I survived! I moved to Carbondale, IL to begin my first full time role as a Hall Director. Since completing the treacherous trip from Ohio, I have been in a myriad of meetings, presentations, and other various training/team building activities. Each one of these items is an important structural component to a successful transition of professionals. Attending and participating in these sessions was especially useful to me because I am undergoing a huge transition in terms of institutional size. There are ample resources that I will learn about as I work because there simply was not enough time during training to cover every necessity.
Is there ever enough time? One particular difficulty I am noticing, especially working in Residence Life, is a compounding effect. In my specific case I underwent a month long professional staff training, followed by a week-long graduate assistant training, followed by the beginning of student staff training that seemingly was never going to end. I was constantly barraged with attending or facilitating sessions with student staff and attempting to find time within evening team builders to regenerate my energy reserves. It was an exhausting beginning to the 2016-2017 school year.
I have already begun to look ahead to the 2017-2018 school year or even upcoming training in January in preparation for the impact the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) will have on “the way we’ve always done it.” In preparation for this post, I half-attempted to locate a source that would give me an average of how many hours a residence life professional worked during the month of August but was not successful in locating a source. I believe that the lack of success is attributable to the fact that the number is as close to infinity as possible.
DISCLAIMER: many of this comments stem from the collection of anecdotal evidence from residence life professionals over the years and my own experiences. Not all of my examples will be relevant to all professionals across the student affairs world.
Professional Staff Training
I had a steep learning curve as a new professional who recently moved to an institution far different than most of their previous experiences. Institution size increased dramatically and I also moved from private to public which has highlighted some very important differences in my understanding of emergency response protocol. It was almost immediately after arriving that I was in training sessions. This was my first experience as a new professional undergoing professional training therefore it should be noted that my perspective is one of a recent graduate beginning their #SApro journey.
There is a lot of information being presented at training. There are sessions on policies, procedures, tours, resources, and even the occasional motivational speaker throughout the training period (which can range in duration). It is increasingly easy for presentation fatigue to set in and lay waste to any understanding of the days’ material, most of which could be important to know. In addition to becoming fatigued I assert that many professionals are aware that just because a person attended a presentation does not mean that they fully comprehend or can complete that task on their own. You can talk a person through every single step with a beautiful PowerPoint presentation, but that knowledge and its application is not cemented until that person actually completes the task on their own.
The most educational activity is involving a person in what they need to understand.
To this effect, I suggest that departments utilize experiential learning in the early stages of training instead of relying on the necessary know-how to occur post training. In the trainings I have experienced (predominantly in Residence Life) there is a heavy emphasis on training (professional, graduate, and student) aiming to impart a lot of knowledge in a brief timeline. The hours are usually long and filled with great amounts of information, but not always an emphasis on doing the tasks that are described. I am guilty of being a professional that has said “When you are actually completing the task you will understand it” when there is confusion about a procedure or process. Reliance on perceived learning instead of actual learning, I am realizing, is perhaps a mistake.
What happens if we reverse this learning process? Instead of giving a broad overview in the beginning, trainers develop interactive, technology based trainings that can be done to facilitate learning by doing? Several weeks ago when I was learning how to use the student conduct software Advocate, I underwent approximately an hour and a half presentation to learn how to use it, but found myself nearly clueless when I logged into the system. It was not until I went through a training case that I began to remotely grasp what I was doing. By adjudicating a mock conduct case in Advocate I was able to grasp it in a way that had escaped me as I sat through a presentation. I felt that I was able to get more from subsequent trainings because I had an experience in which to draw upon.
What other activities could be benefited from mock or trial runs? Instead of a lecture on properly filling out purchasing card forms – create an opportunity to make a “purchase” and complete the necessary clerical duties. Residents have a tendency to want to switch rooms so it might be beneficial if trainees underwent a mock space change from beginning to finish. If we flip the educational process to in-depth, experience based as the introduction then resource documents will be more effective as references instead of a step-by-step guide that one scrambles to find the moment a situation arises because they remember the presentation, but not how to complete the task.
One further benefit delivered by the type of experiential learning that I recommend is that it can be asynchronous, meaning that it does not need to be completed at one specific time. Many of the recommendations I made are items that can be completed during “structured office time” or without a physical facilitator. Creating the preparatory materials for this type of training is not something that can be left to week before. Developing effective asynchronous learning experiences requires training committees to intentionally design the materials to ensure that they are clear, concise (definition depends on the task being explained), and accessible.
As a part of one of my graduate internships, I developed a hybrid Safe Zone training. Our purpose was to delegate the imparting of foundational knowledge to a series of online community members who had already completed research and created videos explaining LGBTQ+ definitions to allow facilitators to have more time to discuss the role of an ally and how to fulfill that it. Furthermore, using pre-existing information and archiving the source allows for unlimited access to the source material. Imagine for a second if instead of a series of printed images as a guide in navigating Advocate that I had access to a video that recorded a student conduct officer’s screen and voice explaining and demonstrating the necessary steps to successfully navigate the system. At any point a user could pause or replay a section of the video and replicate it on their own screen.
The challenges to “traditional” notions of what training and the work day looks like for student affairs professionals are not impossible. Student affairs is notorious for its systemic culture of overworking professionals to such a point that they leave the field forever (see my blog post on burnout here). The burden to prevent burnout has always been placed on the worker by institutions, although inadvertently. “Take a flex day, create boundaries, turn notifications off . . .” are some examples of what I have heard throughout my time as an undergraduate as well as an emerging/new professional. All of these would be great options if the follow up question was not always “Why didn’t this or that get done?” FLSA puts burdens on institutions/departments to enact structural changes to give professionals the remote chance of living not just working; of being paid for the extra 20 hours a week worked regularly to stay afloat.
What I wrote about in this post does not solve the problem automagically, but is one step towards progress. Use the comments section, use #SAChat, #SATech, #SAGrad, and many other mediums to collaborate with professionals from across the spectrum to identify ways to create or improve everyday processes or training. I believe in my peers and the field. Otherwise I would be blogging about cats or something.