During my time as a Resident Director, I was given a rare gift. I was working with a pilot residential community that aimed to design a new, mission-focused training model for our RAs. We wiped the slate clean and asked ourselves, “what do they really need to be successful?” Over the two years of experimenting with those trainings, combined with six additional years of RA training experiences, I found two themes have a major impact on the success of my student staff. This inspired my Final Thought on May 29th: “FT: Goal is for the team to end training w/ strong bonds & optimistic about success. All pieces should focus on making that happen #sachat.”
Team-building was by far my favorite part of the Resident Director position. I loved safely navigating a team through different levels of disclosure activities and finding informal ways to help them bond. One year, a spirited debate about the ending of Inception turned a train ride home from a simple conversation into a year-long running joke. While these moments do not immediately appear as important as sessions related to core job functions, they set the tone for your year.
I worked with one team where bonding went awry and instead of building each other up as the residents arrived, much of the team dedicated their efforts instead to interpersonal drama. How could I ask my RAs to successfully mediate roommate conflicts when they themselves were engaging in petty texting wars? For anyone who has worked with a difficult student team, you know the energy spent rebuilding relationships throughout the busy academic year drains you (and them) from the ability to excel in other areas. By focusing on setting a strong foundation of relationships during training, you can prevent getting caught up in a feedback loop of Tuckman’s (1965) Storming and Norming stages, and spend more of your year enjoying Performing.
Building confidence can be tricky for new student staff members. Training on numerous policies and procedures often gets a bad rap for being overwhelming and lacking engagement. Over the years I’ve seen some pretty innovative ways to impart this knowledge, but I found clearly setting my expectations to be what made the training most effective. As an undergraduate, I was the student who tapped out during Behind Closed Doors. Instead of feeling confident enough to go through the scenario, make my mistakes, and flourish in the future, I found myself terrified and tongue-tied. When it came time to document my first party during the academic year, I ran away and found a more assertive RA to do it instead (I’m not proud of that moment, but it was a great place to learn from.) My poor supervisor had to spend our first few 1:1’s rebuilding my confidence and giving me the (very necessary) tough love to get me back on track to be successful. Even though I knew the policies and procedures, it was the lack of confidence that became a burden for the rest of my team. Any RA that worked for me in subsequent years can tell you I made sure they felt prepared for BCD’s and understood the importance of learning from the process itself. Every team will need policy refreshers at different points in the year, but ending training believing they will be successful is not a moment that can be recreated in a later staff meeting.
When I look back on my eight years of student staff trainings, I realize it is often easier to focus on what didn’t work. Sometimes you have a presenter who goes off-topic, is a little dry, or fails to show up (now there is an exercise in creative problem solving!) Sometimes questions about policy don’t get answered, the retreat center forgets to make the gluten-free meals, or one of your students oversleeps the morning of the ropes course. But at the end of training, you can be confident that as long as your students can rely on one another in the toughest moments and believe they have the skills and knowledge to be successful, you can pat yourself on the back for a training well done and look forward to a great year.
Tuckman, Bruce (1965). “Developmental sequence in small groups”. Psychological Bulletin 63 (6): 384–99.