Laughter, Love, and Losing Gracefully: Lessons Learned this Speech Season

Last year, our school was slated to host the Conference speech tournament. It was the head coach’s first year in the position, and I was becoming known at our school for being insanely organized and really good at running tournaments. So, I volunteered to (read: was paid to) put on the tournament so the head coach could focus on growing the team and winning some medals.

At the time, I thought I knew nothing about speech team, but as I started organizing the tournament, I realized I knew more than I thought I did. My freshman year of high school, I was on our speech team. My team was a state champion team for many, many years running, so winning was the only option. While I was happy to have that year under my belt and I believe it taught me a great deal about confidence and gave me lots of analytical skills, I left the team to pursue band, which I enjoyed far more. My sophomore year, one of the coaches and my freshman English teacher (and the reason I joined the team to begin with) passed away, and I just couldn’t go back to the team.

While I don’t regret quitting, I wish I had had more opportunities to develop public speaking and analytical skills in high school. If only I knew then what I do now – that I would end up teaching high school English – I might have stuck with it just for the learning opportunities.

At the end of the tournament last year, though, a new opportunity presented itself. Our head coach – a drama guy through and through – got it in his head that I’d be good at coaching the speech events, particularly the ones where students have to write their own speeches. (I can’t imagine where he got that idea. It’s not like I know how to write things….) Getting a taste of the fun from the tournament we hosted, I agreed to come on as the assistant coach this year.

At first, I spent a lot of nights crying to Tim that I was over-stressed and over-worked and had too much going on to continue coaching speech. The plan was to make it through the year and quit and never try to coach anything ever again. However, as the year progressed, I saw my students learning and growing and enjoying the process. Speech must be something special for these kids – many of whom would rather have rather died than speak publicly at the start of the season – to make it to school, dressed in their suits and dresses, at 6:00 every Saturday morning and not come home until 6:00 PM Saturday night, exhausted after speaking all day for the entirety of November-February. And they actually enjoyed it. Many of them who didn’t advance to Regionals this year came anyway, just to support their friends or see a few new events they might want to try out next year, and I expect the same from Sectionals this weekend.

Speech team is powerful. It was powerful for the students who showed up and gave it their all every week, and I know this because many of the kids I coached would sit in my room after a bad tournament and ask, “How can I get better?” or would burst into tears and hug me when they found out they advanced to a final round of a tournament, meaning they were in the top 8 of all the students competing that weekend.

But it was equally powerful for me. I can speak to what I think the students learned this season, but I probably couldn’t even scratch the surface. For me, starting the season wanting to quit, this season was a roller-coaster ride that taught me more about teaching, patience, and what it means to be part of the fabric of a school than anything I’ve ever done. Now, I wouldn’t give up this position for the world, and I’m already starting to think about next year. What follows is a reflection on my lessons learned this season.

Laughter

Our head coach is a funny guy. I’m not sure, but I think he prides himself in this fact. He spends a lot of time telling funny stories, and the kids hang on every word. In the classroom, I do this, too. It’s part of what makes our students enjoy our classes and gives them a reminder every once in a while that we’re human, too. I used to think that these stories we tell are just fun and sort of self-indulgent, but now I look at them differently. Life is full of stories, and telling them to students offers an example of how it’s done. This might go without saying, but indulge me: So much of speech – and life, for that matter – is the ability to tell stories. Even for the events that require students to memorize and perform script, or write a purely informational or persuasive speech, they still have to find the story there and tell it. Stories are full of cadences, levels, and pregnant pauses that you can only teach by example, and the ability to mesmerize an audience with a tale is a skill that can be learned. In his memoir, Teacher Man, Frank McCourt writes:

Instead of teaching, I told stories.
Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats.
They thought I was teaching.
I thought I was teaching.
I was learning.

I’d argue that he was teaching, too. He was teaching them to enjoy language and how to tell stories, an art that is dying in our go-go-go Google society. Tell a story, mesmerize an audience, and you’ll be able to land that deal or hold a really important meeting. It’s that simple.

Love

I love my students. I really do. But speech team is something different. Yesterday was the first day I didn’t have Tuesday practice because all of my students are done for the year, and I actually sat in my classroom feeling sort of lost and sad. I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but I was disappointed not to have practice after school.

You have so much downtime during those tournaments and so you spend a lot of your time coaching. When I say coaching, I don’t mean the typical yell-and-scream sports coaching we see on ESPN. I mean the build-you-up help-you-improve coaching that requires a bit more finesse and grace. One tournament, for example, I was sitting in the tab room so I knew what ranks my students got during their rounds. After first round, I found out one of my better students got a 6 in her event – 6 being the lowest you can get. It’s not impossible to advance to final round with a 6, but it’s darn hard, so I went out to find her and knock some sense into her. When I did find her, she was already crying her eyes out before I could say a word to her. My tactic had to immediately change. She was already beating herself up over her flubbed round one than I ever could, and so I spent a good deal of time helping her realize this was not the end of the world, and that she needed to regain her confidence, take the bull by the horns, and get back in there for her next two rounds. She didn’t advance to final round that tournament, but I think the lesson she learned was far more important: In life, you’ll fail. It’s inevitable. But you have to get up and move on. Which leads me to my next reflection…

Losing Gracefully

Regionals was last weekend. The top 3 in each event advance to Sectionals, which is coming up on Saturday. We didn’t expect to do super well at Regionals because our team is so young. You just can’t teach freshmen how to be confident seniors. However, 11 out of 12 of our students ended up advancing to final round, which is a win in and of itself. All of my students who advanced to final round were incredibly excited. I was excited for them. If, in my first year, I could have students I coached advance to Sectionals, this would be a majorly successful year.

As you already know, none of the students I coached advanced to Sectionals. Our team has several kids going, but all of them were coached by the head coach.

I didn’t understand it. I had a few kids who I thought really had a shot, but they didn’t do well in their final round. What was I doing wrong? How had I, as a coach, failed these kids?

I asked these questions of the head coach on the bus on the way home. I’m sure he could tell I was near tears, so he spent a lot of time coaching me and giving me a pep talk. But when we all got off the bus, I looked around. None of the kids were upset. They were all extremely exited to have made it to final round, and were already talking about what they were planning on doing next year. They were all laughing and hugging each other and excited for those who were advancing. I’m sure there was some disappointment, but not enough to show. And that, I think, is the best lesson of them all: Win gracefully, lose gracefully, show excitement for those who succeed, and find a way to do better in the future.

This is learning. This is winning.

Featured Image Credit: Brad Barth

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