Surviving Instruction: Six Teaching Tips for New Librarians

By Rachel Gammons

When you get your first job – and you will get a job – there will come a day when are asked to teach a library instruction session. This day will come quickly and unexpectedly. You will be caught off guard when, three weeks in and on your way out to lunch, your director asks if “you’d mind picking up an ENG 101 instruction session next week?” You will agree enthusiastically. “Of course!” you’ll reply. In this moment, you may be excited. Over lunch, you might find yourself remembering those long, boring library sessions you had to sit through as an undergrad. You will think to yourself how much better your session will be; how much more engaging, interactive, and insightful. You will teach students things they actually want to know. You will have group activities!

Hold on to this moment. Remember this joy.  Like the Light of Eärendil, may it be a light for you in the dark places to come.

It will be days later that you awake in the middle of the night gripped by a paralyzing panic. What do they mean you have to teach an instruction session? What can you possibly say that will take 75 minutes? Isn’t there someone more qualified to do these kinds of things? Hold on to that light, my friends; remember that joy. This is where the battle begins.

Regardless of how many user instruction classes you take, or how well you know the ACRL Information Literacy Standards, it is difficult to feel completely prepared for your first instruction experience. That is ok. That is normal. Standing up in front of a room of twenty-five strangers is hard and it is ok to feel overwhelmed by that experience. Looking back, I wish someone had told me that in library school. In the midst of learning about library anxiety, assessment, and embedded librarianship – I wish someone had told me that when I got up to teach my first instruction session, my heart was probably going to feel like it was about to implode. Beyond that, I wish they had told me that it goes away. That every time I got up to teach a session, I would grow a little bit more confident, and that one blessed day, I would actually stop feeling like I was going to faint. These are the practical things that no one tells you, but they are things that make all the difference.

Straight from me to you, here are six tips to help you survive those first instruction sessions:

  1. “In an hour, it will be all over.” Before you do anything else, do yourself a favor and find a mantra. Pick something to remind yourself that in the very great scheme of things, this is small, you are capable, and it will be over soon. For me, “in an hour, this will all be over” helped me to keep things in perspective. When you find something that works for you, embrace it. Put a post-it on your computer monitor. Write it on top of your instruction outline. When the inevitable instruction self-doubt tries to creep in, you will use these words to fight back, and you will win.
  1. Give yourself the time that you need. In the beginning, you will spend hours, if not days, preparing for a single instruction session. That is ok. The more sessions you teach, the less preparation you will need, but right now – you aren’t there. So take the time that you need and don’t feel bad about it.
  1. Resist the temptation to write out a script. Take it from someone who learned it the hard way. Although at the time, having a three page word-for-word script of what you are going to say sounds like a super great idea, it is not. When you get up in front of your classroom and start to teach, you will find that instead of helping you, your safety-blanket-three-page-script is weighing you down and making you sound like a robot. Instead of this, spend your time developing a brief instruction outline. Make it simple, well organized, and include time estimates. How long should your introduction or the discussion of the catalog take? Three minutes? Five minutes? Do you really need to spend 15 minutes on Boolean operators? Think about the time that you have in your class and build your session around the things that you think are the most important. Then write them down. Concisely.
  1. Spend some time in the classroom. Literally. Run through your instruction session in the physical space in which you will be teaching. Practice saying your introduction, try a few sample searches in the databases, test out the projector, and talk out loud. Stand in the back of the room and see if you can read the words on the projector screen. Look around and see if there are any electrical cords you are going to trip on. The more variables you can eliminate, the more confident you will feel when you are teaching. 
  1. Tell students how great their questions are. Any teacher worth their salt knows that positive reinforcement is the quickest way to create a successful learning experience. At the end of the session, your students may not remember how to access Academic Search Premier, but they will remember how you made them feel. Smile! Be friendly. Tell them how glad you are that they came to the library, how wonderful their questions are, and how much you appreciate them giving you a sample search topic. You may feel insecure about your teaching – but if you make your students feel valued, and the library seem like a place that they can come to get help, you have done your job and done it well.
  1. Be kind to yourself. Maybe, somewhere out there, there are people who just wake up one morning and know exactly how to be a great teacher, but it sure wasn’t me. It might not be you either. When it’s finally over and you are back in your office quietly shaming yourself for the things you skipped, the activity that didn’t quite work, and all the things that you said that were wrong – remember that teaching is something that takes practice, and let it go. Stand up, walk out of your office, and go buy yourself a cup of coffee. You made it through an entire session without any major incidents and your students left that session knowing more than they did when they walked in. Do you have things you could improve? Of course. But give yourself that 15 minute break, you earned it. 

Rachel Gammons is the Learning Design Librarian at Millersville University in Millersville, PA. She can be reached at