Happy National Library Workers Day..Go break some rules!

(Originally Posted Tuesday, April 15th, 2014)

Last week I attended a poetry reading by former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky at Playhouse Square. He appeared as part of the Writer’s Center Stage series that is a fundraiser for the Cuyahoga County Public Library Foundation. Anyway, while his poems were, not surprisingly, impressive, as was his remarkable intellect and cultural knowledge, the moment that stood out to me most was during the Q&A portion of the evening. A young MFA student approached and asked for advice about allowing sentimentality in poems, which is, apparently, out of vogue. (Not that any angst ridden teens would know)

Nodding sagely at the confines placed around talent, Robert Pinsky uttered this gem:

Well…You can’t do anything great if you accede to everything people say you should do.
-Robert Pinsky

He went on of course and further answered the young man’s question in context of poetry, but for me this was it, the whole point of the evening.

Earlier in the day I had answered questions about my management style. These types of questions always lead me to wonder how accurately any of us describe our own leadership styles. Do we describe who we are as leaders, or who we want to be? I want to be the type of leader who provides the vision and coaching needed to achieve organizational goals and help team members grow professionally. But, I know I have a tendency to want things done the “correct way.” I have to focus to make sure I remain a coach who facilitates another’s learning and growth, rather than slipping into a pacesetter and authoritarian.

While we were on vacation my friend Reagan found me the best cozy (or koozie for my friends and family in the South). It read:

I’m not in charge. I just know what you should be doing.

Darn tootin’!

The thing is, everything I believe in about the best way people learn, and what I know to be the best way I learn, is for the learner to be at the center, actively participating…doing the learning. I have to make sure not to take that away from staff either. If I prescribe every step or override too much, I’m not only taking away my colleagues’ chances to learn from potential failures, I’m removing the opportunity to discover new strategies and solutions from others.  Just like in the classroom, I need to be the guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage.

Leaders don’t create more followers, they create more leaders.
Tom Peters

A little over a year ago a group of us from my division went to a workshop at Case Western Reserve called Leadership as a Conversation. At one point the facilitator asked us to think of the person who has been the greatest leader in our lives. Then he said, I can guarantee you that this person made you feel smarter and more capable. Yep.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have a number of great supervisors who focused less on their bossiness and more on empowering their team members and growing their strengths, even if that meant growing them up and out of their own departments.  Coaching managers use crucial conversations to lead, whether those conversations are with colleagues that they supervise, colleagues who supervise them, or stakeholders outside their reporting structure. These leaders nurture talent by listening and asking right questions.  For instance, instead of responding to a colleague’s proposal with, “I don’t see how that can work with our budget,” the question, “How do you see that working with our budget?” gives room for creative problem solving and prioritizing by the employee.

Over the last few years I’ve been to dozens of library conferences and heard headliners such as Sir Ken Robinson, John Seely Brown, Artie Isaac,  and Mimi Ito all talk about the need to celebrate and nurture creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication, the skills that will help us innovate and thrive as a species, let alone as workers.  The library profession has bought into this whole hog. We all nod and smile and create our innovative-just-like-everyone-else makerspaces for our teens to build those 21st Century skills in Connected Learning environments, and that’s great.  But, somewhere along the way we failed to recognize the flaw in our approach.

How are we to grow creativity in others if we remain rigid ourselves?

Most library systems are operating with the same basic staffing structure (although, most likely with fewer staff) as they were 10 years ago, heck, 20 years ago, or more! If my grandmother came into a contemporary library today, she might not even recognize it as a library, but I bet she would completely comprehend the job descriptions for the library staff.

If we truly want to innovate and remain (or become) a relevant resource in our customers lives, we need to be as ruthlessly creative about everything we take for granted in libraries, particularly with the roles of staff.  We need to take a page out of the start-up book and hire for attitude and aptitude, rather than a satisfactorily completed checklist of experiences and easily acquired knowledge.  It doesn’t really matter if a new hire knows this particular piece of software today because it’s going to change tomorrow and every day for the rest of our lives.  By the same token, libraries everywhere are guilty of hiring for management “experience” rather than aptitude.  You may have completely demoralized your former team and driven off some of the best talent, but if you officially signed off on time cards, congratulations, you’re hired. A former supervisor once asked me to be a reference for her because she felt it was as much, if not more, important for a future employer to hear from one of her subordinates as it was to hear from her superior.  I couldn’t agree more.

 A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.
– Lao Tzu

Unfortunately, good leaders may receive little praise. If we truly engage our team members and facilitate their best efforts they may come to see us as just staying out of the way, and that’s okay. “First, do no harm,” is a minimum standard to which organization members at all levels should aspire.  But, if we wish to aim higher, we need to encourage creativity by fostering an atmosphere of experimentation; that means loosening hierarchies, moving from just having an open door to inviting folks in. We need to commend those who notice areas in which we could improve and suggest ways to do so, and we need to particularly praise those who follow good ideas through to completion, even if we didn’t quite believe it would work out. Not only do staff members need room for failure, they also need room for success. We have to be strong and confident enough as leaders to embrace challenges to our assumptions and encourage our colleagues at all levels to think critically and creatively.  After all, we can’t do anything great unless we do.

