Faces of a Success Coach: The Polygraph


Human beings lie for many reasons, some of them more excusable than others. On the indefensible end of the spectrum, people lie to cheat, steal, manipulate, and control. However, human beings also tell lies both big and small to protect themselves, sometimes from the negative consequences they actually deserve due to bad behavior, but also from mundane, human experiences like feelings of embarrassment, disappointment, and insecurity. It's as universal a human impulse as rain in Seattle, and it takes experience and moral education to learn to control these impulses for the greater benefits gained by taking responsibility for one's own mistakes.

However, as a success coach, my first job is to convince students who have a problem with "truthiness" of the sheer futility of lying. As a mother and teacher of over forty years, I'm like a double black belt in lie detecting. There's just not much I haven't yet heard. I'm like a veteran cop who, after nearly half a century of interrogations, has become his own polygraph machine. Most students are generally honest with me from the get-go, but even the vast majority of those who are not figure this out pretty early on. I may look like a small, sweet lady with a faint Southern accent, but it doesn't take much to see that I'm more "steel magnolia" than "shrinking violet."

But...some students learn the hard way.

An extreme example is that of Eddie, a freshman who came once or twice at the beginning of his first semester and then just stopped coming. He would say he would come but then wouldn't. Then all communication from Eddie went dark. After about a week, I called the RA and asked him to keep me on the phone while he knocked on Eddie's door. The RA went to Eddie's room and gave him the phone, at which time I made it clear to him that, at this point, he was required to see the director of retention services. He didn't go. So the director called me back and together we contacted the director of campus housing to bring him in. (For students to truly come to understand that lying is futile, it's important that they know that A) I am constantly working with/sharing information with other administrators and educators on campus, and B) I know where you live… muhahahaha!) As it turned out, this young man's story was one of bad choices in a difficult, even sympathetic situation.  Eddie had been living in California in an abusive home, and when his stepfather kicked him out of house, he figured he could get into college in Ohio where his grandmother lived, utilize the need-based aid that made it nearly free for him to attend, then use his dorm as a hotel for an extended vacation.

Eddie's case is an example of clear abuse of the system; however, more often a case comes along like that of a sophomore named Keith who was on Academic warning and had a brand new (very competent –but not yet experienced with coaching) success coach. At the beginning of fall semester, Keith went to all his classes the first week. From then on, he only ever attended two. While he had perfect attendance in those two classes, he attended the other three a grand total of zero times. He was, however, telling his coach that all was well, that he was going to class and turning in all assignments. During the fifth week, his coach got word from Keith's English professor letting the coach know that she hadn't seen Keith since day one.  Math and Info Tech? Same story- they hadn't seen Keith at all since first week. When his coach confronted Keith directly, instead of admitting that he hadn't been to any of these classes in a month, he doubled down. He pleaded and asked incredulously, "why is no one believing me? I've been to class! I'm doing well!" Next, Keith and his coach met with the dean of students. He tripled down, perhaps believing he was too "far in" his own lie to back out now.  "Nobody believes me!" he would cry. "I can't believe this is happening to me!" I was in the loop with this situation and Keith’s performance was so convincing that we did take a moment to reconsider. It seemed unlikely, but maybe this was a case of mistaken identity. So we made an appointment with his English professor, where he repeated the same story. He insisted that she had him confused with someone else. Then…the smoking gun. She pulled up a folder with his photograph on it. "Is this you?" she asked. He nodded, trapped. "Well," she continued, "this is the folder where I keep the work that students in my class have turned in to date. Your folder is empty. You have turned in nothing and you have not been to class." With the presentation of this evidence, Keith's house of cards collapsed.

This semester, Keith is working with me. On the first day, we talked about what had happened last semester as well as ways to turn it around.  I scheduled a meeting between Keith and the dean of the school of criminal justice (do you see the irony here?) to discuss Keith's potential success. During the meeting, the dean was honest and blunt. He told Keith that when job recruiters in the field of criminal justice come to campus, they ask the dean of the school or a faculty member, "would you hire this student?" If a professor even hesitates, the recruiter marks that student off the list.

Right now, Keith has 2 Bs, an A and a C. He is attending classes (I check – trust but verify) bringing papers and written assignments to me before turning them in (trust but verify), and we are discussing topics in criminal justice which he has to explain to me in a way that I (knowing nothing about the subject) will understand it. I think I could do pretty well on the next test in Justice 220. As a result, we've had some really good conversations about public policy, the justice system, and American society. We are four weeks until the end of the semester and so far so good.

Oh…and Keith has learned that it's no use lying to a polygraph.

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.