the supervisor’s hat




As with any job, there are parts of the multi-faceted role of the teacher librarian which do not require a tertiary qualification to do them well.  (Unfortunately, some of those jobs such as circulaton, shelving, data entry, and resource preparation are the most visible and are the tasks by which the role is defined by those who choose to look no deeper – but that’s another post for another time.)

Nevertheless, there is a significant number of daily chores that need to be done to ensure the smooth running of the library so our clients get the best service, and many of us find ourselves in the role of supervising clerical assistants. These people may be full-time or part-time, have some sort of library qualification or just their knowledge based on their own school experience, be willing to be in the library or not, be expected to be the library leader when you are not there or seen as a general dogsbody. You might not even have the same person each day. Regardless, there is an expectation that you will provide leadership and supervision so their work, like yours, leads to better teaching and learning outcomes within your school community.

From time to time, on the library listsevs I belong to there are queries about how these relationships can be managed successfully – usually inspired by a relationship which is not working out – and there are a plethora of answers of what might work and what doesn’t and usually both sides have a say and often the only outcome is a wedge driven even deeper between the parties.

When I was in a school-based library, for ten years I had the most amazing sidekick a person could wish to have and who was expected and able to run the library after I retired and wasn’t replaced (until a new principal with a different agenda changed everything). The founding principal of the school had the philosophy that my primary role was that of teacher – hence teacher librarian – and he couldn’t see why he should pay me $50 000 a year to do what someone paid $30 000 a year could do, so he made the clerical position a full-time one. (We had 20 classes and about 450 students). Thus, Jenny could take care of all the administrative stuff,  freeing me up to do the maximum amount of teaching I was allowed to do while still getting my mandated prep and admin time. This actually enabled me to do more teaching because I chose to schedule the preschool children twice a week for storytime during my admin time, providing a significant flow-on effect when they came to “big school”. The rest of that time was then taken up with such things as curriculum mapping, collection development and all those other things which required my professional knowledge of pedagogy, curriculum and child development. 

Because our relationship was so successful,  I’ve reflected on what it was that made our time together so memorable and so productive that our library was regarded as leading-edge, even in international forums. Much of it was learned from my being “on the wrong side of the law” many times and being “managed” in ways that only built a feeling of resentment, a lack of respect for the “manager” and an unwillingness to co-operate in the future.

Jenny, ready for our Book Week parade. She made my yellow brick road so easy to travel.

Jenny, ready for our Book Week parade. She made my yellow brick road so easy to travel.

respect each other as people

Regardless of any age gaps, or experience and expertise gaps, you are first and foremost adults and therefore need to treat each other as such. Know that supervising adults is different to supervising students – there is no hierarchy, perceived or real, of power, authority, control, responsibility or whatever the word is that makes you or your role any more important than them or theirs.

Take time to get to know each other’s lives outside of the school situation.  You are going to be working side-by-side for up to eight hours a day so share as much as you’re comfortable with so on those occasions where home circumstances might interfere with the job, both of you have understanding and empathy and can step up for the other without rancour. As Covey says in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People , “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”

Knowing your staff means that if there is a problem and you need to put on your supervisor’s hat you should know them well enough to understand how they would like it to be addressed. Ask yourself , “If I were in this position, how would I like it to be sorted?” “What insight do I have into my colleague’s way of being that will help me address the issue without insult or injury?” It fosters a degree of empathy and builds an atmosphere of trust and recognition that enables issues to be dealt with professionally.


know your roles and responsibilities

While both of you have a particular role, you each have a common goal.  Each of you is critical to achieving that. Some positions have formal duty statements attached to them clearly delineating who does what, but to assume that one role is more important than another can be a pathway to problems.  They are of equal value, just different.

The first thing we did was to designate Jenny’s job as Library Manager, and whenever there was a formal communication from the library both her name as Library Manager and mine as Teacher Librarian appeared on it, side by side. This reinforced the concept of dual equal roles to everyone, and identified that there was a need for both positions if the library’s services were to meet expectations. Jenny was also the “face of the library” – she was the first person that students, staff and visitors usually encountered and the one who made the greatest impression on people’s perceptions about what to expect.  The school was so lucky to have such an affable, calm and competent person, made moreso because she loved her job. If your assistant seems to be spending time chatting with staff or students, then it’s likely she is also building up positive relationships which will encourage greater use of the library.

If there is no clear duty statement, have a discussion about what each of you perceive your own and the other’s role to be, what you want it to be, clarify any discrepancies and build your working relationship on that. Examine your mission statement and your vision statement so you both know your purpose and your goals and work out how your roles and responsibilities will complement each other to achieve these. Knowing how your role fits into the big picture fosters a sense of belonging.

