Tuesday, 24 May 2016

How to score top marks at school - Liz Kessler

A local school gave me a serious problem this week.

First of all they invited me to come to their school. They then proceeded to be one of the most wonderfully helpful, friendly and accommodating schools I have ever had dealings with.

Doesn’t sound too much like a problem? Well, no. Unless you are the next school who invites me to visit. This school has set the bar so high that they will be a VERY hard act to follow.

Now, I’m a great believer that every problem has a potential gift in it, if we are open to seeing it. And here’s the gift. As well as the lovely day, the school has given me the chance to write this blog, which means that from now on, if anyone invites me to visit their school, I can simply point them here and say, ‘Can you do it like this?’ and if the answer is ‘Absolutely,’ then we’re on. So, thank you Truro School for making those conversations much easier.

So here are my top ten tips for a great school visit...

1. The first email from the school’s librarian was friendly, clear in what they were asking of me and polite. Oh, and it included this line:

‘Your books are extremely popular, particularly with their local connections, and we very much hope that you will consider visiting us!’

Lesson one: flattery will not hurt your case.

2. When I stated my fees, the librarian was absolutely fine with this. No quibble; no, ‘We can’t afford to pay you, but it will be great exposure for you’. Just a, ‘Great. Please can we have a full day’s visit?’ Heaven.

Lesson two: please remember that in order for an author to visit your school, they will be giving up at least a day that they would otherwise have spent working at home and earning money, so please do not ask us to visit you for free. Before you do, ask yourself if anyone else – the teachers, the librarians, the head of English, the cleaner who will prepare the rooms for the visit, the admin staff who will send letters home – will be in school that day without being paid.

NB: If you still have any questions about the whole ‘being paid’ thing, take a look at this wonderful blog by Nicola Morgan. Hopefully this will ease any remaining doubts.

3. Approximately four emails into the exchange, the librarian brought up the issue of selling books. We discussed which ones would work best for the age groups I would be talking to, she agreed to send a letter home to parents letting them know books would be available and organised the ordering and selling of all the books.

Lesson three: Our livelihood depends on selling books. Most of us love visiting schools and talking to children – but we do need to sell books or our publishers stop publishing us, and if this happens, we stop being authors and you don’t get to invite us to your lovely school. So, yeah – well organised book sales will make us happy every time.

4. The exchange of emails was extremely friendly and lovely and easy from start to finish.

Lesson four: authors spend all day in front of their computers. We LOVE receiving friendly, lovely emails from people.

5. The librarian asked me how long I would like my sessions to last, how many children I’d like in each group, which ages I'd like to talk to, and we discussed between us whether workshops or talks would work best.

Lesson five: find out your visiting author’s strengths. Ask what works well for them. Negotiate. Do NOT ask them to do eight sessions in one day. Ever.

6. A couple of weeks before the visit, I was sent a proposed timetable for the day. It was just as we had discussed, showed the number of students in each group and included important things like ‘tea break’ and ‘lunch.’

Lesson six: Going to a school you’ve never been to can make even the most experienced amongst us nervous. The day will be full of people, places, routines and rules that YOU are probably very familiar with but we are encountering for the first time. A very clear schedule for the day that tells us where to be, when, who with and what will happen in between takes a lot of question marks out of the day for us.

7. Let’s just go back to the bit about lunch. Two librarians took me to the canteen with them. I was shown where everything was, and we sat together and enjoyed a lovely lunch. The only hardship was the bit where (because I’m on a diet) I made myself walk past the delicious-smelling fish and chips and choose a jacket potato and salad instead. Which was actually very lovely, as was the company.

Lesson seven: It doesn’t have to be grand or gourmet, but please do feed us. And even better, eat with us and chat to us and don’t make us have to sit on our own in a scary staffroom wondering where to go to get some food.

8. A week or so before the visit, the librarian emailed to ask me how I’d like to be paid. I was given an email address for the finance department to send my invoice to and was assured that payment would be made direct into my bank.

Lesson eight: Pay us. Please. On time, nicely, easily. No one likes to chase money, and most of us don’t like to spend all that long talking about it. 

9. The day itself! This was absolutely wonderful from start to finish. I was met in the foyer by the librarian who by now felt almost like an old friend. I was taken to the library where my books were on display, with showcards and posters everywhere. 

I was offered tea regularly throughout the day. I was greeted by the school’s headteacher who came in to see me and thank me for coming. I had plenty of teachers on hand for the crowd control during the talks. I had friendly, enthusiastic kids, teachers, librarians who listened, asked questions, joined in and generally made the whole day feel wonderfully smooth. I have to mention the lunch time session with a small group of very keen readers. This session was so warm and lovely and gave me an opportunity to share my writing process and some of the more personal aspects of the job with young people who I think really appreciated the opportunity to have this smaller session with me.

