Five Keys to the First Meeting

Five Keys to the First Meeting

Allison’s Last Chance premiered in August of 2011, and by early October the reviews were in. Here’s what the critics had to say:

“Allison has a terrible attitude in class.” – Allison’s Math professor

“Allison failed my class because she plagiarized.” – Allison’s English professor

“Allison doesn’t just have a ‘problem with truthiness,’ she down right lies.” – Allison’s Psychology professor

By the time I scheduled my first meeting with Allison, I knew a lot about her, and none of it was good. It was little more than a month into the school year and already she’d had multiple problems, in multiple classes, with multiple professors. Not only that, but she’d already been dismissed from and then let back into the University twice, and one more dismissal would mean the unequivocal end to Allison’s tenure at the school. Three strikes, and Allison would be out.

I knew I had two choices as to how to proceed with our first meeting. I could let her know right away that I knew everything, lay it all out in front of her, and try to get her to understand the reality of her situation. I could sit down across from her and say, “Okay, Allison. This is what I’ve heard, this is what I know, and we both know this is your last chance. I could give her the “this is your reputation on the line” speech, or the old classic: “I think we can both see that your way of doing things hasn’t gotten you where you want to be.” I knew I could conduct the meeting like a no-nonsense cop (with a great moustache) trying to get a suspect to roll on his accomplice by pointing out the bleak alternative to cooperation. “Look kid, I wanna help ya, I really do, but you’re looking at twenty-five to life here.” Or, I could pretend to be ignorant of everything that I had heard about Allison up until the moment she walked in the door. I could simply smile, introduce myself, and see what happened.

I have seen both versions of this kind of first meeting work, so the answer wasn’t entirely self-evident. Not all students who meet with success coaches are in such make-or-break moments in their college careers, of course, but for those who are, it’s even more important to get the first meeting right. I contemplated my choice until five minutes before Allison walked into my office.

She came in looking like she could kill. She looked suspicious and defensive, until I smiled and said, “I think this is going to be the best semester you’ve ever had.” For a moment, she looked utterly confounded, like someone who has been vigilantly scanning the ground for hidden traps only to be caught in a net thrown from above. Then, she softened…a little.

Looking back, I see that there were five key things I did with Allison that are key to making the first meeting with any student a success:

1. I made it crystal clear that I would be there for her, no matter what, and that we would do whatever it took to turn her ship around…together.

I use “you” but also a lot of “we” with students, especially at the beginning. Of course “you” are going to sit at that desk in the classroom, but “we” are going to make sure “you” are ready for the final. Though I didn’t make it all about me, I made it clear that Allison was not alone, that that this would be a team effort. It’s amazing how rapport with a student can flourish once they know- really know- that you actually care. And although this kind of trust is almost impossible to accomplish in the first meeting you can, at least, lay the foundation.

2. I asked questions.

What do you think has gotten you to where you are right now? What do you see as the primary boulder in your road? What do you think might be good goals to set for the future? Students usually know the answer to these questions, though some can be reluctant to admit that they do.

3. I highlighted her past successes.

Allison had made good grades in high school, and I brought out her transcript as evidence. We both knew she had the ability to do well because she’d done so previously- the evidence was right there in front of both of our faces!

4. We made an action plan.

When my students walk out the door after the first meeting, I want them to feel confident that they have clear, actionable goals. Whether it’s: “complete one assignment and turn it in, talk with someone at the financial aid center about the bill you’ve been worrying about, or write one page of the research paper that’s due at the end of the semester” (AND bring it to the next meeting), students are more likely to accomplish short and long-term goals if they feel that those goals are manageable and that there is someone to whom they must be accountable.

5. I showed interest in something in which she was interested.

Allison revealed to me in the first few minutes of our conversation that she was currently obsessed with her new iPad. I decided to forgo the usual warm-up questions and instead start asking her about it. I also professed to be a bit of an ignoramus when it came to my own iPad and asked if, later, she could help me figure out a thing or two. She readily agreed.

Allison and I finished our meeting by laying out easy, concrete goals for the next few days, and she was packing up to leave when she remembered something that I had actually forgotten. “Hey!” she exclaimed, eyes bright, “you want me to show you something about the iPad?!” I certainly did.

Just after the midterm, Allison ran into my office beaming. “I got four Bs, one A, and a C! Now I can surprise my mom with my grades!” I remembered what one of my former students had done for his mother and whispered conspiratorially, “what if you don’t tell your mom how you’re doing…keep it all a big secret until the end of the semester…then wrap those good grades up in a box and put it under the Christmas tree.”  Now, not only did Allison have good grades at midterm, she had an incentive to keep them up all the way to the end of the semester.

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.

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