A Day in the Life of an Elementary School Librarian

Ashlie Swicker |
4 months ago
Flatiron Books, publisher of How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water

Cara Romero thought she would work at the factory of little lamps for the rest of her life. But when, in her mid-50s, she loses her job in the Great Recession, she is forced back into the job market for the first time in decades. Set up with a job counselor, Cara instead begins to narrate the story of her life. Over the course of twelve sessions, Cara confronts her darkest secrets and regrets, we see a woman buffeted by life but still full of fight.

I’m nosy. I love morning routines, “what’s in my bag,” and “get ready with me” content. I like to know how people’s lives play out, the specific steps they follow, and what an “average” day looks like. Even when it’s clear that something has been staged or edited, I’m interested. However, when I decided I wanted to share a day in the life of an elementary school librarian, I knew that I needed to be honest. Frankly, this is not a job for the weak, and making it pretty never helps anyone. Without further ado, here is a random day in the life of an elementary school librarian.

Wednesday, 8:45 a.m.

This is the time I’m contractually obligated to be at school. There are always a few weeks at the beginning of the year where I’m there even earlier, but I am not a punctual person, and I’m always rolling in just in time. This is when I would have had my morning hall duty last year, but this year’s schedule has specialists (PE, Art, Music, and Media teachers) taking their prep period immediately to make room for the rest of our class schedule. 

I arrive in the Media Center and start pulling open windows with my backpack still on my back. It’s the end of September and the room will be boiling by noon if we don’t get fresh air circulating early. I begin dumping my stuff in the small office behind the circulation desk. I share this space with the technology aide at our school. I unload my lunch, water bottle, work computer, notebooks, and pens. It is literally one of the only quiet moments in my day.

The art teacher, also one of my best friends, stops by to chat. I decide to work on an anchor chart listing out the procedures for quiet reading time while we catch up. The art room is connected to the media center and we spend most of the day touching base when we can. After being a classroom teacher on a team, being a specialist is strange. I’m used to doing the same job as 2-3 other people in my building. There is only one Media Specialist (librarian), which can be great and lonely simultaneously.

We are finishing chatting when the art teacher goes to spend some time with a student who has come to visit her. Each staff member at our school has been asked to donate some time to do a check in with a student who is at risk for having a tough day. This could be negative behaviors but also a propensity for sadness, low attendance, trouble at home, etc. I make a mental note to reach out to the teacher of the student I signed up to meet with this school year. My watch alarm goes off to alert me that classes are starting and I take a deep breath. Here we go.

9:30 a.m.- Teaching block, second grade

Specials in my building are mostly used to cover teacher prep periods. At our school, every teacher gets an additional weekly time to plan together or meet with administration on top of their planning period. The specialist first block of the day is this planning time, so we see a different grade every day. Since this is “extra,” I’ve already done the library lesson with these kiddos this week. We spend this extra block practicing quiet reading. Students pick a special seat (we have couches, cushions, wobble stools, and more) and then use their library card as a shelf marker so they can return their books when it’s time to clean up. This class has been struggling behaviorally, but I lavish them with praise when they surprise me and really rock the lesson. I pass the good news to their teacher when he comes to pick them up.

10:15 a.m.- Empty block

Due to fewer homerooms at some grade levels, specialists have two empty blocks per week beyond our planning time. This is unusual, changes yearly, and always makes me feel like I’m getting away with something. I use the time today to adjust the lesson I taught yesterday. We’re working on identifying sections of the library, and I realize I need more signage to give the students common language for our sections. They know, for instance, where to find a book by Dan Santat, but I don’t call our buckets with books arranged by creator Author Buckets consistently enough. I use Canva to create signs to match the scavenger hunt we’re doing and make an image that matches those signs with pictures that represent the section.

Adjusting the lesson and creating, printing, and hanging the signs takes the full 40 minute break to complete. I stopped once because an email from the music teacher shared that my son was having trouble in his saxophone lesson and there was a link for a neck strap that would help. I quickly purchased it because I knew I would never remember later. I also chatted with people who stopped by. A few tutors and aides who don’t have an empty classroom will take their breaks in the library. A teacher came to ask if I was going to be proctoring the makeup testing that I facilitate a few times a year. One student came looking for their water bottle. The library is the heart of the school (literally and, in my mind, figuratively) and people come through all day every day.

11:00 a.m.- Teaching block, third grade

A third grade class comes in for their lesson. They return their books in the book drop and meet me on the class rug. The updated lesson goes smoother than yesterday. Students are given their library cards and begin to browse for books. Once they’re released, I hustle to the book drop to check in their books. Students trickle up to ask where to find certain things, check that they can remove books from our two displays (creepy/fall and National Hispanic Heritage Month), and check out their new selections. I have just enough time to alphabetize their returned books on a book cart and get everyone’s new book checked out before class ends and we clean up.

