Tips on Working with Teens: Failure is Always an Option

Today we live in a very risk averse society – it has been this way for a while now, I can still remember when I suggested starting up a teen reading group soon after I started work in the UK, I was told that it was not a time for growth in the teen service side and rather I should focus on supporting existing groups as I was not a member of the children’s team and if my attempt failed I could destroy any chances of a future group being started in my library. Fortunately with the support of my line manager I was given the go ahead and started laying the groundwork for the launch of a new teen group.

For two months I chatted to the teens and other young people that came in to the library, I gave out leaflets and parental permission forms for addresses and then posted out invitations to the launch of the group. About 12 or so teens came in to see what was up and were hanging round the library to see what happened. As the hour sounded some of the kids asked me what was going to happen, I told them it was for a teenage reading group – it was the fastest clear out of a library I have ever seen, they recoiled in disgust and ran for the hills.

I was distraught, after sitting in shock for about 15 minutes and whimpering softly to myself; I stood up, dusted myself off and with the help of two colleagues rounded up some of the teens who had not bolted too far and with the promise of snacks and drinks lured them back into the library. Over some small cans of coke and a bag of mini chocolates we spoke about what they would activities they would like to do in the library, which authors they enjoyed reading and how we could tempt them back the following month.

In just over three years I built a teen group that had around 70 active members – they did not all come every month (average attendance was about 40 per session) but it taught me how not to go about getting a group started.

Failure is not always bad, it can teach us what does and does not work in a particular situation. My initial failure led me to finding a way to connect with young people that I may not have discovered had the initial group activity (centred around The Matrix Movies and comics and books centred around the concept of mind control) worked.

I have tried other activities that have not worked with the various groups I have worked with over the years some have taken on a life on their own while others have withered away.

Do not be too concerned if a brilliant idea has failed to gain traction in a particular environment or with a specific group – it does not mean that it is a bad idea it just means that that it does not work with that group or it may need a bit of tweaking to get it right. If it does not take in a different situation put it on the shelf for a while and reuse it in a different context or offer it to colleagues in other areas as it may prove to be successful with them.

Fear of failure can lead managers to ask staff to go for the safer option of starting a reading group or a manga group but not even those are guaranteed to succeed – by all means go for those options if you are unsure but do not be afraid to tailor those to the interests of the kids that use the library and attend the group, it may fail but it may succeed beyond your wildest hopes! All that failure means is that you have found something that does not work in that particular library; and by then the teens will have started talking to you and that gives you the opportunity to try something different with them!

Do not be frightened to try something new with the kids you work with, it may well work and if it doesn’t it will still give you something to talk about with them and offer other avenues of engagement. Once you have a few teen successes under your belt it gets easier to try out new ideas, both your own and ideas from friends and colleagues! Another plus of failure is if you do fail you can use the experience to learn new things – about yourself, your library and the teens you are working with.

Remember: failure to try is not trying to fail – it is failing, not just yourself but also the kids in the library and that kind of failure is the worst kind as it teaches you nothing!

2 Thoughts on “Tips on Working with Teens: Failure is Always an Option

  1. Hi Matt,

    I just wanted to say thank you for this post!

    I work in a public library and since March this year, we’ve been trying to get teen book groups and writing groups off the ground. I wanted to do it because when I was young, it’s what I wanted – a place to meet with like-minded people my age who are interested in books and creative writing – but nobody ever did anything. Looking back, I should have done it then too!
    There was a lot of initial interest, but few people actually turned up to the first meetings. We ended up with a solid group of five amazing teenagers which was good enough to keep going.
    Over the Summer, three of these moved away and it looked like we were going to have to stop running the groups. Fortunately, we persevered and, with a small amount of re-branding (our “funny” posters came across as patronising), publicising during the Summer Reading Challenge and the onset of the new school term, we have doubled our previous number.
    Our pre-teen reading group, which started off with only one member, has also grown to an incredible 12 members.

    We reached a point where it looked like failure, but, like you, we held on and have ended up with something amazing. It’s nice to know that we’re not the only ones who took a while to find our way. And at the end of the day, I always feel that even if it’s just one person getting something from it (though usually that one person is me) then it’s worth doing.

  2. I love your Matrix idea … reading is no longer a mono media activity and teenagers of today are so cool it takes a lit if creativity to draw them in. Kudos for your work in doing so!

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