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Tips for Academic Coaches Shifting to Virtual, From Someone Who’s Been Virtual All Along

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

With school doors still shuttered due to COVID-19, most teachers and school counselors have been forced to shift to online formats. But there are some schools that have been online since day one, and their staff members have a thing or two to teach the rest of the world.

Valencia Johnson, M.S./P.P.S., is the academic coach at iLEAD Online, a WASC-accredited, NCAA-approved umbrella of nonprofit, tuition-free public charter schools for California-based children and teens in grades 3-12.

Learners (what iLEAD calls “students”) choose this online school for various reasons. Some are young athletes, actors, actresses, or aspiring entertainers. Some travel extensively, so they need a remote-learning option. Others have personalities or learning differences that are better suited to the individualized attention an online school can provide.

In Johnson’s role as an academic counselor, she checks in with learners to make sure they’re on track with their coursework, helps them select courses, and keeps tabs on their mental health. She has 30 students in her caseload – and she does it all virtually. “In short, I am the go-between between the learners and facilitators (or “teachers”) and their families.”

We spoke to her to see what tips or advice she might have for other academic counselors who are now navigating the shift from in-person to virtual classes—without any experience in it whatsoever.

Here are 7 tips she has for other academic coaches new to distance-learning:

1. Take the time to do an intake.

“Intakes are important, for both new students and new-to-remote learning students. Ask, ‘How are you navigating this transition? How are you generally dealing with the pandemic?’ Get to know their outside interests. I work with a lot of athletes and actors, and they really appreciate when I ask these questions. After your intake, take some time to understand their background and their academic profile. After you have this baseline, you can start comparing where they’re struggling and excelling as their assignments come in, and get in touch with their teachers if they are weak in a certain area.”

2. Check in with students. A lot.

“No one’s coming to your office to see you anymore. So you need to put yourself out there a lot more to keep yourself on their radar. Even before COVID, I’d offer regular, virtual “Wellness Checks” for our learners and the parents. I’d reach out to families proactively every week or so, along with a link to book a virtual appointment. That way, even if they’re not struggling with anything at the moment, they’ll know how to reach out when they do have an issue. When you reach out, parents/guardians and learners are more open to letting you know when there is something is going on with their child.”

3. Be present.

“I start off with some light chitchat. I ask a casual, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ Pay close attention to their answer. Don’t multitask, even if you’re on the phone and they can’t see what you’re doing. Also, go with the flow. The other day, during the meeting, my learner looked pretty tired. He was just half-listening. I noticed the cues and cut straight to the chase of what I needed to say. I didn’t make it long-winded.”

4. Consider incorporating journals.

Journaling is very therapeutic for learners who may be overwhelmed and have a lot on their mind. I sometimes give journal assignments to my learners, and ask them to submit the journals online before our next session. It is reassuring to know I’m keeping track of them in real time, and am aware of the extra stressors they’re going through during the week. At our next meeting, I’ll discuss the journal entries and generate feedback.”

5. Ask before you share.

“Some of my students struggle with anxiety. During the periods they’re struggling, they need some extra hand-holding. When I check in with these students, I ask, how can we support you right now? Can I share what you’re going through with your facilitator, so they can have some understanding and give you a bit of grace this week? I always ask if it’s okay for me to share before I go to the teacher.”

6. Realize you might sometimes just be needed for the small things.

“Every learner has different needs at different times. Sometimes they need the emotional support, and sometimes it’s enough just for me to help them with the small academic things: schedule a tutoring session with one of our virtual tutors, or direct them to their facilitator’s office hours … Even if I feel I didn’t do much, I can see by the end of the call it already relieves the learner of that burden. It’s one less thing they have to do. Parents also like that extra help. Although families have access to their own child’s academic progress, sometimes it’s easier just to call me and walk them through their questions. I’ll share my screen so parents can see how their child is doing, and learners can see their own progress.”

7. Communicate with leadership.

Talk to your supervisor or upper-level administrators about what’s working and what’s not. When it comes to learners, it’s helpful for everyone to be involved on how best they can support each individual.”

Note From iLEAD Online:

iLEAD Online is a personalized learning program option currently available for learners in grades 3-12. We are planning to provide options for grades K-3 soon. All iLEAD Online courses are created, written, developed, and managed by our own facilitators. To ensure success, iLEAD Online emphasizes instructor availability, communication, and access. Our courses are flexible, project-based, and customizable to best fit the passions, interests, and needs of each learner. We do not purchase pre-made courses. Our high school courses are NCAA and UC/CSU A-G-approved courses. We do offer but do not require real-time class meetings, and learners do have access to iLEAD activities and workshops, tutoring, science labs, and more!

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