Editor’s Note: This post is the full text of the Conversations column in the September+October 2011 Talking Stick magazine, “Rethinking Resident Assistant Training,” where a group of our members discuss what training used to be, what it has become, and what it may be in the future.
Participating in this conversation are Allan Blattner, associate director for staff and student development at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte; Joe Gonzalez, associate dean of residential life at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina; Jacque Bollinger, associate director of residence life at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh; and D’aun Green, associate director of residence life at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
Allan Blattner: What has me most interested in the topic of RA training (meaning live-in paraprofessional) is my feeling that we’ve been doing essentially the same thing for a really long time. Many aspects of our current training model were present in the training participated in when I was an RA (and that was a while ago) . . . Behind Closed Doors, diversity exercises, listening skills, mediation skills, etc. It could be argued that many aspects of the job have remained constant, so it would follow that the training would as well, but I’m not sure.
I also wonder how we are using what has been developed in the area of adult learning. I know there has been a lot written about how adults learn and how to create environments that maximize that learning. I think corporate human resource departments have been shifting their approaches to training based upon these current theories, so I wonder how we are using them.
Finally (for now) I’d love for us to chat about the use of new technologies in training. PowerPoints are to today’s training what overhead projectors were a few years ago, so what should we be doing? This also dovetails into the whole area of “entertainment versus training” – how to manage the push from staff that “good” training is fun and entertaining. I’ll agree that training should be engaging, but I’m not sure entertaining is a mark we should be expected to hit. Here is a link to an article related to this —Millennials Need Fun, Flexibility at Work. Read and comment as you wish!
Joe Gonzalez: I agree. I still see some of the training I experienced as an RA in the training programs being rolled out today. Guess they got it right back then? What concerns me is that those basic elements still have value, but now there is so much more content RAs should be exposed to that did not really exist in my RA era: social media, bullying, threats to campus . . . the list goes on. Identifying what is a “must have” during the traditional RA training week and what can be covered in another vehicle is quite challenging. And sometimes the “required” training is not really the most valuable use of the limited face time we have with the RA teams.
We are working hard to capitalize on technology to change how some training content is delivered. Why dedicate face time to a topic that can be successfully covered through an electronic medium? Whether this means an online course about campus resources or making videotaped sessions of training available on the Web, there are some great alternatives out there. Developing them can take a tremendous amount of time, though. Connecting these efforts to class projects sometimes helps out.
How are you dealing with the challenge of engaging the RAs actively during training? Hard to compete with those smart phones!
Jacque Bollinger: Behind Closed Doors remains our highest rated training session for community adivors (and has every year since I have been in my position). So, it may be an oldie, but it certainly is a goodie in terms of what it teaches our staff members. We now have adapted Behind Closed Doors to another full afternoon of role plays just on mental health issues. Our counseling center staff joins us for the afternoon and rotates with the staffs. It seems we cannot spend enough time on the topic of mental health as our staff deal more and more with these issues.
I also agree with Joe in that it is very tough to address all topics necessary during training, given the added complexity of issues that our staff encounter these days. We always have to ask ourselves the question “What do they absolutely need to know to open the hall?” If they don’t need it to open the halls, we add it to the curriculum of our ETC class (Extra Training Course). Community advisors are required to take ETC in their first semester on the job.
I do not believe our campus has tapped into technology as much as we could in terms of staff training. We have ideas and hear of wonderful examples from other institutions (Ithaca College, UW-LaCrosse), but we tend to run out of time or don’t have the computer/technology support to always make it happen. I do think it is going to become necessary for us to create a position within their department that will work alongside our residence hall directors when planning student staff training to design online curriculums and other technology resources for the educational content we need to provide to the staff of this generation. This is not a skill we presently require our area directors and residence hall directors (RHDs) to have. While we have a very competent technology staff within our department, the majority of the staff are programmers and technicians, not educational curriculum program designers.
Competing with smart phones? That’s tough. We do have one RHD who has a cell phone day care. Her staff put their cell phones in a basket before going into a training session, and the RHD keeps the basket with her. When they have a break and head to lunch, they can come and get their phone out of day care. This is an extreme example, but her staff totally bought into it. I am not sure other RHDs would get the same response. I do think the perceived need to entertain has required us to be creative. Over the years, I think we have adapted just about every game show to a training session of some kind. One year, instead of “Win Ben Stein’s Monday” they could “Win Jacque Bollinger’s Cookies.” For the most part, these sessions have been educational and fun; however, you can’t put that much work into every training session.
I have found that while residence life staff understand the concepts of adult learning theory and how to engage staff in learning, our non-residence life presenters often struggle and are much more comfortable with their PowerPoint and a clicker. It requires a lot of work on our part to get them to think and present differently.
