Ross Eichele rarely gets nervous when he has to speak in front of a crowd. For him, it’s a fun challenge, trying to “hook” an audience.
He’s the speech and debate coach at Blaine High School, where he also teaches English, and his enthusiasm seems to be catching: Eichele, who arrived at the high school eight years ago, has seen the two activities grow to include more than 50 students each.
During the debate season, it’s not uncommon for students to spend up to 20 hours a week researching and writing in preparation for a tournament, he said.
Eichele has been instrumental in starting up other local speech and debate teams, as well, and was honored in December with a “Distinguished Service Key” award from the National Speech and Debate Association. The high school speech season wraps up April 19-20 with the state tournament at Blaine High School. Eichele took the time for a Q&A about the value of speech and debate.
Q: How did your interest in speech and debate start?
A: I wanted to teach public speaking because I loved the class in high school. I wasn’t shy, but I was nervous about speaking in front of people. I’m glad I had to take the class. It was transformational for me.
Up until that point, I’d talk for a presentation, and the idea was just to get done with it. My teacher, Mrs. Lang, got you to think about the audience members, what they’re feeling, to craft a message to make it meaningful for them.
Also, I was part of North Dakota State University’s speech and debate team. I had an amazing experience. It was fun to overcome fears, meet different people on campus and compete against other students.
Q: Does coaching speech and debate affect your teaching in any way?
A: Coaching has made me a better teacher because it provides a different context of the learning process. As a coach, most of my focus is on making small improvements. We want to perform better at the next tournament than we did at the last one. We want to grow.
Sometimes people will “get it,” but many times we have to go over things multiple times before it clicks or makes sense. I find the learning process to be very incremental.
It helps me remember that people need time, opportunity and encouragement to learn. Sometimes that means trying out things in multiple ways.
Q: What has the activity done for you outside of the classroom?
A: It’s a lot of different little things. If you’re at a meeting where something is being talked about, it makes you think about how to interject or build a consensus. In job interviews, instead of just getting through the questions, you’re thinking about what answers you’re giving, what you’re doing to maintain interest.
There are little things every day that you don’t think of, that go better as a result of speech and debate. Every time you’re talking to someone, you’re using those skills.
Q: What inspires you to keep coaching?
A: First, the kids themselves. If someone comes in and they’re nervous, it takes a lot of courage. That’s inspiring. Most people run from their fears. The kids want to get better at something they might even be scared to do.
And seeing people change through time. There are so many people who think that change isn’t possible.
Also, it’s fun to be around other speech coaches. They have the same passion. They get the same joy out of seeing people tackle public speaking.
Q: What changes do you see in students as they go through speech and debate? What does it do for them?
A: When they come in, students are usually scared and nervous. To get comfortable, it takes time. Other students and our staff take them in, encourage them, and then they begin to have a taste of success. And then they dig in and become inspired.
Seeing the students become confident and articulate is pretty neat. Seeing them learn from the triumphs and heartbreaks of competition is also really rewarding.
I remember a student I had many years ago in debate who was mildly autistic. When he started, he didn’t look at people when he spoke. By his senior year, you never would’ve guessed that he had ever been uncomfortable speaking in front of others or thinking on his feet.
His life is better because he debated. Debate and speech does this for everyone.
Q: Why is speech and debate important?
A: The world needs people who can stand up and speak truth.
Many people are worried about looking or sounding dumb because of how they say something instead of what it is they have to say. I think the world would be better if we could say, “this is how I feel about …” or “I disagree with you. We should think about these other options or ideas,” instead of subversively working against something. We need more people to speak out, to be more eloquent and convincing and respectful at the same time.
Too often, ideas don’t get shared because people are afraid to share them or they don’t want to get into conflicts. The best ideas come out over time, and not just from one person.
Every day there are things competing to get your attention. Speech and debate can help you step back and analyze it. It can help clarify things or make sense of it.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge in speech and debate? How do you overcome it?
A: I think the most challenging moments for coaches and students are the ones when you’re beat. Sometimes you work hard, give it your all, and you end up being beaten.
It’s never fun. During those points, you have a great danger or opportunity. Sometimes people become bitter and look for excuses. Sometimes people look for things to learn so they can improve. As a coach, you want students to make the second choice. That can be difficult. In those moments, about all you can do is to be there for them.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.