Your first year in a position at a new institution usually dictates that you will work with a RA staff that has been hired or handpicked by your predecessor. You work through that year, through struggle as well as success and you dream of the following year. Visions of a year when you handpick your own staff, and coast to victory after victory over incompetence, laziness and drastic errors in judgment float through your head. In many cases that year arrives, and you realize that you were wrong. Supervision, instead of becoming much easier, has become more difficult. Why is it an inexact science? Where did you go wrong?
For new professionals supervision can be the most difficult aspect of the position to grasp. Supervising students so close in age to their supervisor can create difficulties with boundaries, personal and professional expectations and navigating between being respected and “being liked.” Nuances of supervision, including consistency, clarity of expectations and, most importantly, accountability are often lost amid the struggle to just get by. Quality supervision reflects these nuances as well and in addition, accomplishes the tasks at hand while intentionally focusing on challenging, teaching and promoting growth within student staff.
Supervision is the most difficult aspect of a professional live-in position. Supervising RAs does not ever become easy; however there are ways to become a better supervisor. Those techniques include clarity of expectations, clarity of role and understanding of the dynamic between staff and the supervisor.
Accountability; The First Step
Just as effective goal-setting sessions have guidelines that are necessary even to know if the goals have been achieved; accountability methods should have standards that allow supervisors to guide employees through the year fairly, professionally, and with learning outcomes in mind. The following questions are critical to ensure that any accountability actions taken will be effective steps towards improving a staff and its individual members.
Is the accountability measurable?
Is the accountability developmental…what are we teaching?
Is there a rationale for the accountability?
Is the accountability expected? (See “Laying a Foundation”)
Do consequences correspond to actions or failure to act?
Is it logical or reasonable?
Laying a Foundation
When approaching supervision there are certainly tools that will be required in order to effectively operate. In many cases dependent upon the institution that you work within there is a systematic protocol. This typically includes, contracts and job descriptions, evaluations, letters of reprimand, or performance improvement plans. In the case that you are working somewhere where none of these are the cultural norm, that can make supervision exceedingly more difficult.
|Job Description||Supervisory Manual||Process|
|Contract||Departmental Culture||Forms, Letters, Evaluations|
If you are working at an institution that does not have the appropriate protocols or culture in place, your best bet is to get that process started. Contracts and position descriptions are easy enough to create or emulate and you can work with your human resources department for protocols and procedures when expectations are not met.
Most importantly for a new supervisor, and someone in a first job, there needs to be thorough follow through on all supervisory matters. Whether suggestions for improvement or formal action are taking place, the processing and follow up on that improvement is the most important part of beginning supervision. This follow up is typically accomplished through letters addressing the circumstances, a regularly scheduled evaluation process or through processes such as probation or suspension of duties and privileges.
All letters, evaluations, and forms need to be the same across campus. Paraprofessional jobs can vary from hall to hall, but the essential duties should be the same for everyone. RAs arrive on time for duty and office hours, document conduct, maintenance, and wellness issues, meet programming requirements, and respond to emergencies. The evaluations should allow a supervisor to gauge where a staff member is regarding their job responsibilities, and give good feedback as to how to improve, or positive reinforcement where it is called for.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to smooth sailing in your first instance of supervision, especially when working with college students, is clarity, or the lack thereof. When possible it should be communicated with a staff how decision-making will be accomplished. Often times, students mistake their RA position for that of one of a elected student position, while these students are often leaders in such positions, they typically also have a great stake in the decision making process. The concept that decisions may be made for them and they’ll have no opportunity to change or amend them can sometimes come as a surprise.
Clarifying from the outset when the staff, supervisor or the department will decide something, however self-evident to you as a supervisor; may make things a little more clear for your student staff. If student staff is operating under the impression that they will have input in certain areas, and they are not seeing any of that input manifested, they can become frustrated or disillusioned with their position their supervisor, or the department they work for. All of this can be minimized by a discussion on the nature of their position and what they can expect regarding decisions that affect them, their residents and their supervisor.
Consider developing a decision matrix that illustrates for them where they can expect to impact decisions and where decisions may be made at a departmental, institutional or even state or federal level.
