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From Singing Telegrams to Academic Coaching Alum overcomes ‘not that smart’ stigma, now provides specialized academic coaching

Susan SchaeferGrowing up, Susan V. Schaefer ’02 didn’t believe she was smart enough to become a teacher. Now, with a little help from an M.A.T. in Elementary Education from National Louis University, she’s providing specialized education support to young students — helping them find confidence in their own academic abilities.

While she didn’t receive the encouragement and support she needed to pursue her dream of teaching, Schaefer still persisted into higher education. On the way, she discovered an aptitude for business. “In college I started a singing telegram company with my roommate that was pretty successful until the card shop in town bought a gorilla suit and started doing gorilla-grams and put us out of business,” she recalled.

Despite this early success, Schaefer did not forget her first dream of teaching.

It was attention deficit disorder and other learning challenges, finally diagnosed after college, that planted those seeds of “not that smart” in the young Schaefer. After sorting through the reality of her diagnosis, she made her move into teaching. “[When] I was older and more educated about learning challenges, I revisited my dream of becoming a teacher and applied to National Louis. I joined a cohort for a Master of Arts in Teaching and experienced newfound purpose in my life.”

The new purpose? A Chicago classroom full of fourth graders.

While singing telegrams were now behind her, Schaefer’s free spirit was not. “Crazy experiences… how do I pick just one?” she joked when asked about her time in the classroom.

Schaefer recounted an increasingly escalating water battle that broke out on a dismally hot summer day. The exercise in cooling off, which came to include two other teachers and all their students, ended abruptly with a summons from the principal’s office over the PA system.

“We got down there, dripping all over her office, and [the principal] calmly handed each one of us a mop and glared at us with her arms crossed. When we got back to our classrooms, the students were in their seats and quiet. But when they saw us with our mops, they just fell down laughing until they were gasping for breath. The next day morale was up 100%, and everyone was productive again!”

Schaefer was eventually granted tenure. Finally landing her dream job, she saw herself teaching fourth grade forever. But life had other plans.

Schaefer and her family needed to move from Chicago to Connecticut during the height of the Great Recession. That move killed her career as a traditional school teacher.

Opportunities were gone, but her sense of purpose and persistence remained. “When it became clear that the chances of becoming a classroom teacher were slim to none, I made the decision to focus my teaching skills in another direction. It was time to recreate myself once again,” Schaefer explained.

Schaefer found her new angle on teaching while working for a tutoring company. “The students I worked with, many of whom faced the challenges I did in school, not only improved academically but gained self-confidence as well,” she observed.

Schaefer discovered that there weren’t many opportunities in her new hometown for students to receive specialized support when confronting specific learning challenges. So she took it upon herself to provide that support by starting a new company: Academic Coaching Associates (ACA).

The dive into academic coaching was not an overnight success, with only three students and just under $2,000 in the first year. Nevertheless, Schaefer was determined. She reached out to the business community and made a few adjustments to ACA. When her trickle of clients became a steady steam, she knew she was on to something.

“I had apparently hit upon a much-needed niche. It seems there is no shortage of bright students who are not performing to their potential due to weaknesses in executive functions, poor study skills and other issues,” said Schaefer. “Now people refer to me as an ‘education expert’ and ask me to speak at their school or conference.”

While she’s busy fielding speaking requests and managing an academic coaching company that now brings in six figures annually, Schaefer can’t help thinking about her time with all those fourth graders.

“If I had not left Chicago, I have no doubt that I would still be happily teaching in the same school,” Schaefer mused. “Although I still miss the classroom, I feel very fortunate. I have the pleasure of seeing students, many of whom had all but given up, succeed academically and gain back the self-esteem that they had lost.”