October is National High School Activities Month, designed to recognize and celebrate extracurricular activities and the countless people who contribute to those programs in so many ways. So, it is an appropriate time for those who work with young people in speech and debate to take stock of where we are, where we are going and to what end.
Do we want to win? Of course we do, and so do our students, or none of us would commit our time and energy to competitive activities. But who is really winning?
A student who is handed a humorous or dramatic interpretation selection chosen by a coach, with an introduction written by someone else, but who happens to do well in a contest? The student who attends an expensive summer debate camp and comes back with the perception that he or she knows everything there is to know about debate, and believes the only reason he ever loses a ballot is because judges are incompetent? The extemporaneous speakers who win because they sound good, but who fabricate support material or sources when they don’t have real information?
No, speech and debate coaches have a responsibility to ensure that what they offer their students extends beyond the artificial world of competition. If the “where we are going” is defined only by trophies and winning records, then they will be serving just the elite, and putting their own egos above the best interests of their students.
Those who have coached state champions are certainly proud of every one of them, and proud of their own contributions to the success of the students. But most coaches are equally proud of the students who never made it to the state meet, who never won a major tournament or even a medal or trophy. They are the people whose well-being is enhanced through their ability to communicate effectively in public, in small groups, with family and friends, and with those who have opposite points of view.
They are the students who get good jobs because they can handle an interview well. They are citizens who are better able to make decisions based on critical analysis of what’s really being said and no just who’s saying it.
These are competitors who gain from every contest experience, even when they don’t win. Their sense of accomplishment isn’t limited to the outcome of any single contest, but to a broader sense of where they’re coming from and where they are going – working on getting better every step of the way.
At a workshop for advanced extemporaneous speakers taught by speech coach Randy McCutcheon, co-author of the speech textbook Communication Matters, he told a story of how one of his students at a national tournament unfortunately went to the wrong room to speak, and was ranked last in the round as a result of his mistake. Rather than blaming someone else or losing his temper or composure, his response was “this will add to my folklore.”
The tournament counted the cumulative ranks of all rounds, and he went on to win a national championship. Perhaps it was his attitude, as much as his speaking skill, that made this possible. He had a real sense of “where he was going,” and he didn’t lose his sense of direction when the going got tough.
His coach probably contributed to that mindset because many of our coaches work hard to lead programs designed to help students develop such positive outlooks.
A “winning” program is one that provides as many students as possible with experiences that stretch their imaginations, stimulate critical thinking and reading, enhance their problem-solving skills and make them feel good about the efforts they make.
Speech and debate programs give students a place to belong, a chance to make friends and meet people, an academic arena in which they not only have fun, but also learn teamwork, dedication, perseverance
and good sportsmanship.
In addition to teaching contest “tricks of the trade,” countless practices and critiques, discussions of literature or current events or policy – speech coaches give students support, encouragement, confidence and the motivation to become better than they ever imagined they could be.
Coaches may also give them lessons in etiquette and appropriate public behavior, fashion tips or lunch money.
All of it counts – and matters.
It’s not likely someone became a speech or debate coach because he or she didn’t have enough to do, or was offered a huge stipend, or truly enjoys endless hours on buses, or for the gourmet food on the competitive circuit.
Individuals probably coach speech and debate because they know that much of what is vital for young people to learn isn’t written into the curricula and can’t be measured on a standardized test. It’s true that extracurricular activities are an extension of the classroom, but the experience of participating offers so much more than that.
Speech and debate coaches give participants extraordinary opportunities to learn and grow.
So, during National High School Activities Month, and especially October 8-14 – the week dedicated to Performing Arts – hats off to the nation’s speech and debate coaches for all they do! Coaches should take the time to highlight the programs they direct, and find creative ways to recognize the students who participate. It’s a good time for coaches and competitors to define the goals of their programs and articulate the value of the speech and debate activities in the community.
How we define success and “where we want to end up” is vitally important, and we need to do it carefully.
Treva Dayton is a former classroom teacher, forensic coach and theatre director. She has served as state director of speech and debate for the Texas University Interscholastic League and as an assistant director for the NFHS. She retired as director of academics for the UIL. Dayton is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.