happiness. When you are on an airplane, they direct you to put on your breathing mask before helping anyone else; it’s the same for school librarians (and all other educators). You can’t help save others if you can’t breathe. I’m talking about both mental health and physical health. This is something I have discussed time and again with that support network of school librarians I mentioned earlier. One of my group had a similar experience and I asked her to share her story:
I began to consider the importance of self-care at work when I was going through a difficult time in my personal life. I could tell that my stamina and emotional reserve were much lower, so I had to take intentional steps to be able to make it to the end of the school day, and then on through bedtime with my daughter. I learned to monitor these things because I wanted to be able to give quality service to my teachers and students, but I also needed to be a mom when I went home. I couldn’t “do it all” and “be all things to all people” like I was used to. That wasn’t a healthy place to be anyway (as I learned later). One thing that helped was to take a break during the day and go for a walk. Our school had a mandatory activity period and this became a lifesaver for me. I could go outside and be alone and have about 20 minutes to myself. I got mad about the library having to be closed and bemoaned the lack of services. But then I realized one day that my student body and teachers had adapted to my change in schedule. People are flexible. They will figure out another time to come to the library. But that time I took for myself paid off immensely because I was sharper and more patient when my library was open. I made a space in my office with a comfy place to sit in the dark. This became a place I (or students or other teachers) could come to cry or be alone or just catch their breath. My library became not only a place for books and computers but a place of rest and restoration for myself and others. I automated as many processes in my library as I could, providing written instructions to give to students for things I was tired of explaining. I moved the printer so students could retrieve their own papers. My supervisor told me that if a teenager could do it, then a teenager should. I put more of the onus on the student to do the work when they could. It took some training and growing pains, but it made a difference. I am no longer chained to the desk, with students reliant on me for every little thing. I am very lucky to have student aides who could help with library tasks and teachers who watched the library while their classes were in the library so I could slip away for five minutes. Those few minutes I invested in my own health provided myriad benefits than if I had plugged on and never stopped to take care of myself.
–Emily D., Knoxville, TN
I posted in a school librarians group on Facebook and asked how other librarians manage their self-care. These are some of the responses I received.
- “Find a coworker that supports you and the library and spend a lot of time with them. Ignore the ignorant comments about your job.” –Annee B.
- “No matter what, I always take my 30-minute lunch. I choose to take it solo because taking those 30 minutes to myself to zen out with an audiobook is how I keep myself from burnout. Our HS library is full of active students all day (we are not a quiet library), so those 30 minutes of unrelieved ‘me time’ really help me keep my energy and positivity up in the last half of the day.” –Kelsey B., PA
- “I hardly get out of my library space sadly and what I need to do for my sanity is to have a physical outlet. I work out and have a community of people that I check in with. I have also connected with these library FB pages and they’ve helped me greatly since often we are the ONLY LMS in our building or district.” –Sarrah O., Wauwatosa, WI
- “I found that one of the biggest things I could do for self-care on the job was to make sure I had healthy snacks at my desk or in my work space. There was so much junk food available, whether from the school’s vending/lunch services or stuff people brought into the teacher’s lounge. I had to make sure I always had yogurt and cheese sticks and chopped veggies (when I was lucky enough to have a mini fridge in my office at one of my schools) or nuts, crackers, and other healthy, portioned-out snacks (when I didn’t have a fridge).” –Lisa Gonzalez Newton, Monterrey, CA
- “I manage self-care as a library media teacher by making sure I take time for me each day. This takes the form of a 20-minute workout, reading in my bedroom, or taking a drive before picking my daughter up from childcare.” –Dr. Jessica Dennison, Library Media Teacher, Kettering City Schools, Kettering, Ohio
You can also find some great tips from this 2019 SLJ article.
Other things that help me stay mentally healthy are:
- listening to podcasts (particularly true crime, which I find oddly relaxing)
- continuing to foster those relationships I have built with fellow school librarians, work colleagues, and others in my community by participating in book clubs, having meals together, etc.
- reading for pleasure as much as possible.
Let me be clear at this point that the issues my colleague/friend and I encountered did not stem from abusive situations in the workplace. The tips that are included here are coping strategies for staying mentally and physically healthy in a demanding career. If you are in a situation at work that is verbally, emotionally, or systemically abusive you should seek professional help. For more on low morale among librarians and its causes check out the work of Kaetrena Kendrick. A twitter thread leading to her research can be found here.
What coping strategies do you use? How do you stay mentally and physically healthy while providing your best to your school community?
Author: Brandi Hartsell
Brandi Hartsell is the school librarian at Halls High School in Knoxville, TN. She was awarded Teacher of the Year at HHS in 2021. Brandi was also recognized alongside colleagues as recipients of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL) Teacher Collaboration Award in 2019 and 2021. She has served (and continues to serve) in many leadership roles within TASL. Brandi has presented professional development sessions for TASL, Halls High School, and Knox County Schools. Brandi loves sharing ideas and brainstorming…also cats…and true crime. Follow her on Instagram @hhslibrarytn.