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Tales from the Trenches of a Success Coach

Tales from the Trenches of a Success Coach

Regardless of your line of work, every once in a while it’s nice to talk shop. It just feels good to compare notes, swap stories, celebrate or, at times, commiserate with the other people who truly understand what you do because they do it too. A couple of days ago, my fellow success coaches and I got together for a shop talk session, and the conversation centered around stories of students present and past. So this month I’m going to forgo the larger thesis and just relate a few of these anecdotes. These are snapshots of individual lives- brief glimpses into moments, both large and small, on a few individual students’ paths to a college education.

Aaron is a soccer player who came to college two years ago on a full athletic scholarship. Aaron is good. I mean, really good. So good, in fact, that our soccer coach recruited him as a freshman and basically built the entire team around him. Fall is soccer season, and with the demands of the sport combined with the dual challenges of coursework and adjusting to college life that all freshmen face, Aaron’s grades suffered. He ended the semester with the bare minimum GPA he needed to remain eligible to play. However, it seemed reasonable to assume that in the spring, when he would be practicing but not traveling or playing competitively, he would have the time to focus on his studies and bring his grades up. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened, and by second semester midterms, Aaron had Fs in five classes. That’s when his coach stepped in and got him a success coach, who immediately went into full triage mode. She got him organized. She kept him accountable, even when that meant walking over to his dorm and physically escorting him to her office when he failed to show up for a meeting. It was a herculean task, but it worked. Aaron got out of the hole and was ready for another fall season. Case closed, right? Lesson learned and the rest is history? Not exactly. Aaron’s sophomore year was a mirror image of his first, and by then his coach had realized something of a common, if counter-intuitive, phenomenon among student athletes.

While one would assume it would be harder to keep one’s grades up when one is so busy with a sport in season, sometimes the exact opposite is true. Sometimes it’s the structure of an on-season that helps a student organize the rest of his or her time effectively. It’s the immediacy of being able to connect how you are doing in school right now to your eligibility to play the sport you love. For Aaron, the loss of that structure and immediacy in the spring was a major drawback. Luckily, with the help of his success coach, he was able to break the pattern this year and has been doing well in class as well as on the field. When I spoke to his success coach, she told me of one particularly wonderful moment. She had gone to a game to see Aaron play, and had, without realizing it, sat next to his mother and grandmother in the stands. They spent most of the game simply sitting side-by-side, until Aaron scored a goal and all three women jumped to their feet and began cheering. After a moment of surprise, Aaron’s mother and grandmother looked over and asked, as if they already knew the answer, “are you the success coach?” When Aaron’s success coach answered in the affirmative, hugs and words of gratitude were shared all around.

Madison is a freshman this year, and her story, while still largely unwritten, has been less inspiring. An extremely bright young woman with excellent test scores and high school grades, Madison, nevertheless, managed to get on academic probation during her fall semester. She started meeting with a success coach at the beginning of this semester, but by midterm she had been dismissed from two of her five classes for lack of attendance. Lack of attendance, it seems, is the name of the game for Madison. She is simply not going to class. When pressed, she has revealed to her coach that there is a set of issues she is dealing with, but so far she has not been willing to talk about what they are. Clearly there are deep and stormy seas churning underneath Madison’s nonchalant exterior, and hopefully she will listen to her coach’s advice and utilize the psychological counseling resources on campus. However, if she doesn’t do something to turn her ship around, she is likely to be asked to leave. Madison’s story reminded all of us success coaches of students we’ve had who just weren’t able to make it. Either their grades were just too low to be turned around, they had underlying family or personal issues that were simply too big to surmount in the time they were here, or some combination of both. Perhaps the unwritten chapters of Madison’s college career will be happier ones. Perhaps the last chapter ends with Madison, beaming from ear to ear, crossing the stage in cap and gown to receive her diploma. In the meantime, we will hope, we will help, we will facilitate…and we will keep our fingers crossed.

Cody is another freshman in his second semester of college, and another student who did not work with a success coach initially but whose fall semester grades put him on academic warning, and so he was given a success coach for spring. (This trend, by the way, is why I strongly believe all freshmen should receive a success coach for their first semester.) Cody is the only child of parents who for a long time believed they would be unable to have children. This does not necessarily account for the amount which they doted on their miracle child, but Cody readily admitted to his coach that his parents basically did everything for him and let him do pretty much whatever he wanted. He certainly is a smart, charming person, but it seems he learned to use his powers of charm and manipulation mainly in order to get out of things or to get other people to do things for him that he really should have done himself. Unfortunately for Cody, his college professors have not been quite as easily charmed, and this paradigm shift in the way of the world seems to have thrown Cody for quite a loop. He’s confident enough to admit he’s gotten away with a lot in the past and smart enough to know that’s not going to work anymore, but he needed someone to help him figure out just how to do things differently. He needed help learning skills like time management, organization, and work ethic, and that’s where his success coach came in. Cody is still not out of the woods, and sometimes his coach describes getting him to do things as “like pulling teeth,” but he is working on it. Little by little, the way we all break old habits and forge new pathways, he is working on it.

