The Hypocrisy of ResLife: RA Training

I recently surfaced from the Student Affairs gauntlet known as ResLife Training and Residence Hall Opening. It’s the time of year when I say goodbye to absolutely everything else in my life except for work. I worked 7 days a week for three weeks, typically logging 12-14 hour days. This level of work is actually an improvement over past years, when I was less efficient, less experienced, and spent more time in the office.

To non-Reslifers, this may be a surprise. To any sane person who wishes to have a life outside of work, this may seem odd. It won’t seem odd to my fellow live-in residence hall staff.

It should be odd, though. At what point in the history of ResLife did we decide that this marathon model of staff training and hall opening was okay? This is certainly not unique to one institution. It’s very common that a couple of weeks of very intensive student staff training (which is exhausting for everyone involved) is immediately followed by freshman move in day and upperclass move in days. This is just how the end of August is when you work in ResLife. August is where balance and wellness go to die.

I believe that we need to critically question the efficacy of this model of staff training. We are, after all, educators. We promote the holistic development of mind and body in college students. We talk about wellness, balance, and ideal learning environments. And we train RAs as if we are running student affairs boot camp. It just doesn’t add up.

How do we examine our practices within the context of the values and priorities that we aim to espouse throughout the year? How do we challenge our own selves as professional staff to stand firm in work-life balance and pursuit of wellness? How do we advocate for balance and wellness?

This is a call to all of my colleagues who think we can do better than we are doing. It’s a call to those who think that they are doing it better. We owe it to ourselves and our students to think about this. So tell me your thoughts: How do we shift the paradigm of ResLife training?

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29 thoughts on “The Hypocrisy of ResLife: RA Training

  1. Tim St. John August 28, 2014 / 3:42 pm

    Great post and an important topic. I agree with all of your concerns. One counter argument I might make is pay and timing. We pay student leaders very little, if anything. Spacing out their training means bringing them back to campus early which would preclude many from taking the position in the first place. What we have tried to do with Orientation training is send materials ahead of time electronically and let them do some learning from home to better capitalize on the time we have. For RAs who are on the job all year, you could have continued learning opportunities throughout the year and not cram it all into two weeks. This post is a great starting point to an important discussion, which is needed beyond Res Life.

    • ashleynrobinson August 28, 2014 / 6:22 pm

      Those are very important points to raise, Tim. There are significant business repercussions for departments related to when we physically bring student staff back, as well as finding a balance between the students’ summer opportunities and school-year employment. I love the idea of online learning and preparation. In our department, we have moved toward more in-service training, and we also have an RA Class. I think that both of those programs are good entry points for considering what fall training looks like. Thanks for your insights!

  2. Justin Schuch (@jlschuch) August 28, 2014 / 6:02 pm

    Interesting read.

    I wonder if “work-life” balance is something many Residence Life Professionals think about in December, when the residence halls are typically open for about 10 days out of the month and there are few late night commitments with students not on campus? Do we owe it to ourselves to make sure we work longer days during the months when halls are closed? Or do we put in the same number of hours during the summer months?

    For me, the problem with the concept of work-life balance seems to more about the fact that we, as student affairs professionals talk about it more than other professions. I think about the construction on a new bridge occurring nearby and have heard it is behind schedule. I wonder if the site-leader talks about their work-life balance when working late evening hours, or even running shifts 24/7 in order to get the job done.

    Perhaps we should focus less on work-life balance and more on simply doing what needs to be done to meet the needs of our students.

    • ashleynrobinson August 28, 2014 / 6:30 pm

      I think that the point about who thinks about work-life balance is incredibly relevant. The concept of work-life balance is certainly a privileged one, usually reserved for professional and white collar environments. Growing up with a parent who worked in construction and worked two jobs, I never heard him talk about “balance”. I just heard him talk about being tired.

      I would say that in many cases, we do just need to get the job done. When there is a crisis or an unanticipated event, I expect to work 24/7 to meet the needs of my students and my campus. When “life happens”, I think that’s acceptable and necessary. But fall staff training is not an unplanned event. There’s a big difference between getting the job done during a blizzard or NCAA National Championship weekend and onboarding and training student staff. It happens every year, at exactly the same time. To me, balance means intentionality, planning, and continuous improvement to make anticipated processes more efficient, better, and mission-driven.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation!

    • Shane Cadden (@scaddenFNL) August 29, 2014 / 9:49 am

      Whatever the term it is completely reasonable to ask the question and assess the out put of our work, but especially that of student employees who are not in full time roles. I agree 100% we could make better use of time during down months than we do which is a large part of the problem. http://ridingtheelevator.wordpress.com/2014/08/24/running-on-empty-dont-shame-your-shoes/ Still, focusing less on work-life balance from an organizational health and development standpoint is really doing nobody any favors, and certainly not the students who get the least of ourselves rather than the best of ourselves.

