Learning, Teaching, and Teen Mentors

Now that we’re actually in range of decent New Year’s resolution-making, I’ve been thinking. I actually started my first set of resolutions (reading more diverse books) last night – but more on that later. I also was thinking about what I want to learn this year, and what I want to share with others.

I asked that question of my Teen Advisory Board at the meeting just before Christmas. We were sitting there, decorating cookies (well, some were just unabashedly shoveling sprinkles into their mouths), and I asked what they were good at that they could share with others. It took some prompting – most of my teens didn’t seem to think that their skills were anything to call home about. But one of them managed to come up with accounting – accounting! – and figured she might be able to help middle school kids with math, or high schoolers with creating a balanced budget. It was a great start, and pretty soon the rest of the group had their own skills to bring up – baking, video games,  painting… the list went on.

Then I asked another question – What do you want to learn that you’re not sure how to start? This was a hard one for them too. We talked through this one based on the other question. Some of the teens really wanted to learn to bake, or how to design video games. A few even acknowledged that it would be a good idea to learn how to budget, since they’re old enough to get their first jobs.

Once the ball was rolling, we started to hear some more – robots! applying for college! dancing! It turned into a great discussion about how we could shape our programming going forward by allowing the older teens to mentor and teach the middle graders.

We can’t start that til this summer, at least not officially, since the Winter/Spring schedule is already released. But it’s a good path to be on.

The Value of Mentorships

There’s been a lot of discussion about mentors and mentoring programs around ALA lately, or at least I’ve picked up on more recently. As I’m about to graduate (pending the last few assignments), I’ve had the chance to think about the many people who have been my mentors over my short library career. They have been people who have been genuinely invested in my success, no matter what definition of success was used. Even before I knew I wanted to be a librarian for the rest of my life, I was lucky to have people in my workplace that were open and honest about the challenges of their work and how I could deal with the challenges in my own work and education.

I started as an “apprentice-track” page, as I call it. While I was officially a shelver, we had several long-term pages with high library aspirations, and management at our library was gracious enough to let us get our feet wet. Things like cataloging theory were explained to me in practical terms, I was allowed to participate in the logistics of setting up and running children’s programming, and I learned to understand the basics of collection development, even going so far as to contribute to weeding. All of the staff took care of us, but there are a few, thinking back, that were clearly mentors in my life, and I continue to touch base with them as I continue my career.

I went through a few jobs where I felt disconnected and disoriented, and while the lack of a mentor connection in those jobs cannot be entirely to blame, I wonder if it contributed to it. There was no one to go to when I encountered problems except formal meetings with my manager, which were stilted, and worse, on the record. It made it hard to admit to struggles I was having and ask for advice when I always felt like such an admission would lead to the chopping block.

My most successful professional mentorship came about by an accident of circumstance. The library where I interned this year hired the director after I was onboard – about 6 weeks after. I had settled in, knew some things, and had plans already set for the year. But early on she made it a point to be open with me about what she did and where she wanted the library to go. She was then open to ideas from me about various small contributions (or big ones, like the website). We both knew that the library would be unable to hire me at the end of my year, and so a more open relationship developed than would normally be ok from a boss. The work of being a director in a small library was often discussed, from writing reports to memorial books, to hiring and firing procedures. We talked about the stress of coming into a place where everyone else had been there longer, where patterns were already ingrained, and what happens when not everyone is on board with an idea.

We’ve had a lot of discussions, often informally on lunch hour or after work for coffee or dinner. There was never any declaration that she was my mentor, but I certainly know where to go when I need to discuss work, especially now during my uncertain transition from academia to job hunting. She’s in my corner – and that’s the kind of mentorship that I have benefited from all along.

I can’t say that those without mentors can’t make it – they can, and many have. But mentorships have had such a huge impact on me that I have to recommend finding someone doing what you’re doing and striking up a conversation. I’ve learned so much that has bridged the gap being theory and practice. Mentorships don’t have to be formal, they just have to be real.