As discussed in one of my previous blogs, “The Many Faces of the Success Coach“, the first and most crucial job a success coach has is as detective. Just as a doctor cannot proscribe a course of treatment until he or she has diagnosed the patient’s particular malady, I, as a success coach, cannot begin to help a student turn his or her college career around until I have figured out what is really going on. In some situations, this can be a relatively simple task. Some students come in as open books. They both know and are willing to talk candidly about the issue/s holding them back; some may have even brainstormed a few possible solutions on their own. But these, of course, are the easy cases. More often, a success coach will have to do at least a little digging before hearing the clang of shovel upon rock- ah, the satisfying sound of finally hitting that boulder in the road. To better illustrate this point, I’ve opened up a few of my most interesting case files. (Warning: Top secret success coach intel! This message will self-destruct in 3….2….1….)
Name: Owen Doyle
Status: Freshman entering college on academic probation
Clue 1: Owen’s High School Transcript- When I examined Owen’s high school transcript, I discovered that he had made straight As for the first two years, but then his grades dipped in his junior year and plummeted in his senior year. Hmm…I thought. So Owen clearly has the ability to do well, as evidenced by his first two years in high school. What could have happened during those last two years? Family problems? A girl? Did he start hanging out with a bad crowd? Clearly this wasn’t enough evidence to make a confident assessment.
Clue 2: The Human Brain Book– The day Owen first walked into my office, I was in the middle of reading the book, The Human Brain Book. I put the book aside when I heard the knock on my door, but it was still visible on my desk. Almost immediately, Owen remarked, “Oh! I’ve read that book! I loved it!” Now, The Brain is a fairly academic, non-fiction book explaining in-depth the many functions of…well…the brain, so the fact that he had read it for pleasure told me that Owen was intellectually curious. So why was he struggling?
It wasn’t until our third meeting that I was able to put clue 1 and clue 2 together in a way that led me to a key question. “You come from a pretty small town, right?” Owen nodded and rolled his eyes. “Verrrrrrrry small.” I continued, “So I’m assuming you’re high school was pretty small, too.” Again, Owen nodded.” I paused then asked, “Did you feel challenged in high school?” Then, Owen’s eyes lit up and the flood gates opened. “No! I was so bored! I was so bored all the time and….I guess…it made me feel like school was just a waste of time. It made me hate school.”
After that, Owen and I looked at every course in which he was enrolled as well as every professor and worked out a schedule that provided him with the greatest level of challenge and intellectual stimulation. Eventually, Owen decided that he wanted to become an engineer and transferred to a school with an engineering program (ours does not have one), but he may never have gotten to that point without the fundamental change in perspective he underwent in my office.
Name: Meredith Biddle
Status: Sophomore soccer player put on probation after fall semester
Clue 1: Interview with Meredith’s professors- By talking to Meredith’s professors, I learned that her biggest problem during the fall term had been turning in incomplete or late assignments. Okay, I thought, this could be an issue of time management, study skills, or simple immaturity, so I had Meredith experiment with different study techniques, and we created detailed, weekly schedules to aid in time management. Still, Meredith’s grades did not improve. Then, one day when Meredith had a make-up assignment to complete, I told her she could work on it in the empty office just next to mine. I checked in on her every ten minutes or so, and soon I noticed that half of the time she would be looking at her phone, doodling, or simply staring into space. So, she was having trouble focusing?
Clue 2: Interview with Meredith’s soccer coach- I went to Meredith’s soccer coach and asked if he had noticed any difficulty with Meredith’s ability to focus. “She’s all over the place,” he acknowledged. Aha! Meredith was an absolute soccer fanatic, so if she was also having trouble focusing on an activity she loved, the problem wasn’t just about interest in the material.
After the conversation with the coach, I felt confident enough to broach the subject with Meredith. When I asked if she’d ever thought she might have ADHD, she answered, “since 7th grade, but my parents don’t want me to go on medication.” I didn’t try to push her in one direction or another regarding the issue of medication, but I did connect her directly with our point person for students with special needs.
CASE # 3172
Name: Gina Zappala
Status: Freshman cheerleader put on probation after fall semester
Gina, on paper, should have been thriving. She seemed happy and well-adjusted; she was a cheerleader, said she loved school, and didn’t seem to have any obvious academic weak spots, having made average to above-average grades throughout high school. But Gina’s first semester grades were dismal, and thus she ended up in my office.
Clue 1: Attendance- Gina was missing classes. And during our first few meetings, all I got were plausible excuses cheerfully executed. She had missed class because she was sick, she would say with a smile, but she was feeling much better now. Or she had been up late the night before and had slept through her alarm. I could tell that Gina wasn’t trying to be deceptive, but I could also feel that there were things she wasn’t telling me.
Clue 2: Gina’s high school transcript- Once I learned that Gina had an attendance problem in college, I went back to her high school record. Sure, her grades were fine, but I discovered that Gina had missed 28 days of school in her senior year alone. Something didn’t add up, and I knew that only Gina knew the real story.
Most of the time, students know the real story, but they’ve also got to trust their success coaches enough to actually talk about it. I could never have gotten to the bottom of Gina’s issues had I not been able to forge a relationship with her based on mutual trust. Once I did, this is what I learned: Gina came from a family of nine children- eight boys and Gina, who was in the middle. In high school, her parents started fighting. Gina became the sounding board for her mother, and at times Gina would feel obligated to miss school in order to say home and console her. By the fall that Gina started college, one of her brothers was showing signs of deep mental illness, another was addicted to drugs, her parents were in the middle of divorce proceedings, and Gina’s mother was using Gina, once again, as her only source of emotional support. She would call Gina at all hours, crying, begging Gina to come home. Basically, while trying to navigate her first year as an independent adult, Gina was simultaneously parenting her own mother. I convinced Gina to talk to a counselor, and after a few weeks I could tell that she was starting to realize that trying to “fix” her family was impeding her ability to live her own life. By the end of the semester, Gina had moved up from probation to warning status, and she is now half-way through her junior year.
Finally, the best success coach detectives are those who realize when the best way to solve a mystery is by removing themselves from the equation. Just as in Gina’s case, it was only once she knew she could trust me with these vulnerable truths about her life that she revealed them to me. And she was only able to trust me once she felt confident about three things: 1) that I was really there for her no matter what, 2) that I wasn’t judging her, and 3) that I truly “got” her. However, I have had students with whom I knew, despite my best efforts, that I was never going to pass that threshold of trust, and in those situations I have tried to set them up with a success coach who might be a better fit. I had a student for a few weeks named Brenna who, with her blue hair, piercings, and sleeve tattoos, took one look at me- a 62-year old woman with a southern accent and a fresh manicure- and simply did not believe that I could ever understand where she was coming from. Even though I know that I’m as hip as all get out (at least in my own mind), I thought Brenna might open up more easily to a coach with whom she felt she had more in common. As the coordinator of the success coach program, I find it imperative to know the strengths, personalities, and coaching styles of all the coaches, and I try to match students with coaches accordingly.
Alright, gumshoes, that’s all the top secret intel I’m willing to show you today. Now put on your fedoras and trench coats, and get out there and change some lives!
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.