    • Gennie Lynn August 29, 2014 / 12:35 pm

      I agree with Justin in many regards as I’m sure many departments pay RA’s an hourly wage for a set number of hours each pay period. Some weeks may be more intensive and some lighter, but they still get the same number of hours. This is similar as there are times of the year where it is very light for us (i.e. in December) and others that are not (August). How can we justify this to our student staff but not accept the justification for ourselves? After 14 years in the profession, and running RA training this year, I am actually energized after my three weeks of 12-14 hour days. Tired, but energized. I think a lot of it is about preparation and there are major issues with bringing students back earlier and earlier each year. Just my two cents.

      • ashleynrobinson August 29, 2014 / 1:19 pm

        I feel energized by the presence and excitement of my staff took even after the long days. However, I know that I’m a huge extrovert, and even then, I’m exhausted. I really enjoy the enthusiasm of RA training, and I wonder how we can capture that and also provide for a more whole-person focused training. I know that I could really benefit as a professional from looking closely at how much time RAs actually do work and how that time is spent.

        Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Eric August 28, 2014 / 6:16 pm

    I agree with this post and it is an interesting topic to discuss. With that being said, if you take an even further step back when did RA Training have to become long and so drastic in topics? Maybe the real question is, “Are we asking too much of our STUDENT staff?” They are a student first, but are they really? The jokes fly back and fourth and we all know what the real answer is to that joke.

    Since when do we have to train them for every little encounter they might face? What happened to the RA being a resource and not the mental counselor, academic adviser, judicial member, maintenance man, door man, bell hop, front desk attendant, first responder, crisis counselor, career development counselor, diversity advocate, policy enforcer, laundry teacher, and the list goes on and on. To be able to handle all of this and more we train them (and ourselves) to do it all. Why not train them to find it all and to be able to refer their students to the experts.

    Again, “Are we asking too much of our STUDENT staff?”

    • ashleynrobinson August 28, 2014 / 6:36 pm

      Eric, I think that your question really gets to the root of the problem in many ways. I don’t think that we can train them for every little encounter! At the end of the day, students can only retain so much information without experience. Training and development is an all year (or multi year) endeavor. I think that we need to consider what student staff members’ jobs really are. Furthermore, we need to assess whether or not training efforts are effective (not based on satisfaction, but based on job performance, knowledge, and application of skills).

    • Shane Cadden (@scaddenFNL) August 29, 2014 / 9:51 am

      Totally agree. We hold them to a higher standard than we do professionals in many ways and expect almost as much from them, while we send mixed messages of what they are not supposed to handle. They don’t get paid nearly enough for some of the work they do and see, which many entry level professionals never even get to experience.

  4. Adam August 28, 2014 / 8:08 pm

    You bring up a very interesting perspective. After being in the Reslife profession for 8 years (recently changed to academic affairs), I believe that quite a few factors play a role in the summer/fall training model…including the ones you brought it. The biggest influences, in my opinion, have been RA turnover and retention along with the issue of relaying crucial information to a large a large group in a controlled manner. On-boarding every semester or year to a large number of student employees can be difficult and tedious. One solution we implemented was a mandatory 6 hour veteran RA shadowing program before new hire RAs left for the summer. That seemed to enhance training and slim down the schedule.

    I also very interested to see if and when RA compensation will be evaluated in the future. Do any departments (other than privatized housing) actually calculate how many hours student staff should be working for their rent, meals, and possible other additional pay? Would it even equal minimum wage?

  5. Darrien August 28, 2014 / 8:39 pm

    Great post!

    • Eric August 29, 2014 / 12:44 am

      I would also enjoy some insight on your training schedule. Even if you were keeping it to the work day, do you allow time for door decs, programming planning, hall prep, etc to occur during that time? Or do you work the eight hour day and then expect those things to happen afterwards? Furthermore, how long does your training last? I personally have to fit training into a 5 day period, which two of the days are utilized for early check in in the afternoons. I guess it would also depend on your method of “prioritizing” topics. In our five day training we feel every top is at the very top, although other might disagree. Hummm, more of an open thought that a question, sorry about that.

      • Shane Cadden (@scaddenFNL) August 29, 2014 / 9:56 am

        Yes, we haev “training” then we have all these other things they have to do in the non training time. It’s all work time and we need to realize that as employers and plan accordingly. We changed our model to haev training time (facilitated presentations), community time to work on community matters, and task time to work on specific tasks required to prepare for move-in. Breaking these things up allowed us to prepare better and see how much time this all really takes and make adjustments rather than continue to push a square peg through an already tiny round hole.

