Working with teens – lessons learned (so far)

As a library school student, I knew pretty early on that I wanted to work with children. I love, love, love sharing my passion for books with children and their caregivers, I’m a pretty high-energy person, and I naturally sing all the time anyway, so it seemed like a natural fit. What I never really thought about as much was working with teens. This past summer I was offered an opportunity to co-facilitate a teen “maker’s camp” program, and this fall I’ll be co-facilitating the Teen Library Council and teen programming at a pretty large urban library branch. Although excited, I initially felt a little bit intimidated by the prospect of working with teens. Let’s face it, it’s been more than a few years since I was a teen (I’m not telling….), and I was such a nerd in my youth anyway that I was really more like an old lady in teen clothes than an actual teenager. And life was so different then! The internet was a shiny new thing that we had to connect to using our telephone lines, and very few of us actually had cell phones, which were really only capable of making calls anyway. We were exposed to so much less back then than the average teen is today. How could I relate to these youngsters? I found myself worrying pretty much the same worries that I had when I was actually a teenager : will the group like me? Will they think I’m cool, or will they laugh because I’m lame?

Wearing a Domo-kun t-shirt that reads "Nerdy by Nature" may or may not up my coolness factor with the young folk...

Wearing a Domo-kun t-shirt that reads “Nerdy by Nature” may or may not up my coolness factor with the young folk…

Now, I am by no means an expert at working with people between the ages of 12 and 20, but here are a few things I have picked up along the way. 1. You are not cool. Get over it.

  • Being uncool is like being stuck in quicksand. The more you struggle, the deeper in you sink. Just accept that being over the age of 20 makes you an old timer and thus inherently out of touch and worthy of pity. The more you try to act or look “cool” (i.e., like a teenager), the lamer you in fact become in the eyes of your audience.

2. You are not there to be everybody’s friend.

  • Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be friendly, or that you shouldn’t have positive relationships with your teen group. What I am saying is that teens for the most part already have friends – they don’t need or even want you to take on that role. What they do need is for you to be a role model, a supporter, a guide and a leader. Someone who will be firm with them and honest with them when it’s appropriate, even if it means coming across as uncool or boring or lame. Someone who will be there for them even if their friends have turned on them or labelled them uncool. It’s important to be liked by your teens, but it’s even more important to be trusted and respected.

3. Laugh at yourself and the world laughs with you.

  • Don’t take yourself or your programs so seriously that you can’t laugh at your mistakes or shrug off your failures. In my first teen program, there were times when my best-laid plans just completely fell through. I’d planned activities with a certain audience in mind, which turned out to be not even close to the audience that actually showed. What can you? By laughing at life’s little hiccups, dusting yourself off and making the best of the situation, you’re not only making your own life a lot less miserable, you’re also providing a pretty positive example for your group. I want my teens to know that although you can’t always control what life throws at you, you can control how you react, and how better to illustrate this than by living it (most of the time…) myself?

So, that’s just a little bit of the totally non-earth-shattering wisdom I have gained in the past few months. Here’s hoping the next few months prove just as enlightening.

An example of how cool I look when I’m working with teens!

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