Self-Care Tips for School Librarians

Avoiding burnout was a focus of several sessions at this year’s ALA Annual Conference. Setting limits and learning to say no are among the ways that school librarians can help themselves.

Let me first say that I am not good at self-care. I would even venture to say that I stink at it. In fact, one of my primary motivations in writing this article was to invest more time in thinking about managing my own self-care. This is something that is difficult for librarians—school librarians in particular.

Self-care is a fraught topic in schools. While administrators encourage us to look after ourselves, we are simultaneously assigned lunch duties, where we monitor the cafeteria while shoveling down yesterday’s cold leftovers, hall duty, afterschool clubs, and early morning meetings. Unlike classroom teachers and public librarians, there are no scheduled “breaks” or planning periods for many of us, and we can’t leave students alone to, for example, take a moment in the restroom.

Attempting to work at full throttle without those breaks has led to a high rate of burnout. Teacher librarians are leaving the profession at the rate of 9,200 per year (Kachel, D. E., & Lance, K. C. Changing Times: School Librarian Staffing Status. Teacher Librarian, 45(4), 14-63). There are many factors to consider, of course, including lack of money for the positions. As school librarians are increasingly required to prove our relevance and fight for funding, the rate of turnover is only increasing.

At the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Meeting, there were several sessions on self-care, including “Self Care is not Selfish,” “Balancing Baby and Book Discussion,” and “Sidestepping Stress.” All of those were presented by public and academic librarians, which puts a bit of a different spin on the topic. It was heartening to hear how they deal with the stress of working so intensely with the public. But school librarians have a slightly different set of stressors, and those need to be addressed. By us. So, while there was a lot of overlap, school librarianship requires some different strategies.

We all know the signs of burnout. The ALA speakers’ lists included: tardiness, missed deadlines, “going through the motions,” exhaustion, and feeling overwhelmed. These are similar to those experienced by school librarians—although, we can probably add impatience, brain fog, increasing introversion, and deficit mindset to our list.

To avoid burnout, the speakers advised that we say “no,” work within time limits, hydrate, and break up tasks. These are all solid suggestions that, with a little bit of tweaking, apply to school librarians as well. We’ll talk about them one at a time. Remember, this is a list of tips to help stave off burnout, which is about mental health more than anything else. The crushing weight of prolonged stress can’t be easily brushed aside. So, take care of your mental health. You’re not alone in struggling with a demanding profession, and school librarians are not replaceable. Get help if you need it.

Say no

That’s easier said than done when we must continuously justify our jobs. Saying “no” really isn’t in our personalities—or even an option much of the time. We can’t say no, but we sure can say, “Help!” and we need to more often than we do.

Many tasks can be delegated to library committees, student interns, and library volunteers. Library committees are great for setting policy and taking a lot of the decision making about large, impactful programming off your hands. Interns can tackle shelving, make signs, and tidy up. Library volunteers can handle tasks as they are able and skilled. USE THEM! Believe me, I know how difficult it is to not have total control, but the library is a community place and the community needs a hand in running it.

Work within limits

This is genius. It was so, so freeing for me to declare that I would not work after 6 p.m. One day I received an email at 5:45 p.m. saying that a teacher needed something before their first period class the next day. But, because I promised myself I was trying these strategies, I got up early the next day to help out. Technically, 5 a.m. is before 6 p.m.

Creating scheduling limits was awesome and awful. The timing worked fine for me, because I’m a morning person and it preserved my evening with my family, giving me time to relax and refocus. I also was not allowed to freak out about anything that came my way after six. If you are not a morning person, declaring that you will not work before 8 a.m. may work better. It was a lovely feeling to take a very intentional scheduled break. It won't work every day, but more often than not, scheduling a bit of time each day when work is verboten helps a lot. You are worth it.

Hydrate

As the speaker encouraged us to “hydrate,” I laughed a little to myself, thinking about the difficulty of taking a bathroom break. This is a notorious issue among teachers, nurses, and truck drivers. Symptoms of dehydration make a nice Venn diagram with the symptoms of burnout. Brain fog, exhaustion, and lethargy co-occur. In other words, hydration is really important. For school librarians, it is less about input than output. While it easy to walk around with a water bottle while working; the challenge of getting bathroom breaks is really the crux of why we’re chronically dehydrated.

Scheduling strategies are a possible solution here as well. While everybody is different, kidneys process 800-1000 ml per hour. So, somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour after consuming water, you’ll have to use the restroom. That can help us better gauge when we need a break.

Other suggestions for timing your breaks include doing so when another teacher is present. For example, when you are co-teaching and students are engaged in a task, slip out for a minute after letting your colleague know that you’ll be right back. For elementary school librarians, it might be possible to steal those two minutes when teachers bring their students for library time. Asking a fellow professional to hang out with their own class for a moment is reasonable and necessary from time to time.

Lastly, grab a buddy. If there is a flexibly scheduled person in your building, ask if he or she can spell you once or twice a day for breaks or trade with a teacher or someone else close by to the library who is trying to hydrate better also. It’s worth the asking.

Break up tasks

Constantly feeling overwhelmed is often the flashing warning that burnout is nigh. No amount of breaks or water will cure the fact that you are walking around with a crushing to-do list. We have to get out from under if we have any hope.

Breaking up tasks into smaller lists makes them seem more approachable. As opposed to writing, “Plan reading challenge,” try making it smaller: “make challenge booklist,” “write reading challenge announcement,” “make reading challenge sign (student).” And yes, put whomever you are delegating the task to right next to it. Because it is so satisfying to cross things off the list, having a longer list of small things releases more dopamine.

Apps such as Google Keep, Momentum, and Wonderlist are efficient and easy. If you enjoy gamified rewards for completing items on your list, Habitica, Epic Win, Forest, and Carrot To-Do may be more your style. Reward yourself for crossing things off. You deserve that small shot of happiness.

Other tips

Try a desk day. This is a strategy that I picked up from the podcast Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam. In essence, we schedule a day to do all of our hidden tasks. Circulation, shelving, planning, cataloging, etc. and all those sit down tasks can be grouped together in a block of time once a week—leaving the rest open for the usual round of activity. I am not in any way advocating for closing the library during those times. When I tried this, it was more about intention than execution. No, it is not possible to have seven uninterrupted hours, it is possible to not intentionally schedule work time on top of teaching time.

Invest in organization. Money is an investment, but so is time. Making an organizational system in August will pay dividends in February. Pausing to make a task flow that will work long term may help with that overwhelmed feeling.

Get inspired. Go to a conference, read some positive blogs, join a book group, hang around with somebody brilliant, or brainstorm something brilliant yourself. You can’t change others, but you sure can change your own situation and your own attitude. Take back that power over your own small little universe and make changes to stave off burnout.

A 20 year veteran of Albemarle County Public Schools, IdaMae Craddock, M.Ed is the librarian at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, VA. She has a precocious daughter, an understanding husband, and a lazy dog named Peacha.

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Shawn Weisser

Wonderful tips on K-12 librarian self care. Thanks for sharing!

Posted : Jul 10, 2019 10:25


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