The first time I met with my Teen Advisory Board (TAB), the teens said, “Remember Operation Cat Lady,” then all of them started meowing, licking their hands, and generally behaving like sugar-energized teens or cats, depending on your perspective. I surprised them by whipping out my phone and recording their performance, rather than running in fear from their antics. Teens are a great asset to a library, and librarians who work with TABs are lucky people indeed. Here are some tips for running your TAB:
Do give socializing time at the beginning of the meeting. Teens love to chat, especially with their friends with whom they may or may not have just spent the entire school day. Letting them socialize will make it easier to grab and keep their attention later in the meeting.
Do take notes on what teens say. I provide my teens with an agenda for each meeting, but I keep one for myself and usually have my notebook with me as well. Then when teens have program suggestions, questions, or ideas, I can write them down and reference them later.
Do provide snacks. Teens love food! I could probably tell the teens at my library that we will be manually counting the pages in a print dictionary and if I provided snacks they would still come. I try to provide a drink, a fruit, and a snack item at each meeting. Usually the teens will eat everything I put on the table for them. If this becomes a cost issue for your library, you could ask the teens to take turns providing snacks for everyone.
Do have fun and also be serious. It’s hard to maintain a balance of both, but teens cannot deal with a long, serious meeting, even though you may want to get things accomplished. It’s best to assume that you’ll use about half your meeting time for productive things, and make sure to throw some fun in there, too! I often provide my teens with dot-to-dots or coloring pages or little fun projects to keep their hands busy while we talk, and I do get them back on track when we get off topic, but I allow that even adult discussions digress at times. It’s okay for the teens to be silly, and it’s okay for you to be silly with them.
Do be honest with the teens. If a program won’t work, don’t tell them that you’ll think about it. Tell them why it won’t work. They might be able to offer a solution, and even if they don’t, they’ll know that you had a good reason for saying no and that you did actually listen to them. If there are certain boundaries the teens cannot cross, let them know that, too. I have banned all homophobic, racist, and ableist language from our meetings, but I allow a fair amount of rough housing, especially since many of the teens in my group are siblings. Your limits will depend on your personal style and your community, but don’t assume the teens will “just know” how to behave.
Do respect and value teens and their input. We have teen advisory boards because we need teen input, so when a teen gives you input, respect it. Listen to what they have to say and consider their suggestions seriously. They will notice when you do and in turn will respect you more.
Do be flexible. This was the most important lesson I learned as a middle and high school teacher. Sometimes classes are interrupted by fire drills or assemblies. Sometimes the kids are too restless or too upset or too tired. It’s important to be willing to change what you’re doing. If a book isn’t working for my storytime kids, I’m willing to stop and try something different. I do the same thing with my teens.
Don’t let the group be too vague or take on too much at once. Your teens are not going to handle all of your YA collection development for you, for example. They may, however, be able to give you a list of books they’ve enjoyed recently, which can help you choose what to purchase later. If they are given a project (or create a project) that is too big, they won’t experience success and may become discouraged. Keeping their projects and goals doable will keep the teens coming back.
Don’t dominate the meeting by talking at the teens. After my teens socialize, I give them maybe three or four announcements, book talk a few books, and then allow them to divide into groups to work on various projects. They brainstorm program ideas, come up with displays, and are responsible for updating the chalkboard that is in our teen area. At the end we reconvene to discuss our results. There are times when the groups are more productive and times when they get very distracted, but our summary at the end helps them (and me) to feel like we’ve accomplished something.
Don’t set unrealistic deadlines. Teens are people, too. They have school and some of them work and many are involved in after school programs or clubs. They have families and other duties. Never assume they are making the library and the TAB their entire universe. For example, I usually have my TAB working on projects two or three months ahead of time. I do this because it takes time to get things done in a TAB meeting, and I don’t want any of us to leave frustrated because the deadline wasn’t met, or for the teens to see a project that was clearly done by me when they were supposed to be working on it. I want them to have success in their goals, and I need to leave them time to do that.
Don’t become discouraged. It takes time to build a rapport with teens. It takes time to build a strong TAB. Your TAB attendance will ebb and flow as well. Remember the long objective – turning your teens into productive members of their community – and shorter frustrations won’t be as bothersome.
If you could speak with your pre-TAB self, what tips would you give? Let us know in the comments!