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Is it bad to say that M&Ms were the highlight of a debate class?

I still remember those M&Ms. I also remember sitting in the same metal chair for two eight-hour days of basic debate instruction from the experienced debate students at my new debate club. Problem was, even though I was not experienced with this new club, I was a third-year debater who had broken at every tournament I had attended the year before, including regionals. I was bored to death. I desperately wanted to raise my hand and plead, “Please!! I know what topicality is!! Can we talk about parametrics or something?” But I couldn’t. At least there were M&Ms…and popcorn. I like popcorn.

Looking back on that workshop, I know that I was definitely not as supportive of those student coaches as I should have been. Most of them were actually very good-natured and had put tons of generous effort into the program, and they deserved my respect. But a few were obviously not considering the fact that I and many of my fellow students were at a different skill level than they were pretending we were.

So go the difficulties of student coaching. Nearly four years later, after being in three different clubs and having a variety of roles in them, I have discovered that student leaders face a daunting task. It is incredibly difficult for a competitor or recent competitor to teach or lead a club of fellow students. If you are in that position, you will likely discover that some of your fellow students may be totally lost; some may resent your leadership; some may even be good enough to be coaching you. Best case scenario you is that you will have happy students that love you (shout out to my awesome students this year!), but just as possible is that trouble will strike and your club will experience negative drama. As a student coach, captain, leader, or mentor, how do you make everyone happy and help everyone to learn at the same time?

Here are eight tips for successful student coaching/mentoring that I’ve picked up. I don’t claim to have been an amazing student leader by any means; rather most of the below ideas I have learned from either personal failure or from observing other student coaches.

1. Don’t pretend to be Superman

If you admit your shortcomings to your fellow students right off the bat, you will face much less tension and opposition down the road. Even if you are a super-accomplished debater, believe me, you have flaws. For me, some of the most obvious weaknesses were 1ARs , late-night research, and table facial expressions. Admitting areas that you have struggled in to your students and sharing with your students what you have done to try to improve in those areas will remind them that you are all in this together!

2. Recognize that no two snowflakes look alike

If you have more than four or five students, you are bound to have vastly different skill levels represented in you club. Don’t treat them all the same. If you need to divide the class and work with them in different groups, do it. When in doubt, aim your teaching to the more experienced students, and the newer students are bound to still learn something from the teaching. If you teach only the basics when you have several experienced students in your audience, they will glean very little and probably end up contemplating M&Ms all evening…

3. Bring snacks

You could consider this a shameless tactic to increase your popularity, but it is effective!!! (Did I mention I like M&Ms?) Okay, back to real tips…

4. Step off your soapbox

If you are anything like me, you often delude yourself into thinking that you are the only person on planet earth capable of teaching your students. Briggs-Meyer personality test categorizes me as a Field Marshal (ENTJ—same personality as Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Putin) so I could try to blame my obsession with the podium on my personality, but in truth my obsession is nothing more than baseless arrogance. Any student in their second year or more has something they can teach, whether it be explaining the stock issues, giving feedback, or something much more advanced. What is more, most of them will want to teach. Some of your students (brace yourselves) will actually be better at certain areas of debate than you are. But even if they are not better than you, let them teach! Having someone teach a topic forces them to learn it well and to explain what they have learned to others. What better way to cement information into your students’ minds? Give up the podium (or judge’s chair) and let them have at it.

5. Be a buddy (not a creeper)

As long as you aren’t having major behavior issues, commit yourself to being your students’ buddies and make sure they feel like they are on your level, not a level or two below you. However, when I say, “Be a buddy,” I mean “Be a sincere buddy.” That doesn’t mean invading your students’ personal space and asking them twenty ice-breaker questions to show that you are trying to be their “friend.” It means committing to genuine friendship. Talk about things other than speech and debate. Laugh together, share stories and secrets, ask for their advice and critique—even if you are eighteen and they are twelve. If students see you as a friend they will be much more eager to learn from you. Plus, you will gain some great friendships along the way!

6. Give your time

Do you have a student who is struggling with research? Get out your laptop and walk her through a one-on-one research session. Did your student just write a new case two days before a tournament? Be the one who has time to read it and give him feedback. Do you have a twelve-year-old in your club who is terrified of script submission? Take an hour to walk him through the process. The time you put in will directly impact the way your students value you.

7. Share your secret recipe (even the prize-winning cheesecake)

Every debater has at least one or two of ideas or tactics that they are reluctant to share, for fear that their competition with improve a little tooooo much. Whether your secret is a favorite case or an “unbeatable” strategy, share it with your students. If a case or strategy depends on secrecy to be effective, it really is not as great as you are imagining. Students will feel betrayed if they discover you are holding out on them. Share all.

8. Wash their feet

Love your students with all heart and be willing to kneel in the dust, clutch a dirty towel, and wash their feet. Coaching is fun, but it is also grueling and at times heartbreaking (yes, I mean that). You are committed to your students in the great times and the not-so-great times. Have fun teaching them how to CX, but please also be there when you are exhausted and your new student desperately needs moral support at eleven at night.

As cliché as it may sound, I urge you: be Jesus to your students. The character qualities and skills that you instill in your fellow students will impact them for their entire lives, for better or for worse. Believe me, that impact worth losing sleep over. Give them everything you have: your heart, your time, your evidence. And some M&Ms.

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