Starting from the bottom and teaching my way to the top

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jessica Kiebler, Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College.

My journey into the world of librarianship started with my failure to get a job as an elementary education teacher. I’ll never know if that was due to the over saturated job market or my newbie skills, but one would think that with my undergraduate degree in elementary education, I would be ready to take on library instruction like a fish to water. However, I was never truly confident in front of 30 screaming children so while the transition to libraries wasn’t surprising, getting a job as an instructional librarian was a bit daunting. So if I didn’t want to teach, then how did I end up in an instruction position at an academic college instead of a public reference librarian? Good question. After five years as a librarian and one year in my current position as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College, I decided to reflect on my journey from uncertainty to confidence.

You have to start somewhere

More than a year after graduating with my MLIS, I began working as a solo librarian at a small nursing college that needed a librarian to create their library. Yes, create a library from nothing but shelves, an ILS and a computer. Thankfully, the Director of Education had purchased hundreds of books before I had started and I began the task of cataloging them and organizing the physical space. Not only was I in charge of reference, maintaining the collection and all policy creation but also designing an instruction program. It was an amazing opportunity to learn but also very intimidating in my first professional position without the assistance of a mentor or experienced librarian. I took everything I had learned from my MLIS program and my undergraduate pedagogy courses and combined it with my own research to create a basic instruction program to show students how to use the library resources. The resulting lessons were basic but worked for the limited time and prior knowledge of the students.

Smarter, not harder

As any educator knows, the best lesson plans can mean nothing if an instructor does not have classroom presence or presentation skills. My lack of confidence showed through to my students so while my lesson plans were well written, my pacing and poor question prompting did not create a cohesive experience. I was also dealing with a short amount of instruction time combined with a student body who had little to no computer skills. This made getting experience in teaching actual information literacy very difficult because my classes became so much more about getting students to access the library website or about how to navigate a browser. As it became evident that this was not isolated to my first few cohorts, I had to start teaching smarter, not harder. I made notes about common issues students were having so I could create visual aids that would be on the screen while I walked around and assisted. I made time in my lessons for the common computer questions since I knew they would distract students from learning the steps to get the resources they needed. So while I thought these initial problems were distracting me from teaching, it was actually helping me to learn the constant juggling act that is teaching.

Frequently, I would be ready to move on from the initial login process (our students needed to login to the library website to access any resources) and a student would come in late or say they needed help because they had missed the instructions. In my first months that would have thrown off my thought process and I would have paused the whole class to assist. I learned from my mistakes by preparing the classroom beforehand with login information on the board so students could troubleshoot on their own or with the help of a fellow student. I no longer let those distractions keep me from moving on to my next thought or stall the class. Having a fellow librarian or mentor may have helped me make these progressions faster, but doing it on my own gave me the confidence that I could conquer anything. The challenges of working with limited time and support also forced me to get creative and create resources outside of the classroom that I could use to support students in accessing the library. Since we didn’t have LibGuides, I used free tools like Google Sites and LiveBinders combined with physical handouts and a YouTube page of screencast videos. These aids were incredibly helpful to students who felt they couldn’t absorb everything in one session or who needed a refresher later.

While I made steps to improve my lesson plans each term, I felt unable to move past the limitations of my environment. I updated slides, made handouts clearer and created more effective examples but I wasn’t moving towards a more engaging classroom experience. I felt stuck in the rut of assessing with the same handout and seeing the same issues with student responses month after month. I was proud of what I’d accomplished on my own but knew that I might need some guidance to improve even more. I just didn’t know how much more I would come to learn.

Joining the A-Team

In April 2014, I was hired as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College where I currently work. After two years at my previous position, I knew I was capable of standing in front of a classroom, delivering a lecture, and walking students through technical assistance but I wanted more. I was now working at a college with many majors and would be instructing in the schools of Liberal Arts and Health Studies on much more than just how to access the library website. Would I be able to craft effective, engaging lessons on information literacy objectives? Would I be able to deliver these lessons with confidence? My imposter syndrome was on high alert in my new position.

While it might have worked for me before (although slowly), I didn’t want to rely on my own persistence to improve. I contacted our Information Literacy Coordinator and discussed my concerns about my own teaching: “I’m nervous about trying new assessments. I’m not familiar with these classes. And how do I incorporate information literacy into a database lesson?!” He said not to worry and that it would come with practice. I had the core skills necessary and I could see some sample lesson plans that were already created to get used to teaching in this new environment. Having these road-tested lessons did help my confidence a bit but I still struggled with pacing myself and being comfortable with the silence that can follow when you ask a room of students a question. I knew if I wanted to improve I had to once again find a way to learn from my mistakes.

Tools for success

One tool that helped me more than I thought possible was creating an instruction journal. Immediately after each classroom session, I wrote down all of my impressions from my teaching:

  • How many students were there?
  • What did I teach?
  • What did I do well?
  • Where did I slip up?
  • Were there interesting interactions with students?

Getting those ideas and feelings out on the page created a place for me to archive them so I could go back and improve and also a way to reflect on what could have been better. Since I frequently teach the same courses, I would read through the journal before similar sessions and prepare myself to practice certain skills. This helped me to focus my energy on what needed work and just do what I knew how to do for the rest. I don’t share my instruction journal with anyone so I feel confident in writing whatever feels natural for me and to really be critical (or complimentary!). It’s also a great tool to go back to for yearly evaluations so I can find places where I excelled to point out to supervisors. I also made notes on any fun things I might want to try in the future once I felt comfortable with meeting the basic course objectives.

Finally, success

Finally, I had an instruction success that felt like the culmination of my 5 years of work. While doing outreach to English faculty to plan instruction, a new professor suggested a scavenger hunt lesson which she had done at a previous institution. The concept reminded me of a recent article I had read about creating “stations” for students for a library resources lesson[1]. I crafted a lesson geared for our library – from objectives to rubrics – and the professor loved it so we scheduled a session. On the day of the class, I pored over my notes to make sure I had the sequence of events down. I was sure I would mess up some part and have to backtrack. But I was wrong. I focused my energy on the skills I knew were my weakest – pacing, not being scripted or attached to a Powerpoint, giving students prompts if they aren’t quick to answer my questions – and the session was a success. Students not only completed my worksheet, they did so with thoughtful answers and even made insightful comments in our post-instruction discussion. It was a rewarding experience that I hope to continue.

Final reflections

I have now been a librarian for 5 years. I still have not conquered imposter syndrome (many librarians say they never do) and I know I can still improve my instruction skills. But I’ve learned that you don’t always need formal instruction to take on new skills. So much of my journey was done by coaching myself and learning from others – librarian bloggers, education authors, fellow librarians, my own students, and my own mistakes. I also relied on my fellow team members to help me work through ideas I had for future lessons which always bolstered my confidence. I sometimes felt like asking for help would make it seem like I wanted to take my colleagues’ ideas – especially as the newest member of the team. But when you work with a real team, they’ll understand when you’re looking for guidance and not hand-holding. I frequently felt so inspired by their work that it was easy to come up with my own ideas for lessons and assessment. You may also feel like asking for help means that you aren’t qualified to do your job but asking for help means you are willing to do the work to do better. I feel much more confident in the classroom these days and have even created engaging lessons that I’m proud of. Those pep talks and failures can show you that there’s so much more ahead than behind you.

[1] Fontno, T. J., & Brown, D. N. (2015, February). Putting information literacy in the students’ hands: The elementary learning centers approach applied to instruction in higher education. College & Research Libraries News, 76(2), 92-97.

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