Learning to teach: Impacts of instruction internships on early career librarians

By Rachel Makarowski

Rachel and students in a classroom looking at special collections materials

Rachel (center) works with a student one on one in an instruction session on Medieval and Renaissance books. Photo credit: Jack Davis.

Imagine this: you are a professional, full-time librarian for the first time. It is your second day at work, and you’ve just been asked if you’d like to teach a Latin American studies class that was scheduled that day. The facsimiles of Christopher Columbus’ diary and the Aztec codices depicting the start of the conquest of Mexico have been pulled, the research done. All you would have to do is present what special collections is and discuss the materials with the students. Would you have taken the chance? Would you have been prepared? I did, and I was. In fact, I took that opportunity to teach with both confidence and enthusiasm. I was ready to be back in the classroom after a few months of job searching post graduation from my MLS program. My student internship in instruction and outreach at the Lilly Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) primed me to teach undergraduates with special collections. That internship not only prepared me to enter the classroom immediately when I had a professional job, but became the foundation for my work as an instructor.  

The decision to pursue an internship in rare book instruction and outreach was my own choice.[1]  I had felt that it would be a practical area for me to experience before graduation as instruction is often a required component of special collections librarianship. When designing the internship, my supervisor, Maureen Maryanski, and I agreed that one of the goals for me would be to teach classes independently, and we developed a plan that allowed me to build up to that goal.[2] At the start, I shadowed numerous library instructors from the Lilly in the classroom, which exposed me to different styles and approaches of classroom management.[3] I slowly became integrated into the department’s instruction program after I had shadowed each instructor at least once. First, I taught two objects that I was familiar with—a medieval manuscript and an early modern drama—during a class taught by my supervisor. I was comfortable with these objects as I already knew them from personal research, but it forced me to learn how to briefly lecture on them to people who might not have known anything about them. I then began to co-teach classes, and was responsible for the selection and teaching of approximately fifty percent of both the materials and content of the session—but I followed the lesson plan of my co-teacher. After a few sessions of co-teaching, I was declared ready to create my own lesson plans, and to choose which objects to incorporate into the session. By the end of my internship, I had taught six class sessions independently which covered a variety of topics with which I was not previously familiar.

After each class, my supervisor reflected on the session with me, both for classes she taught and those I taught. These reflections were informal but crucial conversations, and mainly consisted of the following questions: what went well in the session? What could be improved next time? How could it be improved? For example, the first time I taught a medieval manuscript, I knew that I had used too many technical terms because the students seemed confused. In the next class, I made sure to define terms they might be unfamiliar with and was careful to use less jargon.  Another time, the students were hesitant to ask questions, so my supervisor and I reconsidered our prompt for feedback. Instead of asking students, “Do you have any questions?” we began to ask them, “What questions do you have?” This adjustment drew out a higher response rate from the students. 

There is no pivotal moment where you will become the perfect teacher. You can, however, choose to be the teacher who learns from the moments where the session did not go as planned.

As a novice, observing honest reflection in those who teach reinforced the importance of this practice and how it can be used to continuously improve. It revealed that there is no pivotal moment where you will become the perfect teacher. You can, however, choose to be the teacher who learns from the moments where the session did not go as planned. For example, when only half of the students showed up for one class session, I negotiated with the professor for the next class to ensure that attendance was required for future sessions. In another class, the students and instructor fixated on only one or two items. I used their curiosity as a chance for the students to really investigate the objects in detail— and I learned an important lesson in flexibility. If I hadn’t accommodated their interest, the liveliness and intrigue the students were displaying might have disappeared. During my reflection after that class, I made notes on what students were interested in and how they responded to the objects. Items that were confusing or perhaps not as interesting to students were either replaced or explained in a different way. Through both the observation and practice of reflection, I learned that even in moments where I felt I had failed, there was always a learning opportunity to be found in each class.

Being observed while teaching and having a person to practice and debrief with has continued to be instrumental in shaping my instruction. Debriefs from my internship provided me with constructive criticism from people immersed in the field of special collections and taught me new ways of teaching students to think about rare materials.  Instead of a show-and-tell style approach to instruction (where objects are displayed, introduced, and contextualized entirely by the instructor), I develop lessons that encourage students to interact with materials, question the objects, and then discuss what they learned through interactive activities. Through a formal peer-reflection program and co-teaching opportunities, my current instruction coworkers at Miami often help me reconceptualize activities to incorporate different information literacies.

Debriefs from my internship provided me with constructive criticism from people immersed in the field of special collections and taught me new ways of teaching students to think about rare materials.

Internships may not be a scalable solution for teaching future instruction or public services librarians. They may not be possible for every student interested in instruction depending on their MLS program requirements and costs. An internship in teaching requires a massive commitment and effort from both the intern and the supervisor, but the rewards can be seen immediately when the intern starts their first full-time position. My experience prepared me for my first year as a librarian at Miami University, where I have taught between forty and sixty classes a year. Through my internship, I learned how long I would need to prepare for classes. That experience helped me to balance my time when I first started teaching at Miami University, and steadily increase the number of classes I teach without burning out or becoming overwhelmed. My internship gave me confidence in the classroom, and inspired me to pursue instruction opportunities in my career. Even if an internship in teaching is not possible for every student, the opportunity to students interested in pursuing instruction librarianship would certainly be invaluable.

[1] Internships are a required component of the MLS program, and are done for credit in the program. Interns are required to log 60 hours over the course of a single semester. The goal of internships are for students to gain professional experience and to learn how to perform duties as full-time professionals. Oftentimes, as in this case, the internship was unpaid.

[2] This was the first internship that had been formally done for instruction and outreach in special collections at the Lilly, so we came up with plans at the beginning and adjusted it along the way as necessary.

[3] I will always be indebted to Rebecca Baumann, Isabel Planton, Maureen Maryanski, and Joel Silver for letting me shadow their classes, ask them about certain collections or classes they’ve taught. They were my first mentors, and even a year and a half and numerous class sessions later, I still find myself emulating them in the classroom through how I teach books and manuscripts.

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Rachel Makarowski is the Special Collections Librarian at Miami University’s Walter Havighurst Special Collections and University Archives. Her position allows her to do a bit of everything relating to special collections and archives, including (but not limited to) instruction, reference, and cataloging. She teaches roughly 50 sessions a year, most of which focus on rare books and primary source literacy.

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