With this spring semester (and the daily irony of a “spring” semester full of more ice and snow than we’ve seen in years is not lost on me) coming to a close, I took some time to get feedback about our success coach program from the people who, not including our students, are the most intimately involved in it: the coaches themselves. Specifically, I spoke with our two first year success coaches regarding their experiences so far. Here’s an excerpt from those conversations:
Background: Megan is a small business owner and mother of two. She became interested in success coaching because she found herself as mentor-in-chief in so many of the endeavors in which she was engaged. She is just one of those people that other people feel comfortable talking to, and that combined with her ability to show students what it takes to start a business in the real world, made her a perfect fit for our program.
On her first year of coaching: “I learned many things this year, including that the “fix” can be as simple as changing majors or as complicated as untangling the nuanced interplay between home life, academic readiness, and the myriad psychological factors that can affect a student’s sense of his or her own identity. I also learned that even the student with the toughest exterior can light up when he gets a good grade, or when you point out something good he’s done despite the fact that all signs seem to point to failure. I learned that lack of confidence can be misinterpreted as laziness- as well as the amazing turnarounds that have been made possible by knowing the difference.”
Here I asked Megan to go into a little more detail on that last point: “Well,” she began, “I had a student named Jake who came to me this spring with a very low GPA.” I remembered him well. A few weeks into spring semester, he seemed to be following the same playbook he had in the fall: skipping classes, missing meetings with his coach. Finally, Megan and I checked with his RA to make sure he was alright (as sometimes mental health issues can also present the same surface symptoms as plain laziness). He was, and together, we sat him down for a chat. I asked him if he could help me understand what had happened fall semester. He paused, and then the flood gates opened. “I was not prepared for college work at all,” he began. “I couldn’t do the work, so I was terrified of going to class because I was afraid the professor was going to call on me.” After a few more questions, I asked him what he thought about the idea of going home and enrolling in community college. His eyes widened. “I could do that?!” Of course, I told him. Take some classes, see how it goes, and then make a decision as to whether or not it’s for you. If it is, you can always come back when you’re ready. By his change in mood I could immediately see how depressed and scared Jake had been. Paralyzed by his lack of self-confidence yet too proud to fully disclose the source of his troubles, he had simply holed up in his room, awaiting his eventual failing grades.
Background: Linda spent over 30 years in education, first as a teacher and later as a school principal, before retiring last year. At first, she was hesitant to get into something else right away after retirement, but after her first semester as a success coach, she was hooked.
On her first year of coaching: “First of all, I have learned way more from them than they have from me, especially when it comes to the many skills needed to do the job. When I was principal and students didn’t do what they were supposed to, they got detention. If I had discipline problems, I could call the parent. If a student was absent, I called the truant officer. Suddenly, as a success coach on the college level, none of those options were available. You are trying to help a student succeed based solely on the force of your personality, the motivating strategies you employ, and the quality of the bond you forge.”
Linda also talked a bit about some of her initial misconceptions. “I guess I thought that high school graduates would be more independent, but many of them are not.” (Of course, we are working with the students who come into school already on academic probation and are therefore less likely than others to be self-motivated and independent upon enrolling as freshmen.) “Many of my students didn’t really know why they were here. If they played a sport, that could be used as a motivating factor, but if not, many only knew that college was the next step in their educational journeys but not why.”
Linda summed up her experience this way. “You have to listen to students because you truly are a bit of a detective. They are always telling you what the issue is, but it may not be in the words they say. You have to read between the lines, translate, look at body language and, often, do some digging.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
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.