Managing Student Employees in your 20s

Managing Student Employees in your 20s

by Laura Birkenhauer

Laura BirkenhaunerGoing from a being a student to managing students can be tough, especially when you still have the baby face and unbounded enthusiasm of a newbie 20-something. So, here are some of the upsides (and cons to steer clear of!) of managing student employees in your 20s.

Pro: You speak their language.

Yes, they sound ridiculous, but at least you can follow them when they tell you they’re searching for “pinspiration for fleek nails” without having to check UrbanDictionary.com. And, sure, you can chat about the latest rumors flying on Yik Yak, but be conscious to model professionalism as you’re having these conversations. Like it or not, they’re going to remember you as an example of how to act on the job when they land that first internship. Be a mentor who can not only talk to them on their level, but also guide them to bigger and better things. And, for goodness sake, do them a favor and give them some tips for crafting a professional email, while you’re at it. Hint: skip the bright pink, Comic Sans ~*Laura*~ auto signature.

Con: They want to be best friends!

If you’re new to your library or to the workforce in general, it’s understandable to want to befriend as many coworkers as you can. Network! Branch out! But, as much as you want to maintain an open and friendly rapport with everyone at work, the students you manage are not your BFFL. I know, I know… so many of your coworkers look at you like you have a third eye when you talk about the Kardashians, but the students don’t. They just get it.

It’s awesome to have someone at work you can personally relate to, but you have to know where to draw the line. Chatting about the latest episode of KUWTK as you shelve books? Completely acceptable. Chatting about it at the bar after work? You’re in dangerous territory. To anyone on the outside – your supervisor and other student employees alike – this may translate as favoritism or, at the very least, highly unprofessional. Keep it collegial. Keep it at work.

Pro: You understand their schedule.

You were an overworked and stressed out student once. You know that being a night owl comes with the territory. How else can they manage all that school work, while keeping up with their demanding social schedule, after a full day of classes? Play this to your advantage. Sample conversation: “Why not work the 8 to midnight shift every Friday?! You can finish your homework on the reference desk and get off work just in time to head downtown!” Those late night shifts will practically fill themselves.

You also know that the library training take-home worksheet you gave them is pretty far down their list of busywork for the week. Instead, give them a video they can watch while multitasking or, better yet, allow them to complete all training and activities during your monthly/weekly/etc. student meetings (yes, you need to have meetings; just make sure they’re productive and don’t suck… but that could be a whole other article). More homework is the last thing they need.

Con: They don’t take you seriously.

You’re new to the work world and, to your students, this may translate to your being clueless or spineless. You may overhear them asking your superiors questions that should clearly be directed to you. No, you can’t know it all right off the bat, but seek to become the knowledge base your students can turn to when faced with anything from a challenging reference question to unjamming a printer. Knowledge is powerful and will gain your students’ respect.

Just like cluelessness can be cured, so too can being a doormat. You want to be flexible and understanding, but you don’t want to be the proverbial spineless jellyfish. A remedy to this is to set clear policies at the start of the year and (shocker) actually stick to them. Require your students to sign off on this policy manual. Then, when challenged, break out that rule book!

Pro: You know what makes them tick.

You were recently in their shoes, so you understand the reward system that works for an undergraduate student. Sure, students like the perks: They want the flexibility to take off work sometimes, just like they can skip an occasional class. They want to ditch the uniforms and wear casual clothing to work. They want to do homework on the job if they’ve finished all of their work tasks. And they will never, ever say no to free food.

But, they also want your patience and your time and your attention. They want to be trained right. They want to do their job well – no one likes to struggle – and sometimes they need your help with that. Students are every bit as much of a “real” employee as anyone else in the library. Recognize their success. Invest in them and they’ll impress you.

Laura Birkenhauer graduated from Miami University (Love and Honor!) with a BA in English-Creative Writing and from Kent State University with a MLIS. She returned to work for her undergraduate alma mater in 2011, shortly before finishing her MLIS, and has been working there ever since. She is employed by the Miami University Libraries as a Senior Library Technician, i.e. the only paraprofessional staff member of the Reference and Collection Services department. This means most of her time (35 hours/week) is spent working at the Information Desk, which she loves! She gets to interact with students and assist them with everything from finding a book to developing a research paper. Learn more about Laura’s education and experience in her Linkedin profile.

In her spare time, Laura enjoys reading, hiking and catching up on her latest TV obsessions. She resides in small town Oxford, Ohio, with her husband, Josh.

  2 comments for “Managing Student Employees in your 20s

  1. Daniel De Kok
    June 4, 2015 at 11:49 am

    Sensible advice for younger supervisors–and an experience very similar to what I had in my first year teaching High School.

  2. Victoria Haindel
    June 3, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this blog post! I am a 25 year old recently MLIS grad from San Jose State University. When I first started my position 4 years ago, I experienced many of the pros and cons you discussed in this post. I also struggled with the fact that I was an employee as a student in my library before I became supervisor. When I was hired on into my position, I literally became the supervisor of my friends! It was a huge challenge, although I like to think I handled it with as much grace as a 20-something could. I have certainly learned a lot about balancing the connection I feel among the students who are closer to my age than the professional staff, with the responsibility of being a fair and productive supervisor.

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