Toddlers, Teens and Tantruming Adults

I’m exhausted.  After working all day Friday, on my day off I woke up early to drive downtown, get a parking ticket while I figured out where I was supposed to park, haul about a 100 pounds of tech equipment from one end of Cleveland State to the other, spend 2 hours setting up and taping down cords, run around the classroom for 4 hours teaching, then haul it back away.

Why do I do these things to myself?

Well, for starters, because someone asked. 

About 3 weeks ago an organizer of the 2nd Annual Boys to Men Summit called up. Her son had enjoyed participating in robotics at the library, and she wanted to get these young men involved.  These young men, ages 10-17, were voluntarily giving up their Saturday to come and enrich themselves. On the day of the event, however, it quickly became apparent that some of these young men were not so voluntarily participating. Or at least, that’s what their slouched, disinterested body language implied.

I found myself having a grumpy old adult moment, wanting to wag my finger and admonish the students for not being grateful for my hard work and sacrifice, let alone that of all the hard working adults who had volunteered to organize this event.  My inner voice screamed, “Do you know what I had to go through to bring all this stuff here!?”

But the thing is, they didn’t. And why should they really care?  No one asked them if they wanted to come to the whole event, or even which sessions they wanted to attend. I expect that many of them were shamed into coming rather than celebrated for making a good choice.  Focusing on forcing gratitude from individuals who are rarely recipients of gratitude is a folly that should seem evident, but, unfortunately, is a scene that is repeated over and over again between adults and teens.

I’ve been providing consulting to a library board that is working toward finding positive ways to engage teens. Recently, a renovation of the library led to a creation of a teen space. Unfortunately, someone (of course, not necessarily a teen since it wasn’t witnessed) vandalized some of the furniture. Many of the staff entered into the classic gratitude folly. “See what happens? We spent all this money and the teens aren’t even grateful enough to respect the space!”

It’s a perfectly natural feeling.  It’s the same feeling that I expect mothers of young children have daily, when, sleep deprived, sticky haired and still adapting to the changes that birthing a baby has brought to their bodies, they stifle the urge to scream back at their toddlers who wail about the cruelty of having to take the nap that their moms desperately want themselves.

Here’s the thing.  We do hold back, usually, with little ones.  Why?  Because we know that they don’t know better.  We know that we have to be the adults.  We know that they have very little control over their lives, and that must be particularly frustrating when their toddler brains are hard wired to push them to constantly test boundaries.

With teens it’s somehow harder.  Like toddlers, their brains are hard wired to test as part of the brain’s transition from childhood brain to adult brain. Like toddlers, they have limited limb coordination, sometimes smell, and often react to the lack of control over their own lives with tantrums.  Maybe it’s because they’re chronologically closer to adults, or because they’re in bigger bodies, or, because being around teenagers reminds many of us of our own, often not so pleasant, teenage years and experiences, but when faced with sullen teenagers, most adults will revert to curmudgeon mode.  This rarely returns a good result.

Perhaps it would help us to think of teens as hidden toddlers, like the little alien inside the mechanical body in the first Men in Black movie. The same strategies work then. If faced with unpleasant behavior from the toddler/teen, we model the pleasant behavior that we wish to receive in return, we redirect when needed, avoid engaging in argument, and, perhaps most importantly, we remain confident, knowing that our fully formed adult brains and numerous life experiences give us the strength to be the leaders needed in any situation.

The point of the Boys 2 Men Summit was not, in fact, to celebrate my sacrifices and hard work, but instead to introduce the young men to positive activities and light the spark of learning.  After an internal deep breath I redirected my focus. Call me stubborn, but I was not about to let teen angst or adult narcissism get in the way of us having some fun with robots.  I had, after all, put in a great deal of effort to get them there…

So I ignored the sticks and stones looks and got to work talking with, and not to, the students. Once we worked together to problem solve and successfully run the first program on their robots, we were up and running. In every class that day, within the first 10 minutes, 90% of the students were hooked. Of course, it helps to have a lesson plan design that calls for creativity and critical thinking, and, quite frankly, robots are about the coolest redirect option ever.  Who doesn’t want to play with a robot?

But, even given that, in each class there was at least one student who never allowed himself to display interest, happiness or joy. Note the word display in the previous sentence. There are many reasons why a person would not advertise positive feelings, particularly when surrounded by unknown males, many of whom come from tough neighborhoods. Our job as adult leaders is to focus on the goal and encourage appropriate behaviors. Using clean language, following the class rules, and doing the class activities were the  required behaviors. Smiling was not a required behavior, but it was desired. It’s unlikely I would be rewarded with a smile if I returned surliness for surliness. Like the poster my mom hung in my room as a little girl said, “We must offer our hand if we are to touch another’s heart.”

Still, like toddlers, clear and consistent boundaries are key. It’s not only okay to address problem behaviors, it’s vital. Likewise is demonstrating appropriate sharing of feelings.  For instance, “I’m going to ask you to take your headphones out for our time together because when you wear them I don’t feel like we can communicate as well.” Calm, confident I statements do the trick more often than not.