Statistics about retention, performance, and graduation rates on college campuses often focus on the abstract- the composite. And yes, composite data is important. But amidst all the data, we must remember that there are trees in this forest! There are as many stories as there are acceptance letters, desks in a classroom, and piles of laundry waiting patiently…for Summer break.

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.

The Skills of an Online Success Coach

The Skills of an Online Success Coach

When I flew to and from my various holiday travel destinations a few weeks ago, my boarding pass was a simple bar code on my phone. While on the plane, I connected to the mobile hotspot from tens of thousands of feet in the air so as to keep up with email during the flight. When I landed, I immediately placed an order on grubhub so that the moment I got home, jet-lagged and hungry, a steaming container of Pad Thai would arrive right at my door.

Yes, I now feel like I have enough facility with these technologies that I can utilize them with ease and convenience, but it wasn’t always that way. With each new technology there is a natural learning curve, and that fact is no different when it pertains to online education. Online learning is still fairly new, and there are many ways in which success coaches of online students provide aid and information crucial to a student’s ultimate success. The first is very technical; that is, success coaches for online students are there to help them with the job of learning how to learn online! What are the technologies and software programs with which one must be familiar? How do they work? How does one do things like join discussion threads, contact other students or professors, or turn in work? Many students do not know that professors have the ability to know not only exactly when they are logged-in but for how long. They discover that papers are almost always turned in nowadays via software that checks them for evidence of plagiarism. Success coaches can also be helpful in the area of resource location. Coaches can show students how to access resources like online tutoring and group study sessions which they might not already know about.

In addition to helping students navigate the “nuts and bolts” of online education, success coaches can act as liaisons to effective communication, helping students develop the confidence to connect directly with professors and fellow students who they have never met and likely will never meet. Some students may have a naturally easier time with this precisely because communication is remote. Take the student who feels too shy to ask a question in front of a room full of people but who is much more assertive or proactive online. He may feel much more comfortable emailing a professor than walking into his or her office for office hours. She may contribute to an online discussion thread in a way that she wouldn’t have dreamed in a live setting. On the other hand, some people are less comfortable communicating in what, to them, can seem at first like an impersonal or remote forum. Some of these students are simply insecure about using the technology, while others are just the kind of people who do better with face to face communication. With these students, success coaches can teach students how to communicate effectively in a written-only context, or we can guide them toward resources like Skype that get them a little closer to the “in the room” experience.

Of course, as citizens of an increasingly tech-savvy world, all students, even those who may have been out of school for years or even decades, have some experience interacting online. But that doesn’t mean that we should take for granted that incoming online students already know how it all works. Like all new things, there is a learning curve, and we must acknowledge, address, and aid our students as best we can in their online journeys.

For those for whom that curve might seem an insurmountable ascent, more mountain that mole hill, I remind them that every journey begins with a single step. Step 1: turn on the computer. 

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.

The Success Coach and Professor Relationship

The Success Coach and Professor Relationship

No man is an island, and no success coach is a one-man band. In addition to partnering with our students, effective success coaching is very much about forming relationships with administrators, athletic coaches and, most importantly, professors. That’s why at the midpoint of every semester, we ask our professors to fill out progress reports on each and every one of our students. These reports provide us first and foremost with objective information- whether a student is really going to class, turning in assignments, and submitting adequate work. They also, however, give professors an opportunity to add additional comments in which they can make subjective observations about a student’s performance, raise concerns, and even provide suggestions.

These comments have proved invaluable time and again. Sometimes they reveal realities that students have been trying to conceal. (Ah, so your claim that you haven’t missed a class in weeks, sir, turns out to be factually inaccurate!) Sometimes the issue is relatively simple: a student is turning in work on time but never seems to proofread it. Sometimes a professor will help us get closer to the root of a deeper problem. Perhaps the student seems to understand the material but just doesn’t pay attention in class. Perhaps he or she is focused in class but just fundamentally does NOT understand the material. Professors are our eyes and ears on the ground, and through their observations and suggestions, success coaches are more easily and efficiently able to help our students identify issues and work to correct them.