  6. annerstark August 28, 2014 / 9:36 pm

    Purdue has a great model! We operate training within the work day. We left the 12-14 hours days in the past a several years ago. Sure, we still work the weekends due to move-ins but we think critically about many hours staff really need to work to be productive vs putting time in the chair. Topics have been prioritized with non-essentials to opening and the first few weeks have been booted to in-services during the semesters ahead when timely and relevant. What I’m saying is, it can be done and we are doing it! Can we do it better? Sure. And I am confident we will next year! I am happy to spread the word on strategies to anyone who might be interested!

    • ashleynrobinson August 28, 2014 / 11:23 pm

      Anne, I would love to hear more about how Purdue made that transition, especially any assessment and evaluation that drove/supported the change!

  7. Andre August 28, 2014 / 9:48 pm

    UMass Amherst is one of the few institutions I’ve worked at that tries very hard to not schedule RA training sessions after 5pm. The only one this year was “Pizza with the Police,” which was a dinner with our police liaisons. Yes, RAs still work on bulletin boards and door decs at night, as the prep time given during the day isn’t sufficient, but I think we are still doing better here than at most other places with regard to evening responsibilities.

    The thing that has probably helped us get to this place is an RA Union, which has advocated for and protected the rights of our student staff members.

    • ashleynrobinson August 28, 2014 / 11:25 pm

      The idea of the RA Union is very interesting to me. I think that the normal reaction is a negative one, but at the end of the day, advocacy is what drives progress and change. How long is your training, Andre?

  8. Rebekah August 28, 2014 / 10:52 pm

    Having done August in Res Life for 9 years now, I think there are some things missing from your consideration. We train our staff to be prepared for the first 30 days. RA in services and individual RD to RA staff training handles the rest. Here are the real challenges – the end of summer school and the end of summer conferences allow about 2 weeks to get things turned around. This is not avoidable. Which means a lot of work in a condensed amount of time. The option of leisurely training is nice in theory, but simply not practical based on the demands and pressure points outlined by the rest of the university.

    • ashleynrobinson August 28, 2014 / 11:32 pm

      I don’t disagree, Rebekah. I’m not advocating for a longer time frame of fall staff training. We turn our buildings over from summer school and conferences up to the day before our RA staff arrives. I’m more concerned with examining the effectiveness of the 2 week, highly condensed training and examining alternates like technology, pre-summer training, or other creative options. I also really wonder what exactly do RAs need to know for those first 30 days prior to ongoing supervision and staff development opportunities. How do we teach those skills and knowledge in an effective and thoughtful way that values the learner as a whole person?

  9. Brian Gallagher August 29, 2014 / 2:26 am

    100% agree. We need to be better in our role modelling. I have worked for one institution that did have 8 hr training days with appropriate breaks. We opened the buildings just fine & had a great successful year. Oh, and we were less tired.

  10. James H Manley Jr., PhD August 29, 2014 / 6:27 am

    I also use to be a part of this training model. Then I began working at the Culinary Institute of America where we have come up with a model of RA training that is only three days long and is done most nights by 9pm (at the absolute latest). We utilize monthly inservices throughout the year to cover other subjects that are not covered during the summer. Of course, due to our academic schedule we are hiring new RAs four times a year which means we are also doing 4 one day New RA Training sessions each year which means we do not need to go over a lot of basics during our summer training. And I can say that my RAs here at the CIA rank right up there with the best RAs I have worked with at other colleges that rely on much longer training sessions during the summer. I would be happy to share more information about this with anyone who is interested. Just email me at j_manley@culinary.edu
    Sincerely
    James H Manley Jr.,PhD
    Director of Residential Campus LIfe
    The Culinary Institute of America

