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Creating a Success Coaching Program from the Ground Up

Creating a Success Coaching Program from the Ground Up

The other day I had the privilege of meeting with two women who work in the academic support center at our local community college. These women have been wanting to start a success coaching program for some time, believing that, especially on the community college level, where students have an even more diverse range of needs and challenges than at a typical four-year institution, a success coaching program could provide huge benefits to their students. We had a great conversation about how we launched the success coaching program at my university, how it works, and what we’ve learned in the years since its inception. I’d like to share a few of the highlights here.

SELLING THE PROGRAM

As we learned first-hand at my university, the reasons why a school needs or could benefit from a success coaching program are not always immediately apparent to administration, faculty and staff. Often, this is because many people simply don’t know what success coaching programs do. Students already have access to academic advisors, counselors, and tutors, they say. How would this be any different? Wouldn’t success coaches be at best redundant and at worst interlopers stepping on the toes of those who are already doing these jobs? In order to garner support for any nascent success coaching program, it is essential to communicate to faculty and staff that success coaches work as partners with professors, coaches, and counselors, and that the primary job of a success coach is to act as a singular point person who helps students pinpoint and navigate any challenges that might arise, academic or otherwise. Success coaches also act as mentors and role models to students, some of whom have few (if any) others to look to. Sure, some students find mentor/mentee relationships with a particular professor or coach, and those relationships can be incredibly gratifying, but not all students are so lucky.

Perhaps the most persuasive way to get a university on board when starting a success coaching program is simply to share the numbers. Our success coaching program has unequivocally improved retention while vastly reducing the numbers of students who have been dismissed from the university. In fact, the retention rates of students in our success coaching program, who are statistically most at risk of dropping out or being dismissed, are just as good or better than those of the general population. Math! She tells no lies.

HIRING

Just as most organizations thrive or fail on the effectiveness of their human resources, so it is with success coaching programs. Hiring the right people is essential, and over the years we have found a few types of people who generally make the best coaches. Probably the largest percentage of our coaches are retired educators, but that is not the only model that seems to work. We have hired coaches from the business world who have experience mentoring others, former social workers, HR directors, and people who have spent time in student affairs. Regardless of their career origins, all of our best coaches seem to have one thing in common: experience building one-on-one relationships which focus on the needs of others.

GIVING THE PROGRAM A MISSION

Finally, a successful success coaching program must have a clear understanding of the job at hand. We are not professors. We are not counselors. We are sounding boards, detectives, friends and, more than anything, facilitators. We connect students to the resources they need to succeed, for we know that their success helps not just the students themselves but all of us. The more well-educated our workforce and citizenry, the better off we all are, and success coaches know that our primary goal is to help facilitate that success in any way we can.

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.

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.