The Many Faces of a Success Coach
Being a success coach means that you often have to play many different roles with your students. This post identifies some of the various roles a coach must play in order to help students achieve their educational objectives.
Though I have yet to practice success coaching while dressed in a trench coat and fedora, the first and most crucial job a success coach has is as detective. Within the first few meetings, you must try to figure out what is the underlying boulder in the road that is blocking this student's success. Is it primarily procrastination, family and/or personal issues, or a lack of motivation? Are they under-prepared for college material and rigor? Do they lack the maturity or experience to manage the new freedoms and responsibilities of college life? And yes, sometimes I have to do more than a little sleuthing. I've had to search for clues, interview witnesses, and wade through red herrings, but it is always a great victory when my colleagues and I finally solve the mystery and are then able to begin turning around a student's college career.
This title, to me, always floats somewhere along the spectrum of "the parent/older sibling/friend who has been there." Where you find yourself on that spectrum often depends on the personal chemistry between the student and yourself. I'm in my 60s, so I don't think many of my students view me as an older sibling, but I do try to tap into whatever version of the "mentor" relationship will work for this particular pairing of myself and another human being.
While most success coaches are not licensed therapists or counselors, there are times when students do not have the desire or money to see a professional, and sometimes the situation doesn't require it. Sometimes, they just need someone with whom to talk over an issue, and a success coach can be a great sounding board. Is this student afraid of failure? Is this student afraid of success? Is this student struggling because she is constantly thinking of home, worrying that things might not be okay and she is no longer there to fix them? Is this student letting his social life keep him away from the things he needs to accomplish academically? Does this student simply have a professor with whom she doesn't get along, and she doesn't know how to get past that in order to still succeed in the class? Is he insecure about his abilities? Is she deeply, deeply homesick? Is he in love for the first time and in that moment where nothing else matters? There are so many things that can keep a student from achieving, and as success coaches, our job is to figure out why. And obviously, in situations in which a student truly should see a professional psychologist or psychiatrist, we steer them towards those resources.
The Trail Guide
Think of this as your ability to give students practical knowledge with which they can more easily navigate the terrain. Some students can write a 20 page paper without breaking a sweat, but ask them to fill out a form and return it to the Dean's office and they look at you like you've asked them to perform open heart surgery. How do they drop or add a class? When and how is it appropriate to contact a professor? What are office hours? Which building, which office, which person do they need to speak to if they face a problem with tuition? What forms do they need to fill out in order to apply for another loan? And where do they deliver the paperwork once they've completed it? Remember, most students' dreams of what college life will be like don't include trips to the Bursar's office, and for many, college is their first foray into the wonderful world of bureaucracy. Just wait until they discover how magical it is to navigate an automated telephone menu when calling the insurance company!
The Boxing Coach
Why a boxing coach and not a football coach? Or a tennis coach? There's something intimate about the relationship between a boxer and his or her coach. That person, aside from training his athlete, aside from giving him tactical advice, is literally in his athlete's corner. He helps him stay focused every time he comes back, pumps him up, and then sends him back out there to fight another round. And for some of these students, making it through college can be a fight. It can be a fight to stay motivated, and to master material they might have never thought they could even understand. It can be a fight to block out influences in their lives that are fighting just as hard to keep them from succeeding. The boxing coach is part cheerleader and part drill sergeant, and he knows when to offer his athlete a hug and when to make him "drop and give me twenty."
The Polygraph Machine
To be a great success coach, you've got to have a pretty impeccable ability to tell truth from fiction. I know that my forty plus years in education in addition to being a mother helped me greatly in this department. By the time I became a success coach, I really had heard it all, and I watched students' best attempts at getting things by me the way a lion must watch a gazelle trying to pass itself off as a tree. It was not their fault, for they did not know they were dealing with a lie detecting ninja. If you don't feel like you possess this particular skill, stay informed. Call the professor. Talk to the coach. Trust but verify. But first: trust. Many of these students might be in the situation in which they find themselves in part because they have done things to lose trust- with parents, with teachers. Some of them have been treated like "the bad kid" and have put walls up to protect themselves. Their alarms go off at the first sniff of suspected judgment on the part of an authority figure, and it's hard to regain trust after a student has already pegged you as just another one of those adults.
The Newspaper Editor
For some, what they really need is just someone for whom they must remain accountable. They've got the intelligence, they've even got the motivation even, but they are simply people who fare better with more structure. For these students, your main job is to be their newspaper editor. "Did you turn that paper in?" "Remember the deadline for that study abroad application!" "You said last time you were going to schedule a meeting with Professor X- what's the status of that meeting?" Please feel free to wear suspenders and chomp on a fat cigar during these conversations.
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.