  11. Shane Cadden (@scaddenFNL) August 29, 2014 / 10:18 am

    Thank you again for writing this piece as an opportunity to collaborate to adapt to a known problem rather than people who complain about it and don’t want to adapt to it or those who complain it’s fine, when we and certainly our student employees know its not fine as does HR and or legal if we choose to consult those resources. I have 15 years experience in HRL at various institutions. Training is a problem on all levels, but it is more solvable than not as mentioned above like Purdue for one example. It is a year long commitment to make it work right, not something we compartmentalize and plan for at certain times of the year. In a previous position where I spent over 6 years as the person directly responsible for our staffing, training and development we actually assessed August (as well as the weekly RA workload throughout the year) and the time for training, move-in, duty, etc. as we had not done so previously in any individual community or as a department. We learned a great deal and sought to correct a lot beginning with the position description, training schedules advance notice of days and times by months in advance, days off during training, in general not going past 5, or community dinners, offering different levels for different staff years, we removed a lot of presentations from campus offices that ate a lot of time and put those folks in the room with supervisors who really need that info to help RAs plan programs, (saves a world of time and puts the stakeholders at the same table rather than staring at 200 RAs in yet another perceived functional session) looking at compensation if it is not covered in the remaining part of the year, and breaking training into 3 parts presentation topics and universal/community time/tasks for preparation. These and a number of other changes were made to enhance our efficiency, make training purposeful to job and future jobs, and implement an ethic of care to take care of well-being for pro to student staff and thus our residents upon move in. I worked at the 2nd largest programs in my state and these things and more were and are possible with clarity of purpose, commitment to the staff and students, and collaborative partners that envision success as including a healthy and well trained staff. We just have to want to make the changes and effectively communicate how everyone benefits. I’m open to talk with anyone further on staffing, training staff, well-being, or the like as staffing, training and development of all staff levels is critical to the success of our work regardless if its HRL or another functional area. I can be reached @scaddenFNL Again, thanks to Ashley for continuing to push the door open on this topic. We can and must do better.

    Some related blog posts:
    http://ridingtheelevator.wordpress.com/2014/08/24/running-on-empty-dont-shame-your-shoes/

    http://ridingtheelevator.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/student-employment-reconsidered-creating-a-staffing-plan-that-honors-well-being-in-work/

    http://ridingtheelevator.wordpress.com/2014/07/23/dammit-chloe-takeaways-from-24lad-leaders-of-time-at-work-2/

  12. KDN August 29, 2014 / 10:52 am

    I find this topic very interesting! As a former RA and current young professional in Education. I find that RA training was very similar to training I received as I was going through my institute training to become a teacher. So I do agree that we need to change the model, but I was extremely grateful that I was prepared for this level rapid-fire learning curve when I did start my first job.

  13. Victoria August 29, 2014 / 12:55 pm

    As someone who just finished RA training, I do agree with you, Ashley, that we don’t role model very good work/life balance during RA training. I planned our RA training this year and I was very intentional to not allow for 12-14 hour days and gave at least 2.5 days off during the 18 days of training. I would also challenge our colleagues to take a look at the hours and see what can be done during the year instead of during the wee hours of training. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and want you to know, there many folks our there who share your sentiments.

  14. bnubian August 30, 2014 / 12:51 am

    I think you’ll find a good number of Res Life/Housing professionals that agree with you. And there are a number of professionals that have named what they do to try and help their RAs not have such long training days. When I first started at my current institution as an RD, the RD training was six weeks long and bled into Student Staff training (we train with RAs, RHA, NRHH and other student leaders/staff within Housing dept,) which is two weeks long, weekends free, and that bled into Welcome Week and Opening. Three weeks ago, I started a new job outside of Res Life but still in Housing and the only thing that has changed in my four years is that RD training is now two weeks. I think we have taken out all we can out of RA training that is deem information for later and we are still left with two weeks. The first week is learning all the crisis information because that Friday we have residents returning to the building for early arrival move-in and the second week is learning all the programming and housekeeping information (Opening info, Welcome Week) as well as Behind Closed Doors because the next week is Opening/Move-In. I think when it comes down to it Res Life is a journey of push and pull. There are times I pushed myself past 5:00 pm (not just during training) and then when the time came I pulled myself back and take a two week vacation in the middle of Fall term. I don’t truly believe in the term work/life balance because SA pros think that the balance has to happen immediately. When in reality to balance the self-care part of our lives it may take months. However, the point of self-care is that you actually do it. I am a self-proclaim Self-Care Queen and prepare months in advance so when the time comes I am ready to take that time off, go off the grid and refresh. It is something I “preach” to my colleagues to do and my student staff. So, while I hear you about RA training and there are always tweaks; I also wonder what are we really doing to promote self-care with our staffs and with ourselves.

  15. Cathy Raynis Meeker, PhD September 1, 2014 / 11:05 pm

    When I worked at Manhattan School of Music we changed the opening days to week days and tried to keep weekend training to a minimum. It was time for staff to rest and get caught up with any pressing tasks to prepare for opening. We did this so the staff was rested and ready for opening and the many activities of the first week students were back. We were able to cover the core of what was essential for them to do their jobs well. They were some of the best staffs ever who built great a great sense of community while handling serious issues extremely well.

    I think I have been impacted by bosses over time who valued balance to life, keeping staff training focused on what really mattered, and being able to start a school year with rested staff. It is not a new idea, but perhaps it needs to be reconsidered for more programs.

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