How I Failed in Empathy and Lost a Star Coding Student

The Situation

I made a mistake a few months ago which cost me one of my star apprentices. Let’s call her “Rachel”. Rachel was extremely sharp, enthusiastic, hard-working, and very receptive to coaching.

However, life started getting in the way for Rachel about 3 months down the line. She was experiencing some financial troubles, because she did not have a job. Finally, she did find a minimum wage job, but the job became overwhelming. Rachel began missing classes for weeks at a time, and I did not handle this situation with the patience and empathy that Rachel deserved. In this post, I will outline my mistake and write out an alternative strategy that I could have taken.

The Blunder

Here was the exchange that sent everything downhill beyond repair. First Rachel could not make it to our Friday class.

Then Rachel couldn’t make it to the makeup class, and here is where I blundered:

Reminding Rachel that she was going to miss “an entire week of progress” is not what she needed to hear at that moment. I was frustrated, and I didn’t have a good read on my own emotional state at the time I sent that text. I would imagine Rachel felt shame after my text, which is not what I want an apprentice to feel.

Within a month, Rachel cancelled one or two more times and then emailed me that she was dropping out of the program.

What I would do differently

According to B.J. Fogg’s behavior change model, when your environment changes, the cues around your habits may also change. Therefore, it’s common to lose habits altogether. Given that Rachel’s life situation changed significantly, her habits around learning coding also changed.

I would have removed her homework load entirely, and helped her find a “tiny habit” around coding that worked with her new life situation.

For example, “When you leave the house to go to work, put a coding book into your bag..”

That’s it. Just put the bag in your backpack every day for 7 days in a row. If that doesn’t work for her, try a new habit: “On your lunch break, scan Quincy Larson’s Twitter feed for 10 seconds.” Keep experimenting until we land on a new habit that actually fits with her lifestyle. Then gradually add to that as she continues to acclimate to her new life environment.

The first step I took towards this was to require our new apprentices to take B.J. Fogg’s free 5-day course on Tiny Habits as part of our pre-requisites for entering the program.

What do you all think? If anyone has any other strategies they would use in a situation with a student that drops off due to life circumstances, please comment.