Introducing Academic Coach, Yutong Zhou

Yutong Zhou, the latest Academic Coach to join our team, knows from her own experience just how much impact a coach can have on a student's life.

In this week’s podcast episode, I talked with Yutong about

  • What brought her to academic coaching
  • How her past experiences have shaped her perspective on coaching
  • Her background in helping students with special educational needs and disabilities

You can listen to the podcast using the player above or watch using the video player above, or you can read the summary of the interview below. 

What brought you to academic coaching?

University experience 

I came to the UK from China to go to college, after which I did my undergraduate degree and master’s degree. 

Neither of my parents went to university. Before I came to the UK to study, I hadn't even read a whole book in English. During that time, I had low self-esteem and I was very confused as a first-generation university student, especially with the language barriers as my first language is Chinese. 

But I was lucky to have an incredible tutor. He showed genuine interest in my academic learning and personal development. I wasn't planning to do further studying after my bachelor's degree, but his encouragement gave me the confidence to pursue a master’s degree in the subjects I'm passionate about. 

That experience made me appreciate that showing genuine interest in someone, no matter how small, can have a huge impact on their life trajectory. That's why I want to do coaching, because of the impact I can make on students.

Supporting students 

During my final year of university, I worked as a peer mentor, helping first year students with the academic learning and university experience, which I really enjoyed. Since I finished my master’s degree, I’ve been working as a SEND (special educational needs and disability) learning support assistant. It's sad to see that some students don't get sufficient support with their learning needs, and how it can affect their wellbeing. I've been helping students with autism and ADHD with their learning and it's been really rewarding to see the positive impact I’ve made on those students.

Yutong’s education

I studied education at undergraduate level. It's a very interdisciplinary subject; I studied the history, psychology, philosophy, and also the classroom practice that's related to education. It shaped my understanding of the education system and pedagogy. 

I decided to do my master’s in the psychology of education because I’m very interested in mental health and wellbeing. I can see, especially nowadays, so many students are having mental health challenges. And knowing how their wellbeing can affect their learning would help them. For me, it's a holistic approach getting to know the students and helping with their wellbeing which can help them with their education in the long term.

Everyone has their own motivational styles and learning styles. If, as educators, we have a good understanding of their styles, we can help them with their self-esteem. If they're trying to learn in ways that don’t work for them, students often struggle and that reinforces their belief that they don't have the ability to do it, but they actually do – they just need to find out what their learning style is.

What has been the biggest struggle in your own education? 

My biggest struggle was my confidence as I was the first member of my family to study at university and because I wasn’t learning in my first language. Looking back, I think the mistake I made was constantly comparing myself to others. To be honest, I'm quite a bit of a perfectionist and it seems that I'm a harsh judge of my own performance. As a result, it led to procrastination, and I even had burnout

Overcoming comparison and a lack of confidence

What I found particularly useful was talking to tutors. They can provide you with more objective feedback on your learning progress. Instead of comparing myself to others, I decided to focus on what I was curious about and made it interesting. So for example, when I was studying climate and geography, I asked myself, if I want to go to Spain for a holiday in the wintertime, which parts should I go to? Then I would look into the different climate types in Spain and study the characteristics. This way, I started to enjoy the learning process rather than focusing on the outcome. 

To avoid procrastination, I would break the big task into small chunks. I use the Pomodoro Technique, which is 25 minutes studying and a five minute break time cycle. You can also customise the studying time and the break time for yourself. It helps you to obtain the optimal focus. And our brain can only focus for a certain amount of time. This way, you make sure you have the study/rest balance, so you don't get burned out.

Can you give us some examples of how you've managed to help students? 

Navigating stress and high expectations

I once worked with a boy in his last year of secondary school. His parents told me that he hadn't been studying as he used to. He was hard working before, but he suddenly just decided to stop. His parents wanted me to help him by holding him accountable. They thought it was an accountability issue. 

As soon as I had a few sessions with him, I realised the problem was something else. I found he was really stressed in sessions with me. So we had a bit more small chit chat. He gradually opened up and told me that his parents had really high expectations of him. And with the exams approaching, he’d lost motivation and passion for learning. 

Having realised this, instead of focusing on accountability, I helped him rationalise his emotions and realise how his emotions impacted his thinking and actions. I also discussed his skills and learning plans with him and talked to his parents about their communication with him. After some time with the collaborative work, he started feeling passionate about learning again. He ended up putting in more effort because he realised what he actually wanted to do. He got the exam result he was pleased with and even discussed college plans with me after his exams too. I was very happy to see him gaining ownership of his own learning and decision-making so he could move towards his long term goals.

Helping SEND students

As a SEND learning support assistant, I work one to one with students. Their teachers always tell me the students are showing difficult behaviour and are reluctant to engage in learning. But I found in most cases, it was either a case of the learning style of the students being neglected or some underlying mental health issues that became extra hurdles. 

For example, one boy said “I'm not smart enough, I can't do this”. That reflected that he lacked competence in doing the task. What I usually do is have an engaging conversation at the start of a one to one session, which is very critical to build up their confidence. I try to find out their learning styles and motivation styles. Then I tailor the task based on that. They usually get really immersed in what they are learning after that. The student could usually only focus for five minutes before he’d start thinking about something else. But he ended up doing it for 20 minutes purely because he enjoyed it and felt confident. 

This experience just kind of forced my coaching philosophy. I think, firstly, it's essential to recognize individual learning needs. And secondly, I think it's a message not only for coaches but also for parents that it's important to think about the long term development of the child, rather than focusing on the short term achievements. In this way, we're helping them in a very holistic way. They ultimately develop the autonomy and resilience to deal with challenges by themselves.

Quickfire questions 

Which book had the biggest impact on your life?

Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist. It's a very good book. It talks about how your unconsciousness can actually have an impact on your life. And it just kind of stimulated my thinking.

Which was your favourite teacher and why?

My favourite teacher is my undergraduate personal tutor, who showed genuine interest in my academic learning and my personal development.

What’s your favourite holiday destination?

I would say Fiji. I went there to volunteer as a teaching assistant at a village primary school. I love the country and the people there are very kind.

What’s your favourite food or takeaway?

Dumplings are my favourite, and the best are vegetable dumplings. They're very tasty.

What would you say is your most used app?

Spotify. I listen to music a lot and podcasts whilst I’m cooking, running, I use all the opportunities to listen to a really good podcast. 

Would you like Yutong to be your teen’s Academic Coach? 

If you would like Yutong to help your teen reach their academic potential in a way that works for them, click here to find out about our academic coaching packages.

You can book a call with Helen Chaplain, our head Academic Coach, who will listen to what you need in terms of support. Helen will assess if we're a good fit for you and, if we are, she'll make sure you’re matched with the right Academic Coach for you.


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