Creating a strong and successful RA staff begins with the supervisor. Leading a group of students and guiding them to their full potential requires use of specific strategies and attention to key areas of your relationship with your staff. As a supervisor, you need to develop your own role on the staff, build relationships individually with your RAs, and build the staff into a team. These three areas can help make or break your staff and significantly impact the overall quality of your experience, your RAs’ experience, and their student’s experience in housing.
Your role on the staff is to set the tone for the year and to guide your staff through all the challenges a typical year will bring. Ultimately, you are their primary role model and guide. As you consider this role and its responsibilities, there are three strategies to remember:
STRATEGY #1: be a strong role model
STRATEGY #2: maintain appropriate boundaries
STRATEGY #3: enforce expectations
Building relationships with each of your staff members individually will help you guide them to reach their own personal best. Taking the time to really work with them and to get to know who they are will help you help them do a better job throughout the year. The two strategies to remember are:
STRATEGY #4: make the most of one on one meetings
STRATEGY #5: remember the informal interactions
In addition to solidifying your role and your connection to each of your individual staff members, it is important that you invest in your overall staff team and their staff development. RAs need to function well independently, but must also come together to work as a team throughout the year.
STRATEGY #6: create staff meetings that matter
STRATEGY #7: develop your staff as a team
These strategies are explained below with specific suggestions for how to implement each one. As you review each strategy, quickly assess yourself in each area and consider if any of the ideas would help you to be a better supervisor with a more successful staff.
Strategy #1: Be a Strong Role Model
Your own behavior and work style will set the bar for your RAs and they will look to your actions as a guide for their own. As such, it is vital that you really consider how to best model what you expect for your RAs in your own behavior. The following are different ways to serve as a strong role model:
• Make sure your actions are consistent with how you want your staff to behave. Some key areas to remember: patience in your interactions with residents, commitment to diversity, policy enforcement, and attention to deadlines.
• Treat your RAs as well as you want them to treat their residents…if you want your RAs to take the time to know their residents, take the time to get to know your RAs.
• Model personal wellness…RAs often struggle to find a balance between their RA work and their lives as students. Be sure that you are modeling wellness and that your staff understands that you, too, are human and have needs and limits.
• Explain your behavior and the decisions you make to your staff. If you have to make a hard decision, share your experience with them and why it was hard (provided confidentiality does not restrict you from sharing the matter as an example with your staff). It can be very hard to effectively role model ethical decision making, but it can be done if you take the time to talk to your staff about decisions you have made.
Strategy #2: Maintain Appropriate Boundaries
Although it is tempting to supervise via friendship and personal connection, this approach will create problems as the year goes on. You should take the time to really think about the boundaries you want to set with your staff and how you want to maintain your professionalism. Consider the following strategies:
• Reserve time and/or space for yourself that you do not share with your staff. Consider blocking off time each week to get off campus or keeping your apartment (or at least your bedroom) off limits to RAs.
• Decide how much of your personal life you want to share with your staff…think about the limits you might set on how much you will share with your staff about your private relationships.
• Be cautious in sharing your personal opinions about your department, division, supervisors, co-workers, school policies, and so on. You should always be especially careful about venting strong feelings, such as anger, to your staff.
• Discuss your staff’s expectations of you…if any of their expectations are unreasonable, take the time to explain why.
• Make sure your staff understands confidentiality and the limits on your ability to share information in certain circumstances. Taking the time to have this discussion before an issue comes up can save a lot of trouble and mistrust later.
• Keep your personal and professional relationships separate…think carefully before forming social relationships with your staff and be mindful of other dual relationships (having a RA in a class you teach, employing the RA as a babysitter, etc.).
Strategy #3: Enforce Expectations
It is easy to set expectations and share them with your staff, but it can also be easy to fail to enforce these expectations throughout the year. It is important that you commit to firm standards, communicate them clearly (in writing and in an early meeting), and hold staff accountable. Consider the following suggestions:
• Set the tone that you want your staff to be excellent and to represent well…remind them of it often and praise them whenever they go above and beyond!
• Make sure your staff has a solid and thorough understanding of their job responsibilities. Take the time to answer questions and to clarify any area of confusion at the beginning of the year and set aside time during a staff meeting once a month for Q & A and use early one on ones to review this area.
• Make sure you include time for your staff to share their expectations with you (as mentioned under strategy two, it is important to discuss what they can and can’t expect of you). Be sure to also facilitate a discussion of the group’s expectations of each other.
• Explain the chain of command and how to appropriately communicate concerns…for example, let your staff know that it is not acceptable to email the director with a staff concern unless they have spoken to your first.
• Refer to the expectations you have set whenever they are relevant and try to relate them to your staff’s daily responsibilities and regular tasks.
• Anytime a staff member fails to meet an expectation, take appropriate action quickly to address it. If you are not sure what to do, consult with your own supervisor promptly.
