I’ve spoken before about all of the things my success coach colleagues and I do to get and keep students motivated, but what about the coaches themselves? How do we keep new coaches motivated amidst the seemingly overwhelming amount of information thrown at them during training? How do we keep a coach, new or old, motivated during a semester in which he or she finds one or more of his or her students failing despite all the best efforts of the coach? This might seem an indulgent notion to blog about, but I think we’ve all seen or experienced first-hand the unintentional yet real impact an unmotivated teacher, professor, or coach can have on his or her students, especially if they are already at risk. So in the next few paragraphs, I’d like to discuss the things my colleagues and I do to ensure that we are always in a place to be of the utmost help to our students.
New coaches, especially, can run into motivational roadblocks. First of all, the fact that success coaches must be able to cover so many areas of expertise at once can be intimidating. Once, I had a new coach come to me after training. He said, “I’m overwhelmed by all of the information- by all of the skills involved in this job. I hope I can do this. I hope I can serve my students well.” I agreed that what we do involves a lot of information in areas in which we may or may not initially be experts, and I reminded him that he didn’t need to know everything as long as he knew how to send his students to the people who did know. “The most important thing is that you always have your students’ best interest at heart,” I told him. “If you feel you can do that, then you’ll be fine.”
Also, like eager, new social workers who find that they can’t fix every family or that even a caseload that brings them to the limits of their time and energy leaves deserving people without aid, new coaches can at times get locked into a “save the world” mentality that sets them up for disappointment, a sense of failure or even futility when they discover they cannot do it all. Even though our success coach program has consistently shown improvement in retention as well as student GPAs, not every student we coach will graduate. Not every student will reach the goals they have set for themselves. Even seasoned success coaches experience this sense of frustration and disappointment. To do our jobs well, we must make personal connections, and the only way to really make those personal connections is to become personally invested in each and every student. We’ve got to “buy in,” as it were, to “put some skin in the game,” or else everything else we’re telling these students about our support for them becomes meaningless. But that personal investment can leave us feeling impotent when we realize that, in the end, we cannot do the work for our students. Therefore, as personal as our connections become, we cannot take anything too personally. I, for example, cannot take it personally when a student bails on a midterm for which he or she and I have been preparing. I can’t take it personally when a student misses two meetings in a row, though I have been known to personally follow up on spurious excuses. For example, if you call me on my cell to tell me you are sick, don’t be surprised if I keep you on the line while simultaneously walking to your dorm, being told by your roommate that you are perfectly healthy and eating lunch in the dining hall, then walking to said dining hall to set the perfect trap. “Can’t choke down anything but soup,” you say? “Well, it looks to me like you’re currently having chicken….rice…and is that a biscuit or a yeast roll I see?” (Monthly cell phone bill? $75. Walking shoes? $40. The face on that student’s face when she realized I was in the dining hall? Priceless.)
One of the most helpful ways in which our success coaches stay motivated is to meet frequently with one another. Sometimes we invite speakers from different departments on campus to speak to us about things like changes in financial aid policy or course scheduling, but more often we meet just to ask questions, give professional advice, and brainstorm possible solutions to current problems other coaches may be facing with their students. We celebrate student success stories and remind ourselves, in the face of student setbacks, of a fundamental truth: that failure is never failure until the journey is over. We remind ourselves that, while a student may have failed out of school or simply left, his or her time with us was not for naught, and maybe in one or two or twenty years, that student will remember some of the things we talked about and think, “You know? I understand what my coach was trying to tell me know, and I think he or she was right about that.” Who knows? This thought may encourage a former student to go back to school, or start a business, or simply become a better father, mother, husband, wife, or employee.
Earlier this year, I borrowed some baby pictures from students around campus and took them to our first success coach meeting of the semester. I laid them all out on the table and said, “Eighteen years ago, most of our freshmen looked like this. When these babies were born, somebody loved them and raised them and wanted the very best for them. Now these human beings are grown-up and going off to college, but they’re still somebody’s babies. Make sure you give them your very best.”
And they do.
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.