Taking Your First Job: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

One of my students emailed me exuberantly announcing she had just accepted her first school library job that was beyond perfect: close to her home, in a fairly new school, with a supportive principal, in a grade-level she wanted. I could picture her doing a happy dance! Then, in the next instant, the tone of her email turned sober as she realized, “I have accepted my first school library job! OMG! Where do I start?”

I remember how over-the-moon I felt when I got my first job and then how elation turned to panic when I realized this is it! This is where the rubber finally meets the road. The moment of truth. Time to fish or cut bait.  Time to remove the training wheels.  This is really happening. I am a school librarian. rubber meets road

Even putting myself in her shoes now dredges up anxious memories. Walking into the school library for the first day, seeing the naked circulation desk, the seemingly yawning rows of disheveled shelves, the awkward stack of equipment, the vacant walls, the stark bulletin boards, the blinking network closet, the glare of florescent lighting, the bare office, the unopened boxes, the dust and vestiges from my predecessor – it definitely gave me pause.

We come to our profession as new school librarians knowing, with our freshly inked degrees and licenses, that we have been well prepared by our coursework. We are confident and eager to put our ideas and beliefs into practice, to do the work we have been primed to do as teachers, instructional partners, collaborators, co-teachers, advocates, managers, leaders, team-players, networkers, technology integrators, professional developers, data-driven decision makers, innovators, book-talkers, literacy leaders …  Whew!  It is no wonder that we may feel some trepidation.

Perhaps this challenge to our self-confidence is simply a safety mechanism that keeps us from charging in rashly and asserting ourselves as the new school librarian in town. In the case of my student, her professional instincts kicked in and she immediately reached out to two experienced, respected school librarians for advice. They both encouraged her to hold off making major changes until she had a better lay of the land. She needed to be patient, observant, and a good listener. This was great advice. Coming in as the new school librarian along with a new principal, she needed to give the school community time to adjust and herself time to assess how and where she could make the most impact.

Is this to say that a new person should not make any changes? Absolutely not. However, the initial changes should be well thought-out, logical, practical, helpful, purposeful, and defensible –  those involving cosmetics, routines, procedures, processes, and policies that would be different from a predecessor and immediately impact business positively.

Other ideas for the first days on the job might include:

  • Start with a task that can be easily accomplished so by the end of the day you can see progress and feel successful. Day one could entail setting up the office, adding pictures and posters, becoming familiar with the workspace and then doing the same thing in the common areas. Prepare the circulation desk for business, fire up the circulation system, and begin prepping the library for your debut. Think about what you can do to make the library reflect your vision? How can you make your space (even in an older, neglected library) exude warmth, invitation, and vitality?  Assess the space around the entrance. What could be done to make it more appealing? What about signage? Is it obvious from the hallway that this is the library and everyone is welcome? Put your mission statement in a place of prominence and be sure it emphasizes collaboration, cooperation, and student success. Post the Standards for 21st-Century Learners and/or your state standards prominently as well to help set your course and inform others of the school library’s connection with the curriculum. Think about the visual message you want to convey about the library and the new librarian.
  • Analyze the demographics of your school (if you didn’t do so in preparation for your interview). Learn about the population you will serve, test scores, areas of strength and weakness, student and teacher needs, connections to the community, and then determine how the library can relate and support.  Develop your ideas to share with your principal, teachers, and parents. Add them to your website.  Emphasize your interest in co-teaching, building inquiry, supporting technology initiatives, leading professional development, etc.
  • Study the previous year’s annual report to determine strengths and weaknesses in terms of the collection, technology, use of the library, teaching, etc.
  • Schedule a meeting with your principal. Be prepared to present:
    • Your first-year goals (KISS principle)
    • Your suggested budget (based on the annual report and demographic analysis)
    • Small changes you would like to make and why
    • Your need to be a part of the leadership or school improvement team
  • Befriend the PTO chair. Arrange a meeting to discuss how the PTO and the library can be mutually supporting. Offer the library for board meetings and volunteer to talk to the board about the library. Make sure the PTO will help recruit volunteers for the library at open house and through parent communications. Suggest that the PTO might support whole-school literacy efforts. Ask for a board member to serve as a library liaison.  Talk about how book fairs are handled.
  • Write a welcome letter to teachers and plan for a meet and greet during the workdays. As an icebreaker, ask each teacher to write down a lesson or topic idea in which s/he could use your help. Select one for a door prize (perhaps offering to read to the teacher’s class). Have a signup sheet for teachers to list the best days/times for you to meet with them.
  • Prepare care packages for new teachers using the opportunity to welcome them to the library and convey your interest in working with them.
  • Make sure your website is helpful and informative. It can be a work in progress but it definitely needs to be vital.

There are many useful things you could do to start your first days on the job. The one place where you probably shouldn’t start is with the collection.  You will no doubt be tempted to wade into the familiar waters of the stacks. There will be new materials to add, books to repair, shelves to straighten, outdated titles to weed, displays to build, shifts to be made. Wanting to work with the collection is natural. It is where your confidence as a librarian surges. You are drawn to it because you know what to do. It feels comfortable and safe, however, it is not the place to start. Instead, de-emphasize resources and emphasize people. No matter how much the collection needs you, your teachers and students need you more.

Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/profile-mature-rubber-auto-tires-507092/ License: CC Public Domain.

Author: Anne Akers

Clinical assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of NC at Greensboro working with school library candidates. Former elementary, middle, and high school librarian in Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics

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3 replies

  1. This is really good advice. It can also work if you are starting at a new location. Better to wait and watch how the flow works before you make any big changes. We don’t always understand how the changes we make may affect the whole community. As you stated try to find a few people who use the library heavily and ask casually what they think big changes. They may not even understand why the change is needed or that it is not just a way to drive out the ghosts of a previous BELOVED librarian.

    It has helped to show that I am interested in “improving” things rather than just changing them. It gives me the chance to gain supporters in case the results are different than what I expected. I also get to hear of things they want and need ans well.

    Always looking for a Win-Win!

  2. Great suggestions! Especially the one about befriending the PTO pres!

  3. This is an encouraging post, especially for one just starting the journey with library school. As a new student, it’s been difficult envisioning my future life in librarianship. This article gave me a glimpse, and instead of fear, I felt reassured by your articulation of words like “community”.

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