Strategy #4: Make the Most of One on One Meetings
One on one meetings with each RA is a must. Making the time to make these meetings useful to both you and your RA will keep your relationship on track. These meetings should be fine tuned to each individual RA. Consider the following ideas to ensure your meetings are productive:
• Consider using a one on one report form…ask staff to complete this before the meeting and use it as a jumping off point for your meetings.
• Take time during each one on one to see how your RA is doing overall. Remember to ask how classes are going or to learn more about what they are doing outside of the RA position.
• Offer constructive feedback…let your RA know what they are doing well and where they need to improve. If you need to let them know an area where they do need improvement, talk specifically about how they can do this…give them the tools they need to meet your expectations.
• Offer formal feedback…if your staff member requires a written warning, discuss the letter in a one on one meeting to make sure that the letter is clear. You can also use formal feedback to recognize an outstanding success…consider writing the letter to your RA and cc’ing the director (or other appropriate person).
• Solicit feedback on how you are doing. It is important to take the time to see if your RAs have any concerns about how you are doing and/or ideas for how to improve something. Moreover, just by taking the time to ask, you help establish more open lines of communication between you and your individual staff members.
• Provide additional training, resources, programming ideas, and so on. Provide these resources to both address specific needs and to challenge your staff to grow in the position.
• Follow up on any big issue that you have discussed as a staff. For example, if your staff really struggled in their efforts to put together a blood drive, take the time to ask each RA about their role in the program.
Strategy #5: Remember the Informal Interactions
RAs are whole people and have lives that go far beyond their RA roles. Taking the time to get to know who they are and to interact more casually from time to time is well worth it. These moments are often the easiest, but can still be overlooked. Commit to talking to your RAs outside their RA roles and supporting their overall development as a student…try one of the following:
•Take the time to do the little things…celebrating birthdays, sending notes of encouragement, recognizing achievements, and so on.
• Stop and talk to your staff when you see them on campus or around the building. Ask how their day is going and what they are up to…it only takes a few minutes to find out what kind of a day someone is having.
• Check in on your RAs as they are doing their RA work…stop by a program, join them for rounds, call to see how duty is going…stop by the desk or duty office to say hello.
• Take note of the individual touches that your RAs add to their floors…do regular rounds and take special notice of creative bulletin boards, advertisements, and other efforts.
• Whenever you are on a residential floor, stop by the RA room…say a quick hello or leave a note on their dry erase board.
• Always remember your staff when award nominations and leadership opportunities come across your desk. Take a moment to consider if you have a worthy staff member that you should nominate or with whom you should share an opportunity.
Strategy #6: Create Staff Meetings that Matter
Staff meetings are too often dreaded by both RA and RD alike. As a supervisor, you should work to make your meetings effective and engaging. If your staff knows what to expect from your meetings and knows that they will benefit from the time, your meetings will go more smoothly. Consider implementing one or more of the following ideas:
• Use an agenda and know what you need to accomplish in each meeting…even if you do not share a formal agenda with your staff, be sure to make up an agenda for you to follow as you lead the meeting.
• Involve your RAs in the meeting…rotate who takes minutes, allow time for floor updates, have each RA lead a team builder, and/or set time at the end of the meet for staff shout outs.
• Actively facilitate and manage your staff meeting…if things are running off course, get them back on track.
•Clearly identify any tasks that staff need to understand…state the expectations and due date clearly (a written agenda really helps).
• Start and end the meeting on time. If people are late, set the expectation that it will be their responsibility to follow up with you. Do your absolute best to avoid running long…if you have a long agenda, let your staff know in advance that you will go late.
• Save any questions that do not relate to the whole group until after the meeting wraps up. Let your RAs know that you will arrive 10 minutes early and stay late to answer individual questions.
• Consider canceling a meeting or using the time for staff development if you do not have enough on your agenda to warrant a meeting. Use a memo or email to the group to cover any items that you need to share.
Strategy #7: Develop Your Staff into a Team
Staff development is often a priority at the beginning of the year, but is sometimes neglected as the year goes on. If you take the time to incorporate staff development throughout the year, your staff will become progressively stronger as a team. The following are suggestions that may help:
• Work to develop a staff identity…this can be built around a staff motto, goal, logo, or even something as informal as a staff joke!
•Take a staff photo…give each staff member a photo and post one in your office or on a lobby bulletin board.
• Foster a team approach to tasks and problems…whenever possible and appropriate, give the group a chance to come to consensus on a programming idea or solution to a problem.
• Encourage and support the group in holding themselves accountable to each other. Before getting involved in a conflict, challenge your staff to resolve the situation on their own.
• Plan some informal staff development activities: a staff dinner, a staff coffee break, movie night, attending a campus event, or other bonding experience.
• In addition to your staff meeting, schedule special staff development meetings as needed (these could be done during your regular staff meeting time or could be in addition to your staff meeting). Plan activities that will help your staff get to know each other better or will help them grow into a stronger group.
• Make staff development part of every staff meeting. Set time for mini team builders during each or every other staff meeting.
Consideration and implementation of the seven strategies discussed above can help you guide your staff to a strong and successful year.
Submitted By Leah K. Parker, Assistant Director for Residential Life at Wentworth Institute of Technology