Wednesday, September 07, 2011

(Iron Fist Sold Separately): Welcoming environments

There may be a shift in my blog away from reviews and more toward: what's going on in the library, how things are going, my experiences as a #n00blibrarian, etc. I notice I get more comments when I write about stuff like that, but it's not just that. I feel like I get more out of stuff when I document it. It's not all about you all the time, Reader!
It's my life and I can do what I want!
Anyway... Even though I haven't been reading chapter books lately (with no real detriment to my referencing abilities; though I have yet to suggest Calvin Coconut to anyone, so maybe it's actually for the best) I have read:
-Dirty Little Secrets by CJ Omololu
-Stoner & Spaz by Ron Koertge

And I just picked up two more books to read in the next few weeks:
- The Enchanted Places by Christopher Milne (yes I saved myself like 50 dollars by reserving that from a nearby library) I may just make a goodreads or librarything widget for my books. Any preference? Never used either so I'm looking for recommendations.
This is the name of the workshop. For real.

Anyway, the first professional development I'll be giving (when I talk about The Boat) is tomorrow. Last night I wrote up some things I'll be saying to go along with the morning script, which was given to us but needs to be embellished a bit. I get to talk about two "principles" to mindfulness with patron interaction-- one is relating to a feeling powerlessness and another is creating welcoming environments.

Powerlessness: The script says to talk about "last week" when I saw a mom and kid in the grocery store: "I was the grocery store a few weeks ago. A woman had two toddlers and was talking out loud. She said, 'James, it is not my fault that you did not take your nap. I'm tired and I need one, too!'
Yeah, James.
We all have this happen, this powerlessness. People are doing the best they can with what they have!
We need to have compassion and understanding. We don't need to know the whole scenario, but it helps to remember."

Now, this is a fine story. But it didn't really happen to me, or to anyone I witnessed. I figured this was disingenuous,  and that the principle of "powerlessness" isn't about an objective understanding of the idea of powerlessness and more about recalling (probably hurtful) memories of times that we have felt powerless in order to empathize properly.
Here is what I am going to add. This is a true story:

Truth is, even though it helps to remember, we hate to remember when we’ve felt powerless, and God forbid we share it… but in that powerlessness, that vulnerability, is our humanity. And to feel the true empathy we need to be effective in the  project, for others, we have to draw on these experiences.
And because of this, I gotta say: what I just said didn’t happen to me. It was part of the script. I need to share with you a time that I have felt powerless. 

My very first career, fresh out of undergrad, was a position teaching second grade in downtown Detroit. I had 35 kids in my charge, and only 2 of them spoke English as their first language. I was 21 years old.

I remember one child who I felt especially powerless attempting to manage. I thought I needed reinforcements. I approached my mentor teacher about this who referred me to the school the social worker. It was decided that I would try a time out chair for her, because it worked on Supernanny.

I don’t know how many of you have seen Supernanny, but most of the episodes are spent on children screaming for hours in the time out chairs until their wills are broken. This was happening, for me, in a very small classroom as I attempted to teach social studies.

Here's your social studies.
To say it was a disaster was an understatement. That day, I let an 8 year old girl take control of my classroom. I was employing a rule that did not at all work for me, but was powerless to stop knowing that the suggestion came from an outside source.  I’m sure other classes in the school heard my problem (and her incessant screaming), but this was not a class anyone willingly helped out with. I was alone.

I wish I could say how I then handled the situation correctly, but the end of the day came and that was that.

What did I learn from this exercise in powerlessness? Never suggest to someone a method that I have not seen work first hand; especially not one from a reality show! But the bigger lesson I gathered: people who were attempting to help by giving me a “quick fix” did not understand the severity of my situation or even the reality of my classroom. The depth and reality of patrons’ problems is not something that we ever know. We cannot assume that our intervention will help.

All we can do is attempt to remove them from a situation that is detrimental. Instead of butting in with a suggestion, try asking, “Hi. What can I do to help you?”

I could have come up with about a billion times I've felt powerless. I have cerebral palsy, and deal with situations everyday that I feel as though I should be better at, or shouldn't need help with (like carrying groceries). But this isn't about bringing that up and thus pushing the audience past their own feelings of powerlessness, assuming that mine must be greater; it's about pulling them in to a situation that truly has no solution, and having them relive the powerlessness with me, but not creating such a vulnerable situation they shut off their emotional reactions. Everyone has felt this way one time or another, even if they want desperately to forget it. But these feelings help to connect us to others in a genuine way.

 I also pull from my own life when discussing "the environment". I do touch on things I'll talk about the Boat in the afternoon. Mainly because the amount of social convention is expected in the library vs the clarity with which these conventions are communicated to patrons is disconcerting. It's almost like you need to be part of a secret club and learn 50 handshakes before you can set foot in the library! So much for welcoming environments... 

We can create safe environments by outlining clear expectations for our patrons. How easy is it to find a specific book? To browse books? How in the world are they supposed to check out? A welcoming environment includes all things to remove anxiety about being in the library. If someone feels like “a fish out of water” they’re not going to return! As public institutions we can’t afford to assume people know what to do at the library, or how to do it. I meet parents every day who haven’t been to a library since they were kids, and grandparents who have been away for 40 years!

We’ll be talking more about our environment in the afternoon, but let me tell you a great way to make people feel welcome:

Smile. Say hi. And mean it.

Coming from an industrial community south of Detroit, MI, I grew up with the notion that you didn’t speak to people unless you had business with them. And even when you did, small talk was just not appropriate. Why do you want to know about my time away from work? I slept and took my kids to the park and went grocery shopping in my pajamas. Maybe spent time at a second or third job. Same as everyone, so let’s not remind each other of the monotony of our lives and let’s just get to work. When passing people, smile if you know them. Avert your eyes if you don’t.

That’s not a criticism of where I grew up at all. I just want to give you an idea of where I came from, what I believed to be politeness, when I moved to the South.

I was not at all prepared for the first few days as a reading coach in a rural Florida town. I’m not speaking professionally, even though I soon learned one main reason they hired me was that I would work for boiled peanuts (which are awesome, by the way).

No. The thing I wasn’t prepared for was how people smiled all the time. And looked you directly in the eye. And spoke every single time you saw them. Seriously, I would pass the same teacher on the sidewalk 5 times a day and every time they looked directly at me and verbally acknowledged my existence. I learned that after 2 “Hi’s” you just said, “Allright!”- “Allright, Mr. Jones!”- but you spoke. That was polite.

It was also polite to ask lots of questions about your colleagues and be interested in who they were outside of the work place. I knew how everyone’s mother was doing and the sermon that they heard at church on Sunday. People I’d never met would bring me turnip and mustard greens because they heard I was from the North and I needed to know the difference. Things that, in Detroit, might seem as either aggressive or violations of privacy-- That was polite.

That’s not a criticism of the South at all. These were things I came to accept as social conventions, though when I moved to WI, I did look forward to getting rid of many of them.

But you know what I found when I came here? The weirdest thing happened: I said hi to everyone. I speak to everyone I see (okay, maybe just the first time I see them). I noticed: saying hi and smiling all the time puts me in a good mood. I say hi to families as they come into the children’s room, and bye when they leave. Sometimes I’ll ask them what they got when they are checking out. Most people actually talk a lot about the books they chose; and even if they don’t, at least I am practicing a welcoming environment.

I felt the need to tell this story because, in spite of myself, I am always cognizant about smiling at people, and saying hi. Things like greetings, I think, are things a lot of people take for granted. Make a point to make eye contact with a patron. Make a point to say hi, to smile.

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