Lesson nine: I think by now, if you do all the things above, the day with you will probably go a bit like this too. I know that schools are all different and it won’t always be smooth and easy all the way – and nor should it be. But as librarians and teachers, what you can do is put in the legwork to make the day as organised as it can possibly be. The rest is up to us. If you’ve done your side of the deal, it makes it easier for us to do ours – which hopefully means that everyone involved will get the most out of the day.

Oh, and if you want bonus points, saving a space in the car park for your visiting author would be an extremely lovely touch.

10. After the event, the school wrote a little article about it which they sent to me. They emailed to say what a lovely day it was and shared photos on twitter and Facebook. This rounded the whole thing off perfectly.

Lesson ten: remember, in a few years, you’ll have a whole new set of students. If we had a wonderful time, we will almost definitely want to come back next time!

Thank you Truro School for setting the bar so high and for making my job a pleasure!

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Sue Purkiss said...

So nice to hear about a really good school visit!

Penny Dolan said...

Lovely post, Liz. What a good day to have!
I'd add that when a school is as thoughtful about the event as Liz describes, they'll also get a better, more enjoyable author visit all round! This is not from any "holding back" or bad attitude on the authors part but because most authors - like anyone - will naturally respond to such an encouraging and understanding environment, and will be able to put all their "visit energy" into the sessions. Well done Truro School!

Joan Lennon said...

Truro School - top marks for sure! But if you hadn't been fabulous, all the planning in the world wouldn't have helped. So gold stars for you as well!

Nicola Morgan said...

Excellent! (And thank you for the cameo appearance!) One thing I'd add: personally, I DO like to be left alone at least for a while in the staffroom (or wherever) during lunch. As an introvert, I am exhausted by all social interaction and if I don't get a break from it I'm stressed and shattered. :) I think an important thing for schools to do is listen to what we each need.

Liz Kessler said...

Thanks folks. Yes, Nicola, exactly. Another thing this school did brilliantly, as mentioned in point 5. Finding out how the author you've invited likes to work is a biggie!

Nick Green said...

That parking sign is such a good idea I think I'll get my own one made and carry it around in the boot of my car. 'Reserved for Nick Green'. I wonder how long one could get away with that.

I don't do many school visits these days, but I'm like Nicola... much as I love doing them, by the end I feel almost physically ill. Introvert brains are really hopeless at processing too much social interaction. I might campaign for it to be registered as a disability... :-)

Nicola Morgan said...

Good idea, Nick! I'll be at your side. But only talking occasionally :)

Becca McCallum said...

Happy it went so well for you. Your post made me smile!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Liz, it's not you I envy, it's that school which could afford your visit! ;-) Mine couldn't. We have had some visits for which someone else was paying - once, the Young Australian Best Book Awards had some money for school visits for schools that applied. The deal was that they would pay for the visit, but you took whoever you were offered. Another time, as a disadvantaged school, we were offered an author visit by the very kind Stella Awards schools program. A third time the State Library was having a Teen Booktalkers session which I would normally take a small group to see, as the tickets weren't expensive, but they didn't get enough bookings to make it worth running and didn't want to cancel, so rang me to ask if I'd like them to come to us and we could share with another school. The head librarian at the State Library persuaded the local council to pay. And I've run a few book launches for the kids in my library, with publishers giving away freebie bookmarks and posters.

Whatever we were doing, I made sure the guests were made welcome and fed and I called the local papers so they would also have some publicity. And I always asked the authors what they needed and how many kids they were willing to talk to. And afterwards I have had book club members present them with a small gift. Our kids mostly can't afford to buy the authors' books, so I buy a few as prizes for the best question, with the guest to choose who gets them. That breaks the ice. I always have copies of the books in the library and a few students to read them in advance so they could ask questions.

You might consider doing what Dianne Bates does: a small fee per student, which they can afford, and a minimum number of students. That way, you get paid and the kids whose school normally couldn't afford you get to hear you. Win win! :-)

C.J.Busby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C.J.Busby said...

Sorry - previous post needed a few edits! I just wanted to point out that Truro school is an independent school, which makes a difference. Obviously being polite and considerate costs nothing but it's definitely the case that a) having no problem with author fees and b) having no problem with organising the selling of books are both factors that are considerably easier for private schools. I've generally found private school far less concerned to get their 'money's worth' out of an author visit, far more ready to schedule rest and coffee breaks, far more likely to have a librarian who can dedicate their day to you rather than a harassed teacher taking this on alongside their teaching duties, and considerably more likely to make selling your books a priority (as well as it being the case that you will sell far more books, given most pupils have well-off parents). They are also much better at after-visit publicity - they are selling their school, after all, as well as your visit.

I'm not knocking Truro School - it does sound like they did absolutely everything they could have done, and it was a great day! But they have an inherent advantage in terms of financial resources and staff time. Many state schools that don't manage all those things are doing the best they can with the resources they have. Some of my best day visits have been to state schools in deprived areas with fabulous, dedicated teachers - they have usually been hard work, not involved selling any books, and very rarely involved a dedicated parking space (!!) but they do involve enthusiastic, imaginative children and staff doing their absolute best to make sure every child gets something out of the visit.