There’s been a lot in the media recently about teacher work overload and it’s well known that the teaching profession work many hours outside the school day but there are very few school librarians I know of that also don’t work beyond their contracted hours, either taking work home or coming in early/staying late. Every single week. That’s a lot of librarians doing a lot of extra hours.
Fine if you’re paid full-time because you can balance the additional hours worked during term-time with days off in the school holidays; however, most school librarians are on term-time only contracts, which would be fine if the job was either “librarian” or “library manager” – and believe me, these two roles are very different – so, as solo librarians, they have to combine them and fit everything into their 37 or whatever hours a week. Almost impossible to do.
It’s a bit like expecting the doctor or nurse at your local surgery to also staff the reception desk, answer phones and deal with patient paperwork. Think about it … school librarians keep the library open during the school day and are permanently “on call” behind the issue desk, they have regular classes timetabled as well as ad hoc lessons (and I had several days when every lesson was booked), and are on duty at breaks as well as before and after school. You are also likely to have a constant stream of interruptions from students coming into the library looking for books and information, from phone calls and emails. So, no time to do any of those manager-type tasks that are needed to ensure the library runs smoothly, that resources are up-to-date and relevant, displays changed, activities organised, no planning or long-term strategic development work … it’s an endless list which never gets completed. No wonder that stuff gets taken home.
Sure, we could walk out at the end of the day and leave it all behind but I didn’t. Why? Because I love my job, I wanted to provide the best service I could and I would have felt that I was selling myself, the students and the profession short if I didn’t. I also knew that working in the evening meant a less stressful day to follow. But there were a few things I learnt to try and keep work in perspective and under control. It probably helped that, before I became a librarian, I was a project manager and even way before that I was one of those people who organised things … cake sales at school, the sixth form charity concert, PTA jumble sales. So how do you manage a crazy workload?
Time management (TM) – ie: organising and planning your time between specific activities. Sounds easy although is actually quite involved with several aspects to consider, and sometimes the thought of stopping and taking a step back can make you feel a bit panicky when you’re already overworked. But getting yourself organised will result in greater productivity, increased efficiency, less stress and you’ll also work smarter. Most school librarians are very good at managing their time – they have to be! Nevertheless, it can help to rethink the process:
· Write down everything you need to do, no matter how large or small. Break down larger tasks because just having something like “weed books” will never get done whereas “weed fiction books authors A-C, weed D – F, etc.” is more attainable. You are also far more likely to do something when you feel you actually have a chance of finishing it.
· A to-do list is fine but the temptation is just to work through it which may mean that the important tasks get left. So prioritise the list. This will ensure you work on the most urgent/important tasks first (more about that shortly) and it will also help you remember what needs to be done. However, don’t just carry the list on from one day to the next; it needs to be dynamic with items added/taken away and re-prioritised.
· Note: this is your list – there’s nothing wrong with deleting something that is no longer a priority or that you don’t have the time to do. The tendency is to want to carry on with initial ideas or projects but if you discover something is taking too long and eating up way too much time, causing you to fall behind with your schedule, then revise your target and/or expectations. One of my faults is that I can be a bit of a perfectionist which means I’m always convince there’s a “better” source of information to find or that I can improve a poster with a different font … if I took this to the extreme, it would mean I’d never actually “finish” anything! So I’ve had to accept that the important thing is that the task is completed and that no-one will notice whether I use green or grey as a background colour!
· Think about why you are doing things. What is the purpose of your tasks, what are you trying to achieve? You should be focusing on results, undertaking activities tied into your goals as sometimes we carry on with actions automatically. If you’ve always ran a specific competition, for example, it’s very hard to stop doing it but if you only get a couple of entries, perhaps it’s time to rethink. Things have a sell-by date!
· Break the library development plan down into actions and assign targets to each one. This is important because your activities should link into these actions and the targets will enable you to identify when you have succeeded. Be ruthless about sticking to tasks that feed into your goals; there’s always something new coming along and it’s easy to get distracted but make a note and put it to one side if it’s not relevant right now.