Professors, however, much like the rest of us, aren’t huge fans of filling out paperwork for seemingly no reason, and awhile ago I received an email from a professor basically asking, “how do I know that success coaches are actually DOING something with the information I am taking time out of my already busy day to provide?” It was a fair question, and so we tweaked our program so that communication began to flow in both directions. We now send emails to all of the professors working with students in the success coaching program that let them know exactly how their commentary informs and guides our work.

This process begins with us going over the progress reports with each student. If a student has been telling a story that comes into direct contrast with something the professor has said, we address it immediately. As someone with decades of both teaching and parenting experience, I can sniff out a lie or a half-truth pretty consistently, but there are times I’ve had students who were able to put one over on me…for awhile. No one likes to be caught in a lie, but once he or she is, the culprit is generally much less likely to try it again. We do not do this to shame students but to shine a light on the realities of the situation. Then, it’s time to make a plan. For example, let’s say a student is in trouble primarily because he is not going to class. First, we sit down and figure out WHY that is. One might assume that a student like this is simply some combination of lazy or undisciplined, but I’ve had not a few students for whom not going to class was part of a much larger, more complicated whole. One student I worked with admitted to being entirely confused during lectures, and that level of incomprehension made him feel ashamed which, of course, is not a particularly wonderful feeling. In order to avoid the feeling, he had decided to avoid class altogether- an understandable impulse, of course, but not necessarily a useful one. For other students, this plan can involve anything from seeking tutoring, planning out study time at the beginning of each week, giving themselves more time than they thought they needed to do assigned reading or to write papers, and setting earlier alarms so they can be out of the door with enough time to get to class.

Now that professors know not only that their input is appreciated but also precisely how we use it to help our students pass their classes, they have become even more willing to fill out midterm progress reports. That’s an unequivocally good thing, since we are all part of the team of people doing our best to ensure that as many students as possible leave our university with a cap, a gown, a diploma, and a smile on his or her face.

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.

Online Success Coaches: Experiences of an Online Success Coach

Online Success Coaches: Experiences of an Online Success Coach

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.

Online Success Coaches: Providing Community and Guidance for Online Students

Online Success Coaches: Providing Community and Guidance for Online Students

I recently spoke with a woman who works as a success coach exclusively for students who are getting their degrees online. We discussed the similarities and differences in our jobs, and I was most intrigued by two ways in which online success coaching is unique.

The first is something I hadn’t thought much about until now, but once we started talking about it, it seemed so obvious. That is the idea that part of an online success coach’s job is to connect students to or provide students with communities of fellow students and educators. This type of community building occurs organically (if not always effortlessly) on campus, as students live, work, and study in the same physical environment. As any of us who has spent time on one, whether as a student or faculty member, knows, college campuses are rich social environments where any variety of clubs and gatherings, both informal and formal, encourage students to get involved and interact with one another. Having a sense of community can make students feel more invested in their experience as well provide support when he or she is feeling frustrated or is struggling. This is why so many weight loss programs encourage us to share our progress with friends- it’s all so much easier when we know we are not alone.

While online students do participate in discussion threads and other class-related group projects, many online students do not explore opportunities (either because there are none or because they do not know how to seek them out) for greater social interaction. This lack of a greater sense of community deprives students of the social, academic, and motivational benefits that the group provides. Online success coaches themselves act as connections to a larger school community, but many go further. The success coach with whom I spoke realized that many of her students were young moms who were trying to get their degrees while simultaneously working and taking care of children, so she started an online support group where they could connect to each other directly. The group was an instant success, and since that time she has started an online group for young men and another for students veterans and military spouses. 

Secondly, the demographic spectrum of students who get their degrees online is much broader than it is for brick and mortar college students. Many of these students, like the moms discussed previously, are older and work full time jobs or take care of families in addition to attending school. While this generally means that these students come to school more mature and responsible than your garden variety 18-year old, scheduling can still be tough. Many of the students who do work are in school precisely because the jobs they have are often “survival jobs,” – relatively low paying and scheduling instability. A student who works as a restaurant server, for example, may think he has time to work on a paper on Thursday only to learn Wednesday night that the shift schedule has been changed and now he has to work. A student raising a child may be just sitting down to study for that midterm when she gets a call from school telling her that her child is sick and needs to be picked up. A student working as a server AND raising a child may have both of those things happen in the same day, and then she’s really got to scramble!

One of an online success coach’s most important jobs can be to help students navigate these scheduling complexities.   Ultimately, all success coaches primary goal is to do whatever they can to help a student achieve his or her goals; online coaches, however, do this job in an ever-growing environment with its own unique challenges. 

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.