With August right around the corner, many of us in Housing and Residence Life are in the process of developing our fall training for our resident assistant staffers. While this is generally a fun and exciting time, it can also be a very brutally intensive experience for many given that it can occur in a “short aggressive period of time” as my one close colleagues put it perfectly. Institutional training traditions are passed down from generation to generation of professional staffers, and unfortunately, many of these training practices can actually be counter-productive. I would like to offer some successful practices that have worked for me when training my own staffers.
•TRAINING STARTS WITH THE HIRING PROCESS: You can minimize (*not eliminate*) the need to cover basic topics (e.g., campus resources and campus departments orientation) by hiring student leaders that already have a strong knowledge of the institution and the various services available to students on campus. Simple campus resource quizzes can actually be used as another assessment tool during the selection process in addition to what you already do. Additionally, many human resource policies and expectations can and should be communicated before and directly after an RA is hired. In this regard, they know exactly what is expected up front (typically occuring in late spring) rather than them hearing a familiar, “We will go over that during training in August.” Granted, expectations should be revisited again during training at some point, but they do not necessarily have to be part of a lengthy session.
•BE MINDFUL OF THE LENGTH OF THE WORK DAY AND WEEK: This is where I feel that many Residence Life departments can and do go overboard. It’s generally seen as a badge of courage to go through a “Hell Week” of sorts starting at 8 or 9 AM every day and going through 10 PM or later. Typical schedules I have seen (and have been a part of) go like this: breakfast, training, lunch, training, dinner, activity, staff meeting, bulletin boards, and, finally, bed. Rinse and repeat (for 7+ days straight). This is a tiring regiment that, again, can be more detrimental than productive. Burning our student staffers out prior to the actual move-in can set the stage for further problems throughout the semester.
•ASK YOURSELF – WHY ARE WE DOING THIS: If you do not have a strong answer for every activity and session that you are doing, then you may want to consider eliminating it from the training schedule. “Just because” or “We have to fill the schedule” are NOT good answers as to why you are including something for training. Have a reason for including every training session and activity in your schedule.
•DO NOT ATTEMPT TO COVER EVERY TOPIC: Think of training like a college class. You cannot learn everything about a particular subject in the course of one semester. Typically you will learn major themes about a subject, but not every topic and detail within that subject. You should use this same philosophy when designing RA training. Trying to pack everything in your training schedule related to policies and procedures, student conduct, programming, roommate conflicts, ethics, mental health issues, and everything else related to Residence Life is simply too much. Cover the topics that your staffers will need the most knowledge about for the first six weeks. Cover additional topics during staff meetings and staff development activities. Training should be an on-going, year-long process.
•TREAT YOUR RETURNERS / SENIOR LEVEL RA’s WITH REVERANCE: 2nd year and subsequent year returners going through the same process every year can be torture. Mix it up for them; get them involved in helping or develop advanced topics for them. You could also bring them back a day or two after all the new staffers have already covered the basic topics (this could also save you some money as you wouldn’t have to feed them all).
•ELIMINATE OR REDESIGN “BEHIND CLOSED DOORS” ACTIVITIES: Role-playing type activities that new staffers go through to practice confronting hall violations (e.g., noise, alcohol, marijuana, domestic dispute) can be easily perceived as a mild form of hazing. It seems to be a badge of courage for a returning RA to role play in over-the-top situations that underhandedly try to stump the new RA’s trying to respond to the issue. However, these type of role playing sessions need to be designed as a teaching tool rather than an abusive right of passage. If you choose to include this type of training activity, create scenarios that are realistic and ends up being a positive learning opportunity for the new staffers. To save time and extensive planning, you can also include written case studies of varying difficulty that everyone can work on. Case study activities can be better supervised in one location rather than allowing the paraprofessional staff to control the activity throughout the halls where problems can arise.
Best wishes with your fall training! As always, I am willing to help you brainstorm ideas and offer advice.