All of these things are not new to me.  I’ve been working with teens for 15 years! I’m an unabashed teen advocate, who truly loves this age group, yet this is not the first time, nor will it be the last time that I’ve had to remind myself of my best practices or tell myself to woman up and be the adult. Teens are a royal mess. There are so many factors trying to screw them up from hormones, brain development, negative peer influences, unrealistic expectations, future pressures, and on and on. Unfortunately, around teens, adults can become a bit of a mess too, focusing more on our own insecurities than the teens we’re meant to be strengthening. We shouldn’t expect perfection from ourselves anymore than we should expect it from teens.

What we should do is remind ourselves, in our weak moments, that we are not here to be admired, thanked or celebrated; we are here to serve a larger purpose, the successful transitioning of children into resilient adults. In the words of Dr. King, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.” The trick is to focus on the service and the greatness of the cause and the greatness of the kids rather than the greatness of the adult leader. Serving teens requires a unique blend of confidence and humility mixed with an ample dose of empathy. Sometimes I won’t get the recipe just right, but I’m going to keep on cooking. 

Know Your Role… and brag about it!

I participated in an Every Child Ready to Read 2 session today. If you’re not familiar with ECRR2, it’s basically the methodology that librarians, parents, preschool teachers, and other adults who are children’s first educators use to help them get ready to read.
During the session, participants in our small group portion expressed a great deal of self-doubt. ECRR2 encourages storytime leaders to give thoughtful “asides” to parents.  So, for instance, while reading The Seals on the Bus, a librarian might point out to attending parents that the children are loving the rhymes and songs because it’s helping them learn about syllables and parts of speech. While of course we want to have fun learning with the kids during the storytime, the point is to help parents learn what they can do to help their kids get ready to read.
This is a change from the “old school” library ways.  Years ago, it was common practice to bar parents from attending preschool storytime based on a belief that it would help children transition to Kindergarten. Now we know that developing early literacy skills, the things kids learn about reading and writing before they can actually read and write, are the single most important indicators of a child’s future reading success, and thus increase their likelihood to succeed in school and avoid things like, jail and poverty.  Guess who kids look to most for guidance about how important reading and writing are, and how they can read and write?  Yup, parents.  Preschoolers echo what King Louie sang in the Jungle Book, “I wanna be like you!
Parents are not only a crucial ally in the quest to get kids ready to read, they are the number one force in the child’s chances for success.  Kids will mimic parent behaviors, which hopefully include reading, writing, singing, talking and playing.

Speaking of mimicking… You know who wants to be like librarians?  Kids.  It’s true.  I can’t tell you how many times parents have told me that their little ones played “Miss Sarah” at home.  They line up stuffed animals, dolls, younger siblings, good-natured parents and grandparents, and “read” books to them, sing songs, dance, and basically mimic everything we do in storytime.

You know who else wants to be like librarians?  Parents.  When their three year old threatens to melt down in utmost embarrassing fashion, who soothes them about how toddler brain development pushes kids to seek independence and test boundaries? When it seriously seems impossible that there are any books left on dinosaurs that they haven’t read 3,000 times, who finds the exact one that will please parent and child?  Lastly, which publicly funded employees do community members trust more than any other?  If you answered Librarians to any of the above.  Ding, ding, ding!  Give yourself 3,000 points!

So, from where does this worry about irritating parents with our knowledge emanate? The librarians in our group with this worry reflected on their own experiences as parents.  They thought that they would be annoyed attending a storytime at which the librarian periodically pointed out winning strategies.  Yet, it’s unlikely that parents would be offended if a swimming teacher told them strategies to help their children overcome fear of the water, or avoid drowning.

One issue is that librarians sometimes are afraid of grabbing that crown of Early Literacy Expert, and wearing it with the pride that they deserve.  One lady in our group asserted with full sincerity that parents most certainly do not seek her counsel or view her as a literacy expert.

example conversation with shy librarian:

But certainly a parent has asked you for recommendations for her reluctant or struggling reader?

Well, yes. 

Has a parent ever confided in you about his concerns about his child’s development, behavior or reading interests?


Did you suggest some resources?

Of course.

Did the parent take them?

um, yes, actually. 

Viola!  Congratulations!  You ARE a community literacy expert.  Here’s the deal though.  To keep this amazingly important job, you have to tell people about it.  You have to brag.  The work we do in storytime and generally around early literacy makes a huge difference.  Children who begin Kindergarten with the skills we help them develop are more likely to graduate from high school, stay out of prison, get higher paying jobs, etc…  People like those stories.  In fact, people like those stories enough to continue to pay for libraries and, you know, librarians.  But, they have to hear them.

Librarians, it’s time to get unquiet.  If you’re afraid that parents won’t like you telling them what to do, try this: Ask them to vote.  “Who here would like to know how your child can be ready to read by Kindergarten.” Chances are the parents are aligned with you in that goal.  Work on it together, and embrace your role. Librarians are the number one advocates and experts on early literacy. The best thing you can do to help the kids is to toot your own horn.

As we say in Baby & Me, “Sing out loud. Sing out strong. Your babies love your voice!”