11:40 a.m.- Lunch

I run to the bathroom because I know I will lose track of time talking with my colleagues and the afternoon leaves no time at all to get to the restroom. Specialist lunches used to be only 30 minutes, cut shorter by teachers picking kids up late beforehand, but this year we get 40 minutes and it feels so luxurious. All specialists share a lunch block and we eat together, which is really good. We talk about our lives, but also troubleshoot certain classroom dynamics and trade ideas about the struggles of different classes.

12:20 p.m.- Teaching block, fifth grade

Fifth graders are the oldest students in our school, and their new specials time falls directly before their recess. Even though the lesson is the same as the one I did with third grade, I have to play it carefully. I usually start thanking the students who are doing the right thing, and end up saying horrifically stuffy things like “you’re not on the playground yet,” when things get out of hand. A few kids who are never super pleased to come to Media are threatening to derail the lesson, but proximity helps (I stand near them pretending to sort library cards) and we make it out relatively successfully. This means I fall behind on getting books checked back in, but I still feel that it was worth it.

1:00 p.m.- Teaching block, first grade

This class is really struggling with some extremely needy kids. There is support and I’ve done this long enough to know you have to go into each interaction with a clean slate and hope. I saw them on Tuesday and things were great! Today a crying child threw shoes at me in the first five minutes of class. Even though I could have descalated things if this was the only child struggling, I’ve had a few experiences this year where my misplaced attention means that other kids were not in safe situations. I simply called the principal, retrieved the shoes, and tried to go on with the lesson. There were lots of tears (domino effect, big time) and my stress levels were high, but the majority of kids got a book checked out. Next week will be better.

1:50 p.m.- Teaching block, fourth grade

Back to the scavenger hunt lesson. This class came 20 minutes early during the trying first grade lesson, realized their mistake, and booked it back out. The entire schedule is different this year than the one we had for a decade beforehand, and we are all adjusting! Luckily, this fourth grade class is sweet and flexible, and everyone got a book checked out. My exhaustion levels were high at this point but I was happy to see some of my long-time favorite students. At this point, there were library cards, returned books, and papers COVERING the circulation desk. I like to clean as I go, but it was out the window for today. 

2:30 p.m.- Teaching block, kindergarten

Teaching kindergarten at 2:30 p.m. is a trip, let me tell you. These kids just started a few weeks ago, but those amazing K teachers are already imparting so much knowledge. Our lessons are all practicing sitting, listening, sharing thoughts about a story, and coloring something related at this point. There is one student in this class who is still picking up on the not-yelling-out thing, so I find myself repeating “Sorry, it’s not your turn to talk.” A lot. We did a story sandwich today, sharing a book on the rug, going to the tables to color a picture, and back to the rug. A few behavioral blips, but nothing to write home about, which shows me how much these small people are already learning.

3:20 p.m.- Bus duty

I run to the office to look for chocolate. This has been a harder day and I know that bus duty can push my buttons. Right before buses start to be called, I grab a few chocolate kisses, thank the secretaries, and head into the lobby. My son comes down from the library to ask me a question and I remind him he has the after school program today.  I spend the next half hour helping students remember to walk, line up safely, and walking them to their correct bus. We are contractually allowed to leave at 3:45 p.m. but the buses are never all called by then. Today I am back to the media center by 3:55 p.m.

4:00 p.m.- After School

This is normally the time I corral my two sons and hustle to the car for swim lessons or just to get to the dunks drive through. Wednesdays, however, the boys go to the after school program. I have no after school meetings today, so I begin to clean up the mess of the day. Once I have the circulation desk clear and all books alphabetized on a cart, I head into the office.

My officemate has gone home and it’s blessedly quiet. I have to proctor district testing makeups tomorrow, so I decide to organize all my sub plans and materials so I can just work on running reports tomorrow.  I blast a true crime podcast because this is how I relax. By the time I’ve written out the plans and printed materials for the lessons the sub will do tomorrow, it’s 5:15 p.m. and the after school program is about to close. I hustle to pack up my belongings, jot a few notes for things I’d like to remember tomorrow, and strap my backpack onto my back.

Wednesday, 5:20 p.m.

My kids are in the car and we are headed home. 

So there is my day-in-the-life. This is a lot. I am wordy and rambly and I still cut half of my editorial stuff. Today I did not order, catalog, or cover books. I did not work on my weeding project.  I did nothing to prepare for the book fairs, no cleaning tasks, and I did not use the lab. I talked to approximately 100 students and about 15 teachers. Like I said, this job is not for the weak. However, I’m proud as hell to do it. I just need a nap.