Another issue that can use some clarity, specifically when dealing with Resident Advisor staff is helping them delineate clearly their role as a staff member and that of student advocate. Often times RAs will have difficulty distinguishing between when they work for the department, and when they should speak out on the residents’ behalf. This can lead to conflicts of interest and further confusion on the part of the student staff member.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
With all your needs in place, a clear definition of roles, and a sound framework built around accountability, supervision remains a challenge. While we have addressed some of the issues that come up for student staff, there are often times areas where supervisors contribute to the difficulty of effective supervision.
We’ve tried to isolate some things that you should certainly avoid, understand or be aware of as you begin your first or second, or hey, even third supervisory challenge.
Bullish in a China Shop
A first time supervisor tends to take one of two approaches, that of Teddy Ruxpin “Can you and I be friends?” or with the tact of General George Patton. Both approaches have probably worked for people in the past, but neither is the most developmental or successful for new supervisors or the staff.
Overwhelmingly staff members want to be held accountable. In research we did for a regional ACUHO presentation on this topic, of 95 respondents:
•64 would prefer that their supervisors address their mistake formally.
•28 prefer that a supervisor remind them not to do it again.
•3 hoped that a supervisor would disregard their mistake.
Generally students want to be held accountable. The Teddy Ruxpin approach is certainly not developmental, and in many ways, it’s insulting to the students. The presumption that they aren’t capable of understanding consequence or accountability, while it may leave you free and clear of uncomfortable confrontation or formal action, this aversion to conflict doesn’t do anything to assist them in becoming better students or staff. Teddy also allows the staff to make decisions, and winces at the thought of communicating what may be unpopular decisions or new protocols from their supervisors.
Teddy Ruxpin supervisors feel safe in knowing that their staff likes them. Unfortunately, in most cases, the staff does not respect them. The first lesson of effective supervision and of being supervised is the ability to separate the personal from professional. Teddy Ruxpin robs their reporting staff from this opportunity.
General Patton on the other hand lets them know what rolls downhill. The General Patton supervisor is swift with consequences and accountability and usually, is religiously consistent in doling out expectations and follow up. While the lesson is certainly taught that there are consequences for failing to meet expectations; that is usually the only lesson learned.
General Patton supervisors also fail to make the distinction between personal and professional, usually this is because they never attempt to make that personal connection in the first place, and in many instances, work hard to avoid it.
An effective supervisor is able to develop relationships with staff members as individuals, as well as dispense corrective action that is well understood and developmental while keeping those relationships intact.
Teddy Ruxpin and General Patton each operate out of fear. One fears not being liked, while the other fears being unable to do what is called for, and therefore sets up barriers to those relationships in the first place.
Your student staff is too intelligent to be treated so one-dimensionally. If you’re not able to challenge, support and hold them accountable, you’re not doing anyone any favors.
Many first time supervisors, particularly those entering into Resident Director positions have a natural ability to relate to their students and their staff. It’s that same ability, which often comes from proximity in age, which can also create problems with boundary setting, and maintenance.
Boundaries are a two way street. If you engage students after hours, in their rooms etc., you should expect them to understand that this is the relationship that you have. If you show up at their room to chat, you should expect them to come by your apartment to do the same. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect that the relationship be simply on your terms.
It’s important to decide what level of personal involvement and informality you are comfortable with, and is expected of you as a professional by the institution or department for whom you work. Hypocrisy is the worst failure of a supervisor and the first flaw to be picked up on by those you supervise.
What You Do Well
Neither of us are experts. Though we’ve all had experiences where someone who was highly effective, or horribly ineffective has supervised us. Generally, the ones who do an effective job do so because they respect the people who work for them. That respect allows them to develop relationships with those people as individuals, while making sure that they’re doing right by the department that employs them.
Ultimately it will be about what works for you, but you should certainly look at your supervisory experience as a valuable professional development opportunity. The ability to develop staff members’ skills and understanding, as well as see and negotiate individual strengths and weaknesses, including your own, will serve any professional very well as the move forward in their career.
Submitted by Clive Pursehouse, Assistant Administrator for Supervision and Diversity Initiatives at the University of Washington