In the Troops’ Quarters outside Paris, Anton von Werner, 1894
I supervise student workers and they saved me.
I started when I was in the field of metadata and cataloging. Their supervisor at the time was promised a position elsewhere and so the call went out to anyone who was interested, and I jumped on the opportunity. As an Air Force staff sergeant, I worked with airmen aged 18 to 22 every day and had really enjoyed the experience. I missed young people. They are full of life, ideals, and ideas. I have heard people say young people are lazy and that is simply not true. They are efficient and effective, and they make processes and work flows more streamlined. So, I was thrilled to learn how to work with college students in the same age range.
I found the fact that no one else wanted the task strange. I had only been working there six months or so and I was slow to realize I was working with a self-selected group of individuals who were highly introverted and highly focused. They were content to work all day on metadata and cataloging and never talk with anyone. I had always thought I was introverted until I stepped into that world. Six months in and I was desperate for human interaction.
Their supervisor at the time was notified that I was interested, and she set up a one-on-one coffee break with me. Being a great leader and an amazing person in general, she wanted to make sure the students were in good hands. She wanted to know I cared. She wanted to know that I would protect them from unprofessionalism and, quite frankly, the controlling persons who felt as though they had jurisdiction over the students and sought to keep them in line. She did not outright state these things, but I knew what she was concerned about. I had lots of interactions myself with these unfortunate things.
I question the value of these behaviors and why they were tolerated. I understand that metadata and cataloging is not the most creative of fields, and some individuals are valued for their institutional knowledge (since they have been working there for 20, 30 plus years), but psychological safety is important regardless. I myself did not feel psychological safe. So much so that I recorded every moment of my day and every positive impact I had – just in case anyone questioned my value as an employee. Scary times.
When I took over management of the students though, I felt empowered. It was not about me anymore. I had my people and I would guard their wellbeing with any strength I could muster. The students were sad to lose their leader and I tried to step into her shoes the best I could. I picked her brain and asked her for help. She was indirectly my mentor and I thought of her when I wanted to be better. I was not always perfect (who is?), but I took care of those students. I trained them well. I was honest with them. I respected them. And in return they cared about me and the work they did even more so.
I did not hear a lot of feedback at first. I checked on the students and asked them how they were and what could be improved and thanked them for their contributions to the library. Eventually they started to relax, and I heard good things from faculty such as the student are productive, the students are doing a really great job, and the students are happy. One particular remark from a respected colleague was, “I never saw (student) even smile; she seemed miserable, but now she seems happy and content.” It made my heart burst. This student had bloomed so much, and she was now my seasoned veteran and trainer.
Eventually I moved on to another library. I love my work there. I am supervised by a leader (not a boss), and I lead my own team of students. We all work well together, and I am grateful every day for the team we have built. We are all psychologically well. They teach me and I teach them. We laugh and we smile, and we achieve.
I supervise student workers and I love it.
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