The following profiles are culled from the experiences of online success coach Deana Brown. She and I sat down awhile ago to chat about her experiences in the job, and she told me about some of her most memorable students.
“Tamara was a single mother in her mid-20s who worked as a cashier at a big box store. Her profile was far from unique- she and most of the people she knew were high school graduates (and some drop-outs) who had spent the years since starting to raise children while working in largely minimum-wage “survival jobs.” But Tamara had bigger ambitions. She wanted to be a judge some day, and that dream is what brought her into my life as an online success coach working with people trying to get their associates’ degrees. Tamara’s goals were commendable but her first semester work had been less so, and when she and I began working together she was on academic probation. Like many “first-in-the-family” college students, Tamara didn’t have a lot of experience navigating some of the challenges of college life (online or off): time management, study skills, and effective communication with professors. Add to that the fact that a lot of the learning in online classes is, for the most part, self-generated, and it’s easy to see why these students can find themselves falling behind. Tamara was exceptionally bright, but earning a college degree while also working full-time and raising a son is already difficult without these extra roadblocks. So, with Tamara, our primary job was one of planning. Each week, when Tamara would get her work schedule for the week ahead, we would carve out time for schoolwork. Could she spend a little time reading that online lecture before she left to pick up her son from school? Could she use the momentum created by helping him with his homework to do some of her own afterwards? We also talked about how to plan ahead. If a paper is due on Friday and you plan to begin it Thursday afternoon, what happens if you hit a snag and need clarification from the professor? There is generally a 24-48hr response delay for professor emails, and by then it would be too late to get your question answered before the paper is due. Within a semester, Tamara was not only set to get off academic probation but also she was making straight As.”
“Mark was a federal corrections officer in his 40s. He had worked as a guard as well as in administrative management at the prison for over a decade, and it was clear he had been shaped by the culture. Now working towards getting a degree in criminal justice online, he talked and wrote like someone for whom communication was all about economy and power. Managers and guards, he explained to me, spoke aggressively and without mincing words to inmates, but they also used basically the same kind of language with one another. Unfortunately, this presented Mark with some challenges when it came to communicating effectively with fellow students and professors in his online courses. Mark’s aggressive writing style, combined with the fact that it is already naturally difficult to convey tone and intention in written communication anyway, meant that many of Mark’s communications came across as angry demands. So we worked on how to approach people politely and effectively through text. There was the classic list of do’s and don’ts: don’t write in all caps, make good choices about punctuation, don’t begin emails with “So….,” as in- “So…I need this thing from you and you need to give it to me!” But we also talked more in-depth about the reasons why this type of communication is so much more effective not just in an academic environment but in a professional one. If every time you hit a roadblock you get angry and lash out, you are far less likely, in the end, to move up into greater positions of power and responsibility.”
These profiles demonstrate something we already know- that no two students are exactly alike. There are as many unique stories as there are students, which is why it’s important for success coaches to have as many tools at their disposal as possible. However, if there is one unifying piece of advice Deana would give to a new success coach on his or her first day, it’s this: “Listen carefully and take notes. This can take great patience sometimes, but before you try to jump to conclusions or provide solutions, make sure you take in their entire story. Then work together to make a plan, for if students are invested in the process of discovering for themselves what they need and how to get it, they will be more invested and motivated towards their own success.”
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.