Most of my time as a success coach is spent trying (and blogging about trying) to take a student who has found him or herself in academic trouble and help turn the situation around. It’s about fixing- finding out what works. But what happens when nothing is working? What happens when the problem does not get fixed? We talk a good game about the necessity of failure, just as in the dead of a polar vortex we cling to aphorisms reminding us that without winter there would be no spring, but when it comes down to it, we hate hate hate the polar vortex, and failure…well, it’s just a big, ugly, dirty word.
While the graduation rates for students in the success coaching program at my university is only going up, every year we have students who end up being dismissed from the university. Some come back and graduate, as was the case with a former student of mine whose journey to a bachelor’s degree lasted a bumpy six years, but whose smile as he walked across the stage to receive his diploma was even larger because of it. Some leave and enroll elsewhere. Others seemingly drop off the map.
So why do these students fail, and when they do, how do we help them figure out what’s next? Most of my students who have been dismissed or have left the university are those who just never get their acts together. Most of them really want a degree, but they don’t really know why or can’t see what it’s going to do for them. Some of these students never quite grasp that college isn’t high school or, more accurately, a video game. In college, you can’t just restart every time you fall off the cloud into the river of alligators. After a certain number of falls, you’re alligator lunch. That’s what happened this past year with Paul, a student of mine who almost never went to class, did not turn in work, and then went on a cruise with his family two weeks before exams. When he returned, he asked his professor if she could give him the dates he’d missed while sunning himself in the Caribbean. “Was it so he could make up the work?” she asked. No, he replied, it was so that he could retroactively get a doctor’s note saying he’d been sick those days. And yes, this really is a true story.
For students like Paul, there’s not much else to do but give some tough love. Once they’re in a room with no doors but the exit, these students almost always realize that they’re primarily responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. Sometimes the darkness of failure itself illuminates for them both the opportunity they’ve just squandered as well as the way to turn it around. Sometimes, they still need a little outside illumination. This is when we talk about hard truths. “You can mess up for awhile, and indeed messing up is part of the process” I begin, “but at some point, the opportunity goes away, and you will find yourself regretting its loss.”
I’ve had other students, however, who ended up dropping out or being dismissed when the primary boulder in the road was not motivation at all but lack of ability. This is another discussion educators have trouble with, but it happens nonetheless. In particular, I remember a freshman I once had who was failing every class a few weeks into the term. Once we started talking about his classes, it became instantly clear that he simply could not do the work. He said as much, his professors said as much, and it was obvious that this lack of ability even to comprehend his textbooks was making him miserable. So we had a conversation about other options. I broached the subject carefully, as I knew that Sean was the first in his family to go to college and therefore was under a lot of pressure to stay and succeed. I asked him how he felt about life on campus, and then I asked him what he would do if he wasn’t here. What did he like to do? What was he passionate about? He said that he loved cars. What about going to school to become a high-level mechanic, I asked? His eyes lit up immediately, and for the next fifteen minutes he told me more than I ever wanted to know about cars. A month later, after some difficulties convincing his mother that this was the right choice, I called Sean to check in. He had started training as a mechanic at a vocational school near his home, and he was loving it. “I am doing so well here, I really love it, AND I already have a job!” he exclaimed.
Sometimes you have to know when the student is telling you, “this is not working.” When that happens, it’s not necessarily a failure on the coach’s part (though both failure and polar vortexes are necessary sometimes!); it just means that the next part of the job is opening that student up to greater truths and possibilities.
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.