Blattner: Interesting to consider that housing and residential life departments are going to need IT staff that have some expertise in educational curriculum program design – a very expensive skill set. Without that resource, I think our ability to make major technological innovations in training will be limited unless we figure out a way to develop that skill in other staff or are prepared to contract out.
I agree with the ever-expanding list of “must cover” topics, some of which are helpful while others are political cover. Everyone wants a piece of our training time, and that makes it hard to craft an experience that has a natural flow and logical progression. Throw in time for facility inspections, early arrival check-ins, and other housing-related (but non-residence life) tasks – and the training time is gone. We have a class for first-semester staff. It is currently under review to help it dovetail better with our fall training program.
Do any of you measure training outcomes against a benchmark or set of learning objectives? We have done this but fell away from it; now we just ask “how did you like” and “what did you learn” questions. I’m feeling the need to get back to a more defined assessment model in order to look at more than just satisfaction.
As far as training engagement, as part of my welcome/kickoff each year, I remind them (pretty bluntly) about our expectations during training: no cell phones, stay awake, etc. Works for some, not as effective with others, but it provides a set of shared expectations if we need to have follow-up conversations later. We have really tried to find engaging ways to teach, but it is a challenge. We bought “Turning Point” clickers this year to add to a number of sessions; we hope that will help, but it is old school to them as many of our faculty have used them for years.
D’aun Green: Yep, I agree. The greatest challenge we face with training our student staff is to reach them in an understandable medium. The days of standing up in front of the group and lecturing are over. Doesn’t work in the classroom either. Our students don’t learn that way anymore. This offers us a huge opportunity to learn some new tricks along with our staff members. Students are much more visual and kinesthetic these days I think. I found an interesting PowerPoint by Jessica Utts at the University of California, Irvine – http://www.ics.uci.edu/~jutts/CMC3Utts2008.pdf – that offers an overview of learning styles. I don’t think we really take into account adult learning styles or incorporate tools that help adult learners. I think we also struggle with not having professionals trained in training and development or adult learning in the role of planning and implementing training.
Our highest rated training activity is our lip sync. It’s a staff bonding exercise. We give them their assigned lip sync song in the morning and they have until that evening to come up with props and what they are going to do. We tried giving it to them the day before and found they were staying up all night and producing movies which really didn’t do the whole bonding thing as well as we had hoped. While their productions were amazing, we decided to give them a shorter timeline and it has worked well. The majority of the staff groups prepare well thought-out lip syncs. Our Behind Closed Doors activity is also a favorite with staff. One twist we will put into the scenarios for next year will be something having to do with veterans. We are seeing an influx of veterans, and our Veteran’s Affairs office has asked that we focus on being “veteran friendly.” We look forward to adding this topic to our scenarios.
The technology piece is dizzying at best. Trying to stay up with the latest and greatest is exhausting. I wholeheartedly agree that with all of the things we need to train our staff on these days, we are going to have to find some new mechanisms. Budgets also prohibit having staff come too early for days and weeks of training. We are thinking about having some online training modules they can complete before they get to training and then maybe just have a Q&A follow-up. Last year we decided to create a social media-oriented grad position, and it has paid off well in areas other than training. We have a new person in the position for this upcoming year, and I look forward to what he can bring us in the way of online types of training modules and/or other innovative ways to reach out to our technology-focused staff.
Another thing I thought of last night are the challenges we face trying to keep up with things like the Clery Act and other governmental mandates (meningitis inoculations). The new “Dear Colleague” letter will most certainly be a continuing source of training for our student and professional staff members as we proceed with understanding exactly what the letter means for housing and residence life operations. I found out in a meeting two months ago that we probably need to do an active shooter type of drill during the fall semester to be in compliance with Clery. I’m currently designing what such a drill would look like, and our student staff will be major players in this activity; ongoing training will be needed to facilitate this drill and help educate our students.
We have been wrestling with our academic initiatives type programs because our student staff do not see them as being helpful in creating community. As seasoned professionals, we scratch our heads and think . . . really? Of course they can help create community; however, many staff see programming as this mountain of paperwork and hoops they have to jump through to keep their jobs. They really struggle. For us at least, we were once solely focused on community development and then went to the other side of the spectrum of being focused on learning communities, Freshman Interest Groups (FIGs), and an educational curriculum. I think we are finally seeing that there needs to be a balanced mix of both the community development and educational curriculum type programming in our model. Both were actually always there together, but we are being much more intentional to show how the two specific types of programming we value most can work hand in hand and operate independently. Trying to train our staff in how to be effective programmers continues to be a challenge for us. Although a basic block of the CA/RA position, it does seem to challenge student staff and professional staff alike these days.
