Debate Coaches Wear Many Hats to Build Successful Programs

Critics of public education often make the argument that schools should be run like businesses, but educators better understand the huge differences between the two types of entities and their essential functions. There are, however, many common elements that must function effectively for either one to be successful.

Running a successful debate program is in some ways similar to owning a business. Someone must manage finances and resources, invest time and energy in the workers, and ensure quality control over processes and production, whether that’s producing widgets or helping young people grow into successful people. But while a business enterprise may employ multiple staff to handle the various responsibilities, a high school debate coach is often working alone, regardless of the size of the squad, or at best with only one or two other coaches. Debate coaches must “wear many hats” and be responsible for any number of things beyond their debaters’ success in competition.

Sufficient funding is critical for success, and the finances of a speech and debate squad are certainly not as complex as those of a business finance office. But money is needed for entry fees, membership fees, subscriptions, materials and supplies, and food for students during competition. For squads that travel greater distances, there are additional expenses. Some fortunate debate programs receive enough money from the district to cover such costs, but the vast majority must also rely on raising money.

Choosing a fundraising project that will provide sufficient money for the purpose and fit the squad’s size, interests and time available, as well as being suitable to the community, is no easy task. School or district regulations must be understood and followed, other fundraisers in the school and community must be considered, and if the resale of purchased products is involved, additional concerns must be addressed.

Often essential to keeping a program functioning, raising money is seldom easy and always time-consuming. It can be difficult for the most experienced coaches, and daunting to a novice coach who has not done it before. And it’s just one of the many ‘other-than-coaching hats’ the debate coach must wear.

As director of the debate program, coaches must also oversee the communication of the squad. Communication with the community, school staff, booster clubs, parents, debaters, and potential members can all be accomplished more quickly and efficiently than ever before with websites, YouTube, emails and various social media platforms, but electronic messaging can also create problems.

Tech-savvy squad members can be a tremendous help in this area, but communication must be directed, managed and monitored to prevent misinformation or inappropriate language or content. District and campus rules must be understood and followed, and coaches often need additional guidelines for competitors to make certain that all messaging is accurate, fair, civil and reflective of the mission and goals of the school and the debate squad.

Effective communication is vital to a healthy organization, and for debate coaches this includes keeping all interested parties informed, promoting the program, recruiting and celebrating students’ successes. School districts establish guidelines, and district personnel probably assist in monitoring some types of communication, but educators responsible for teaching their debaters effective argumentation and public speaking must also teach them communication ethics and how to carefully evaluate what they hear, read, and say. Working with teenagers, this responsibility is bigger and often more difficult than many might imagine.

Recruiting talent is essential for success of both business and activities programs, but the differences between them are vast. Coaches at public high schools, unlike a business, can’t advertise and then choose from among only the best applicants. They must make their programs known – and appealing – to students within their school district boundaries. The composition of the student body will differ significantly depending on location, and often be very diverse within itself.

Social media, websites, demonstrations, and one-on-one contact can all be used in recruiting, but since many districts do not have debate below the high school level, educating both students and parents about competitive debate is often the necessary first step, especially for those trying to start or to build a debate program. This requires concentrated effort, imaginative strategies, and time.

Debaters within any program will have various levels of experience and talent, and helping students develop their skills takes strategic planning and individualized instruction. Coaches must balance short-term and long-term goals for each debater and for the entire squad.

In creating a tournament schedule, the coach must coordinate with the official contest and school schedules, consider budget constraints, and take into account other activities in which squad members are involved. Allowing students in athletics, theatre, band, choir, etc. to also participate in debate may mean some cannot attend tournaments when events conflict. This complicates planning the schedule but offers more students the opportunity to learn and grow.

Competition must be selected that suits the diverse needs of the squad’s debaters, although this usually increases the number of weekends the coach is working. Some tournaments offer winners qualifications to advance to higher levels of state or national competition, which is important for advanced debaters. Smaller tournaments might be included for novice debaters, giving them experience and a reasonable chance of success.

No one becomes an educator or coach expecting to become wealthy, but hardworking coaches deserve respect and appreciation, and coaching stipends should reflect the multiple responsibilities and workloads they carry. Sufficient funding and other support for activities programs is a good ‘business’ decision for school districts, as it supports their mission of providing a variety of learning experiences, empowering students to develop their potential to the fullest.

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