Ask an Agent: How to Handle a Rough School Visit?

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Question:  I had a very rough school visit – rude faculty, they kept me waiting for 30 minutes in the waiting room, the 600 kids were out of control with zero teacher supervision. I heard later kids were saying pretty awful things about me despite my best efforts. The visit
wasn’t a total waste because some awesome library regulars were there- and some new teens signed up for events. But I can’t help but feel discouraged. This district has never played well with the public library. So I feel like I’m lucky that they even let me visit. How can
I do better next year (other than non-assembly style visits)? What can I reasonably ask of the school? Would it help or do damage if I spoke with the principal on how these talks went?

Jenni (Columbus (Wisconsin) Public Library) says:

I would recommend trying a different approach to a school visit, perhaps setting up a table during lunch or coming to a back to school night or similar event. Assembly-style events in a high school are difficult at best, and (as a former teacher) many teachers look at this time as a “break” from their teaching and are probably not paying any attention to what you are presenting. Your relationship with the principal will probably determine the outcome of that discussion, as will the principal’s experience in that school and motivation for working there. Some principals will be really helpful and try to solve it, while others may only be a principal in order to eventually move into district administration, so if this principal is only using this position as a stepping stone, s/he may not be willing to do much to help out. This could also be seen as making your visits more of a bother/hindrance than a help, so the school may be less willing to let you visit if you make this visit an issue.

Kelsey (Burnham Memorial Library) Public Library) says:

As a person who followed a hostile school/public library relationship, I feel you! And yes, a good portion of the time you sort of want to bang your head against the wall because that feels a bit more productive than what you just went through. However, perseverance, compassion, and some creative thinking on your part will eventually pay off–I promise!

The first thing is to do some digging. Why is has the relationship not worked in the past? What is the perception of your public library in your general community? How is the school library treated? How important to the school’s mission was your talk/visit? All of these factors are out of your control, but knowing what they are will help you tailor what is in your control to have a more successful visit next time. If the principal is your contact person over there, I’d definitely speak to them but only in the “what can I do to better help you out so we’re more successful next time” type language. S/he may be just as frustrated at how things went. Be prepared for this conversation knowing the answers to the questions above and have suggestions ready for what you can offer the school. If there’s a school librarian, S/he may be your best ally for coming up with ideas to work with the faculty and the school and may be a better person to start with if you don’t have a ‘point person’ contact. And naturally, at some point, gently bring up the fact that no adult, faculty or otherwise would be reasonably capable of supervising 600 humans unassisted and that even the presence of another adult would be helpful. If assembly style is what the school needs and can do, work with it as best you can.

In my case, my predecessor routinely ignored the school’s time restraints on talk time, pushed her own agenda ahead of theirs, and was apparently downright rude all the time. Thus, when they suddenly heard that another public librarian wanted to talk about summer reading–they obviously panicked! What if I was going to be just as awful? What if I didn’t care about the school’s event and wanted to hijack it as my own? What if I wasn’t going to work with them? My first visit was fraught for everyone involved–even the kids were nervous. It was shaky and uncomfortable and on paper a huge failure, but the overall answer was that no, I am not like my predecessor and we can start a relationship from scratch.

The hardest part of having a relationship with the school is figuring out what to reasonably expect from them. Sadly, I think the only answer to this is “it depends.” What does your school need? What resources do they already provide that make you seem redundant? I was asked why I should come in to book talk when they have a full time school librarian on the premises already–answer: the public library is open during school breaks so they should know what’s available to them when school is closed because we want to supplement their materials. In my experience, I have the best luck with finding things that mutually benefit both parties. For example, when I promote our summer reading program to the incoming 9th graders on Step Up Day, the talk is specifically about how their summer reading assignment fits in with the general teen summer program. I also offer them the opportunity to ask me for help completing their assignment while their teachers are on vacation and unreachable (and some of them actually take me up on it!) and I follow up with the Humanities department in the fall with how many teens and for how long and what topics I assisted with pertaining to the summer assignments over the summer break. I get zero program sign ups that day, but what I do get is presence because a good portion of those teens either already know me, or come to the library on their own to get to know me through this assignment.

In the end, managing a tough relationship is probably mostly on your shoulders in the beginning. Make it as easy as you can for them and be prepared to bend. You can probably generally expect that whatever communication method they prefer, you will not be the first priority for a return message, so give them extra time to respond and don’t be afraid to give gentle nudges that you’re waiting for answers. Give as much advance notice for whatever you’d like to do as you can and keep them in the loop about the public library. There’s one teacher who knows me as ‘the monthly library newsletter lady’ and even though she never knows what’s going on or how it matters, at least she knows I exist. 🙂


 Melinda (Galesburg Public Library) says:

Sorry about the rough visit – that sounds awful. I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask for faculty/staff support and supervision during a school visit. Whether asking for that support would help or hurt your relationship with the school, unfortunately, depends entirely on the principal’s (or whatever school rep you talk to) attitude toward the partnership. I will say that my public library had pretty consistently negative experience in partnering with our local junior high and high schools UNTIL I started initiating all partnership ideas with the school librarians, rather than with the administrators (or, honestly, the teachers). Our jr high and high school librarians have all been enthusiastic about partnering, provide all the “infrastructure” to make partnership programs work (hang in-school flyers, reserve classrooms, etc), and they always know what will and won’t fly with their kids. I would suggest (if you haven’t already) focusing your efforts for your next school visit toward the school library.


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