From this, prioritise tasks so there is a plan to ensure efficient and effective use of time which ensures priorities are addressed and longer-term tasks can be achieved but which also avoids continued monotonous routine that does not enthuse or stimulate thinking.

Explore and exploit each other’s strengths and build on these.  Both Jenny and I had a passion for creating inviting and engaging environments so we were able to combine that into some amazing displays and activities. I was a “big-picture” person, one who could have weird ideas that usually began with “What if…?” or “How can…?”; she was a “details” person who helped put them into practice.

Know each other’s jobs so, as far as possible and allowable, you can step into them when necessary.  Busy days saw me shelving alongside her so that students could access the returned resources as quickly as possible; she was able to tell me if a particular author, series or topic was in continued high demand so we could look at collection development. While she couldn’t teach for legal reasons, I knew that I could send a child needing a break to sit near her desk with confidence, or a student could ask her for guidance in resource selection and get quality advice.

If you introduce something new, ensure that the changes have been considered according to the identified criteria,  your assistant knows what is underpinning the change, and how it will be most efficiently achieved.  If the change requires new learning or extra time to set up and maintain, ensure these are made available. Acknowledge the time and effort made, both privately and publicly when the changes are announced.

Work together to implement procedural and/or physical changes and preparing the documentation to ensure consistency across time and personnel. Listen to opinions and advice about work practices and work flow- yours might not be the only way to do things. However, if you have a specific way you want something done because it is best-practice, then make your expectations and requirements and the reasons for them clear. If someone understands why a particular procedure is in place they are more likely to follow it. If there is resistance, suggest a trial period and an evaluation. If it appears improvements or changes are necessary, be open to them.  Be prepared to modify the theory to suit the circumstances.

Ensure your assistant has the resources – physical, human, knowledge, financial and time – to be able to successfully undertake their duties.

Never leave school at the end of the day without thanking them for what they have contributed to making the day better for everyone and highlight something you’ve noticed so they know you see what they do.

acknowledge and support aspirations

We each have professional goals so learn those of your assistant and look for ways that will enable these to be achieved.  Seek or create professional learning opportunities that will enable them not only to develop and enhance their skills but also keep abreast of changes that will impact on the design and delivery of the library’s services.

Ensure that there is adequate training provided for new initiatives, particularly ICT-related, so your assistant not only feels competent and competent to use them but also knows where to go for help or advanced training.

protect them

Because they are the “face of the library”, they are also the first port of call for disgruntled teachers and unhappy parents. However, it’s not their responsibility to cop the flak, so be ready to step into the fray if needs be.  Discuss this with your assistant before it happens, though, in case they feel your interference overrides what they are capable of handling and undermines their position in the face of the staff member or parent.  Let them know that you have their back so if they feel they need your help, they can always suggest the parent/staff member makes a time when the issue can be calmly discussed amongst the three of you.

be proactive

If either of you see a situation that could be improved through changes to the routine or method, discuss it and trial it.

If either of you see a situation developing that is impinging of the other’s self-esteem or work patterns, discuss it before it becomes insurmountable. Use the mutual respect you have to tackle the difficult.  It’s very difficult to counter the question, “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

If school events or requirements are going to deprive you of your assistant for a period of time, let those who decide know that this is acknowledged but you would like to know in advance so you and your assistant can prepare for the change and make alternative arrangements.

Be flexible.  If your assistant is not replaced when she is absent, have a back up plan.  If she is replaced, then have a plan for what the substitute might do, remembering that he/she might not have library experience. Perhaps hold some sessions for those likely to be substitutes so they know the basics of circulation and so forth before they are called on.  Seek these people first when you need a substitute.

Look for opportunities when you and your assistant can work together and be acknowledged as a team.

People like Jenny are more precious than gold. Working with our assistants in a collaborative, collegial manner enriches everyone’s lives.

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2 thoughts on “the supervisor’s hat

  1. Completely agree. Jenny was (and still is) my rock and my sanity. Spent 2 years with her in my new role and came to her as untrained, bright eyed and eager. Would like to think I now have a “workable” amount of library management and TL skills but I survived through my huge learning curve due to one reason: Jenny. Thank your assistants/LMs everyday. Reading your blog resonated with me in every point.

  2. My assistant Monica is like Jenny and I couldn’t do my job without her. We have to cover two libraries and I know that she is taking care of things when I’m at the other school. She is more creative and she takes care of that while I order the books and teach the classes. Hats off to all the great assistants!

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