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Good Cop, Bad Cop in Student Support

Good Cop, Bad Cop in Student Support

There are situations in life that require us to make carefully considered decisions about tactics. Whether you’re dealing with your boss, your child, or the TSA agent who seems to have a real problem with the amount of shampoo you’ve chosen to bring on an airplane, we are daily answering the question (whether consciously or not), “do I more effectively get what  I want if I play good cop…or bad cop?” As a success coach, I know this dilemma all too well, for most of my students need me to be both at different times. Learning how to become a master of the good cop/bad cop routine is an art, and I don’t always get it right. However, for the most part, I am able to make those decisions by synthesizing both the micro and the macro; in other words, I pay attention to both to the specific circumstances of the present moment and larger patterns of behavior.

Griffin is a student of mine who just finished his sophomore year. While most of my students who find themselves in academic trouble are glad to finally shed the burden of trying to pretend like they’ve been on top of it all along, Griffin resisted letting go of the façade. The reasons for his situation were either someone else’s fault or something that he now had totally under his control. Any “bad cop” energy I tried to put forth was met with defensiveness and digging in. There was simply no way he was going to do it any other way than his own, I soon discovered, so I gently opened the door and let good cop in. Would he like a cup of coffee? So sorry we even had to bring him down to the station at all….there are just a few, minor things we need his help with. For one…where was he on the night in question? I let Griffin try doing it his way for awhile, and when we would meet, I let him discover the ways in which that plan was not working as well as he had hoped. I treated it as an intriguing experiment, the way a math teacher might respond to a student who was clearly going about a problem the wrong way. “Oh, what an interesting way to think about doing it! Can you show me step by step how you plan to solve the problem your way?” Then, you slowly watch as the student himself figures out that his way is leading him to the wrong solution. “I’m glad you showed me that. That was a really out-of-the-box way to think about the problem, but I think we now both see that it needs tweaking. Let me show you another way we might approach it…” Manipulation? Only if you truly refuse to consider that the student may indeed prevail doing it the way you see as “wrong.” Perhaps Griffin would be the first student ever to ace a class by never showing up and not turning in any work! In a universe full of infinite possibility, I couldn’t say that it was impossible, right?  And it was perhaps because of this openness on my part that Griffin eventually let me show him other ways to approach the problem.

Tim, however, needed a different strategy. Tim needed a drill sergeant combined with a mom who does not put up with nonsense. Tim needed a bad cop. Tim was one of those students who was always looking for a loophole, a soft spot, a chink in the wall through which he could tunnel his way out. And Tim was pretty good at finding them. He had gotten things past adults all his life- sometimes due to privilege and sometimes due to sheer will- and he came to college believing that a few well-placed excuses combined with an innocent, “aw-shucks” attitude would allow him to coast through university just as he had high school. So, I admit, it must have surprised him when I called him on his b.s. However, much as seems to be the case with your average criminal mastermind on  Law & Order, Tim came to respect me and actually listen to me precisely because I had seen through his act.

Most students need both bad cop and good cop from time to time, as well as a variety of other things. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of my job is figuring out what tactic will get through to the student most effectively. Sometimes I follow my well-trained instincts; sometimes, it still takes a great deal of trial and error to figure it out. But most importantly, I remind myself that one size does not fit all. My best decisions are always made when I put in the time to really get to know the person staring back at me from the other side of my desk. Only then can I most accurately discern when to convince my student that her accomplice has already spilled the beans in the other interrogation room…and when to offer her a cup of coffee. 

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 Next Generation – Student Support

The Next Generation – Student Support

It can be difficult to remember exactly where and when you learned something. When a job is new, you are learning something new every day, but once you’ve been at it for awhile, you simply do what you know works without much thought about the process by which that wisdom was gained. Since I have been working as a success coach for more than a few years now, I thought I’d ask one of our first-year coaches, a woman named Ellen who had worked as a staff member at two other colleges prior to joining the team at my university, about her experience this year. What did she learn? What surprised her? What are some of the most crucial take-aways that will help her be an even better coach in year two? Here are some of her thoughts:

The most important theme Ellen kept coming back to again and again was that of variety in…well….variety of forms. Based on her work with mostly freshmen who were on either academic probation or warning, it became incredibly apparent to her the extent to which not all high schools are alike. There is a wide spectrum when it comes to academic rigor, even when you only look at college prep programs from school to school. A student with a 3.0 GPA from one area can be vastly more prepared than a student having graduated with the same GPA from a different school. However, Ellen was also surprised by how many of her students’ primary challenges were not academic at all, and she figured out that in order to address students with vastly different obstacles- from organization to motivation to family issues to mental health problems- she had to come up with as many strategies as there were barriers to a student’s success.

Ellen also learned things that will help her work more effectively with certain kinds of students. For example, she had not fully realized just how much of a student athlete’s time is dedicated to his or her sport, and what incredible organization and time management skills it takes to be both student and athlete at the college level. She also came to some interesting insights regarding international students, namely just how real and difficult culture shock can be to navigate.

Although one of the biggest lessons Ellen learned was there is no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to working with students, there were some commonalities. On the whole, she said, the challenges her students faced often stemmed from a lack of problem solving skills and support. Many of her freshmen were not used to making decisions for themselves or solving their own problems, and she found she nearly always had to give them a crash course in Problem Solving 101.  She also observed how quickly her students came to trust her and tell her what the problem really was and, for many, this trust was born from her students’ viewing her as a campus mom, a second mom, or the mom they never had. One of the truths Ellen discovered that I, too, find difficult is that, for many of the students who end up walking through our doors, the success coach is the only person in his or her life who supports them and always has their back.

At the end of our conversation, Ellen paused and said, “You know, I’ve worked at colleges before, but even so, I really experienced a learning curve this year.” I asked her what, if anything, was the main take-away. “I love being a success coach,” she said, “and I think if every school did this, we could raise graduation rates nationwide.”

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.

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.