· Actions need to be SMART – specific, measurable, agreed on, realistic, time-based. Having a phrase such as “supporting teaching and learning” is too broad because everything we do could be put into this category. “Source book review trailers” could actually be never-ending so give the action a time limit (60 minutes) or an explicit number (20 trailers). The problem is that although we have goals specifically for the library, for example, we may want to increase our graphic novel collection by 50% (to attract reluctant readers, to provide a wider range of graphic novels, to purchase graphic novels that link with films, etc.) because we are a whole-school resource, our tendency is to take on board ALL the school goals. Don’t even try …
· Look at your list and decide which activities are: important and urgent – these are usually things left to the last minute, planning will help to reduce the number of these although there are always unpredictable actions that turn up; important but not urgent – these are the activities that will help you achieve your goals and if you don’t give yourself time to do them they are likely to become urgent; not important but urgent – these often prevent you from achieving your goals and usually come from other people; and finally, activities that are not important or not urgent. Ignore these! I do an exercise with my Extended Project students based around this and it’s interesting how many unimportant and non-urgent tasks they put at the top of their to-do lists!
· Having got your tasks sorted, schedule them into your week. The easiest way to do this is by using your school timetable (with additional spaces for outside hours work) although as I’m a sucker for stationery, I use a nice colourful weekly planning pad for this purpose. Enter the lessons you have booked and then slot in when you’ll do your other tasks from your list (and include your own outside interests), making sure you start with the top priority ones. Be realistic as to how long things will take you and allow for contingency time because you’re bound to be interrupted.
· Although tasks have been given a priority rating, think about which ones you need to do without interruptions as it’s unlikely you’ll be able to work on them during the day, even if they are top of the list. Look at other actions that need to be done but that you can stop and start … and slot those into your timetable. This will ensure you effectively use your time. One of the worst time-wasting activities is trying to do something that needs your concentration and being interrupted so that you have to almost restart it every time.
· Keep these timetables as evidence of what you’ve done, make a note of interruptions and what’s prevented you from completing tasks, jot down any ideas that occur to you (having a space to note down those random thoughts that occur will ensure you won’t forget anything and will reduce stress) AND make sure you add any additional hours worked. These will be useful for informing meetings with your line manager, appraisals, future planning or even just to give you an idea of who or what is consistently stopping you from working.
· Managing interruptions is almost impossible in a school library! I regularly had teachers come and “hide” in the library when they had work that had to be done but I didn’t have the luxury of going off to another space myself. One trick, which sometimes works, is to move out from your desk to a table in the library. When I’ve done that, staff have said “oh, you’re busy, I don’t want to interrupt” and don’t … didn’t have the same effect if I stayed behind my desk. However, be aware that we can also create our own interruptions … checking emails, looking at the latest publisher’s catalogue that arrived in the post … and try to minimise switching between tasks.
· Learn to say no. I find this hard myself but I’ve had to get better at it otherwise I would have been horrendously overloaded at times. One trick when asked to do something is to say “yes but I can’t do it until Monday (insert day of your choice here depending on your workload) as I need to get XZY done for Mrs Smith and I have library lessons to plan for tomorrow”. If the person can’t wait that long then they’ll probably do it themselves … or find somebody else. Keep in mind that your tasks should be linked to your library goals not to somebody else’s. Our mindset is to help everyone that asks us as we work in a “service” but you also have your own job to do so it’s a matter of balance.
· Delegate. To your student librarians. Yes, I know they may not complete tasks to the same standard but in the long run it’s not really important if the date label is crooked. I know it’s hard, I’ve had to make myself step back at times and just let them get on with the job but it can help to cut down on non-essential chores. Use their strengths. I had a boy who went pale at the thought of sticky-back plastic (and having seen his attempts at book covering I can understand why) but he loved sorting the magazines into order so I let him get on with that.
TM is obviously an extensive topic that I usually cover in a workshop rather than a blog (and I haven’t even mentioned procrastination!) but I don’t want to make this too long so I’m going to finish with a summary:
· Set SMART goals
· To-do list linked to your goals
· Prioritise and schedule
· (Try to) manage distractions and interruptions
· Don’t take on too much
The work-life balance is different for everyone so you have to create your own, find whatever works for you. I recently went on the National Libraries Demonstration in London and, whilst some people might consider that work, I didn’t think of it as such. Likewise author events and book launches … sure, I’m invited as a school librarian but I’d still go even if I wasn’t in this profession because I love books and reading. We cannot buy time so make sure you use yours efficiently and don’t forget to add the things you’d “like to do” to the list … these often get pushed aside by the things we have to do and the things we are expected to do but without them, the job can become lacklustre and monotonous.
Finally … accept that some days will just be chaotic and the list will go out of the window … my solution to this is a large glass of red wine!