One last thing we have been doing for the last several years that I know has had a great impact on our student staff is community service day. We take a morning of training beginning at around 8 a.m. and send our staff members to various community service agencies within Lubbock. Many will work in the parks, while others will assist with our food bank or various food kitchens around town. This activity of giving back to the community is meant to spark a personal commitment to community service and to show staff they can organize programs for their residents doing similar things. We like to stress community service because our department values service. After the activity we eat lunch, and later in the day they will reflect on what they did and what they learned. I do think reflection is a tool to use in training our students. They can be extremely introspective.
Blattner: Reading what you might have to do to comply with the various laws, rules, mandates, etc. leads to another interesting piece of the puzzle: the various interpretations each state or campus has for what compliance means. This is a challenge from a national and international perspective as far as determining best practices and/or sharing models with one another. It also is a challenge as staff move around the country in terms of un-learning and re-learning what RAs need to know and how they need to perform.
We have had some challenges with the academic community concept as well. Many of our staff get that it is important, but many of our staff are experiencing a VERY difficult time having academic conversations. We’ve instituted training on “having challenging conversations” and “why does housing care about academic performance?” They get it but feel that they are being overly intrusive if they ask. There is also the “cool” factor for some – and talking about grades and being a good student isn’t. We have started sharing mid-term grade reports and academic probation lists with our full-time, live-in staff. They, in turn, have conversations with RAs regarding their residents that have a “reason for concern” (we don’t share the specifics with the student staff). Many of our RAs are paralyzed when it comes to turning that concern into a conversation; they are willing to have a time management program for the floor, but individual coaching conversations really throw many of them for a loop. We’ve not yet found a training program that builds enough skill and/or confidence in this arena.
We have a community service day as part of our January training, and it is great! We partner with the university’s Institute for Social Capital, which has a community outreach program called Crossroads Charlotte. Our training includes a pre-service orientation (understanding national and local reasons why the need for our service project exists), a 2-3 hour service project, and a post-experience debrief. I agree; the reflections are amazing. We intentionally position the service program in January because they spent the first semester building strong floor/hall communities and by second semester they are perfectly positioned to take those communities to the next level: communities that give back. We see many follow-up projects come from this training effort.
We also step up our social justice programming/conversations in the spring semester. Same idea: they have spent a semester creating a comfortable and safe community, so they are able to have more challenging conversations within that context. In order to prepare for this, we have significant social justice training in August and return to the topic in January, with in-service opportunities throughout.
Bollinger: Allan’s comment about staff feeling overly intrusive is a theme we have found with this generation of student staff. We have had to do more training with our staff on how to engage students. I remember how shocked I was to find out that our CAs were not using their meal plans to interact with students and really did not understand how having a meal with their residents might help them get to know them. They felt this was intrusive. It also perplexed me that they found knocking on doors of the residents they may have not seen in a while (affectionately known as hermits) as almost a violation of that person’s privacy. We have gone back to the very basics when it comes to communication and building community training. We now incorporate sessions on effective verbal communication and group dynamics, as well as doing community development role plays on how to have conversations with residents. While we don’t call it this, we actually have a session that should be titled “How to be more intrusive.” We make it seem nicer than that.
Ongoing staff training throughout the semester is a challenge, and we have gone away from centralized CA staff developments and have given RHDs responsibility for planning monthly staff developments based on the needs of their hall and staff. However, these also become a challenge due to the fact that staff meetings and staff developments on our campus often occur after 9:00 p.m. That makes it difficult to bring in any presenters (other than res life staff). It is also difficult to keep staff members’ brains focused and attentive after 9:00 p.m. Webinars and other online resources really help as they give RHDs some resources from which to train creatively at any time.
We love our Citizenship Day here at Oshkosh as well. I think this year we celebrate our 15th Citizenship Day during staff training. It is one of our favorite training traditions, that and Camp Onoway. Training wouldn’t be training without camp!
Gonzalez: I agree with Jacque, and we use the same question – “What do they absolutely need to know to open the halls?” – to guide the decisions we make when it comes to training content. We also coordinate content with the subsequent RA seminar series that new RAs take in the early fall. Ironically, this led to us cutting the service project out of our program as it did not meet the absolutely-need–to-know criteria.
This year, perhaps in the vein of “If you can’t beat them, join them,” we are going to create a hashtag on Twitter for our RA training week. The leaders of our RA Council are going to facilitate it. It will be interesting to see what content this yields.
We have been considering investing in clickers to be used during training. I realize they may be old school to the RAs, but I am intrigued by the potential they offer for assessment and verification opportunities. This tool could provide the ability to say, “At this point in training, 100 percent of our RA team knew the correct answer to question A.” Might be useful as we try to develop stronger methods to capture what our RAs have learned during training and determine if our learning outcomes are being achieved.