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The Art of LIstening

Have you ever had that dream.  You know the one.  It's the first day of school.... AND you're late.... AND there's a test... AND you're not prepared.... AND you (or everyone else) seems to be in their skivvies? My first day of school was sort of like that. Minus the (partial) nudity.

I didn't arrive late, (which will shock those who know me personally), but there was a test (of sorts). And I wasn't prepared.

Like a lot of y'all, my first official day back to school, a teacher work day, was punctuated by the year's first faculty meeting. Because I'm new to the school and don't know anyone, I wanted to make a good impression, so I got there on time (or early in Jennifer time) and was greeted immediately by my principal who welcomed me to the school and said he was excited to have the staff "visit my station" today.

Ruh roh.

As it turns out, instead of a typical faculty meeting, where 130+ staff members sit and listen to updates from various departments, my principal had something else in mind. Instead, he'd designated stations throughout the school which all staff members, in small groups, would gather to hear said updates and talk about how the folks at each station were prepared to work with them to make this a great year for our students and each other.   The idea was that after all the rotations, every staff member would have visited all the stations and still had a couple of hours at the end of the day to work in their classrooms.

Now... I want to go on record as saying that I love this idea! However, because I'd yet to be put into the school's email group, I was unaware that I was on the list of stations that each and every staff member would visit.  Which meant I had nothing prepared.  So much for making a good impression. :)

Luckily, however, I'd recently read this post by my friend David Grossman, a former (and future!) school librarian turned science teacher in Kentucky.  I love, love LOVE this post which recounts David's first days with students and how the decision to listen to his kids, rather than just talk at them, had sparked something magical in the relationship that was being formed between them during the first few days of school. I'll say it again. I love this post so, so much. And I knew the moment I read it that it would influence my decision making as I began my 18th school year as a teacher. What I did not realize, however, is that it would save the day the moment I got there!

So... here's what I did.

Since I only had about 20 minutes with each group, I started by telling them a little bit about myself and also about the grants I'd spent the last few weeks working on, in the hopes that they'd be able to infer a little bit about my vision through these plans. Then I followed the example David had set and passed out post it notes, asking each staff member I saw that day to answer one question:

What would it take to make you see bringing students to the library as a good use of your instructional time?

I tried not to influence their responses, but I did tell them that, as a former classroom teacher myself, I knew instructional time is sacred and that I hoped they would "dream big."

Immediately, I was impressed by how thoughtfully each teacher (and other staff members) answered the question. They took their time. They thought about their responses. Many of them used multiple post-it notes to share their thoughts. Soon I had a whole table full of dreams - wishes for our library from folks who have been using it for far longer than I have. I could hardly wait for the day to end so I could dive into all of the data!

Naturally, (I am a librarian after all), I began by sorting the post it notes into piles based on the general focus of each wish for the library. In the end, I settled on five categories: 1) Mission: suggestions focusing on the purpose of the library and/or how the librarian supports the work of classroom teachers and impacts student learning.  2) Atmosphere: suggestions related to making students and staff feel welcomed and important in the library. 3) Collections: suggestions related to materials, technology and other resources. 4) Physical space: suggestions related to design, layout, furniture, etc. 5) Other: suggestions that didn't fit into any other category!

I'm still working through the specifics of the suggestions, making lists and looking for resources to help make those dreams come true, but I've already learned a couple of important lessons from this exercise.

First, it's clear from what was written on each small square of paper that the folks at my school view the mission of the library and the way students/staff feel in the space as far more important than the collection itself.  And I gotta tell you... this is so empowering! For those of us with physical resources that are older than we are, it can be easy to feel deflated by insurmountably dated collection statistics and tempting to focus on everything we don't have. rather than on all that we do! This data reminds me that the relationships I build with students and staff through what I do each day and how being in the library makes them feel, are far more important than the materials I manage. 

Don't get me wrong, patrons of my library DESERVE recent and relevant resources.  And I will work to strengthen the collection of materials housed in the library.  But armed with this data, I feel better about tackling this one day at a time, in accordance with the funding I have and can earn throughout the year, while focusing on my work as the primary linchpin for change in the space.

The second thing that stands out from this exercise is how delighted and genuinely surprised the teachers at my school were by having simply been asked their opinion. So many of the post-it wish lists began with lines like "OMG! Thank you for asking us!" Or "Thank you for caring what we think!"  One even said, "I have no idea, but I'm so excited you asked me! PLEASE LET ME KNOW HOW I CAN HELP YOU!"  Their responses were sincerely joyful.  And while many of the "dreams" they listed were, to be frank, not nearly as big as I'd been hoping for, I learned as much from the scope of their desires as from the suggestions themselves. But most importantly, perhaps, what I learned is that these people are on my side.  They might not know exactly how to make it happen, but like me, they want a library where students and staff feel welcome and that they can rely on as an important instructional resource and a place of learning that they can be proud of.

In the end, I'm so glad that I wasn't prepared for the first day of school! Who knows, perhaps if I *had* gotten the emails stating that I'd be part of the program on day one, I'd still have decided to spend a good chunk of the time I had listening instead of talking, but I have a feeling my first day presentation would have gone in another direction.  


In his post on listening, David Grossman lists some of the responses he got from students when he asked them what kinds of things made them feel respected, followed by this reflection:

"Isn’t this what we want as adults as well? We want people to show us that we matter by looking at us and really seeing us. We want to live free from the fear of being singled out, embarrassed, or belittled. And we want people to listen to our opinions, taking them into consideration whenever appropriate."

This year, I hope to use my ears as much as, if not more than, my mouth. And I hope I remember that building relationships is the key to everything else.   Like many of you, I have a big and important job ahead of me this year.  One that has already left me feeling overwhelmed and defeated more than once.  The one thing I know for sure is that I can't do it alone.  I will need the people behind  all those post it notes that are still sitting, sorted into neat piles on my dining room table.  Thanks to having to think fast on my feet on day one, I've already taken the first step towards building a meaningful relationship with them.  And as day one turns into day ten and so on and so forth, I'm looking forward to what comes next. 


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