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Former High School Speech/Debate Students Excel as Professionals Today

By Treva Dayton on March 10, 2016 hst Print

The January 2016 issue of High School Today included an article titled “Performing Arts Students Develop Skills Needed for Life and Work.” The article noted that participation in education-based high school activities helps students develop important life skills such as dedication, perseverance, commitment, teamwork and a sense of fair play.

In that article, a 2014 survey by The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), a non-profit group that links college career placement offices with employers, was referenced in which hiring managers were asked to prioritize skills they consider important when recruiting new employees. Those at the top of their list included leadership, along with the ability to work in a team structure, to make decisions and solve problems, to communicate effectively with people inside and outside the organization, and to plan, organize and prioritize work.

As an indication of how music, theatre, and speech and debate activities are ideal for developing what has been called the Four Cs of 21st century skills – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity – following are comments from former competitors and current professionals who responded to that concept, based on their individual life experiences. 

Joel Thomas
Theatre and speech at Georgetown (Texas) High School
Currently television reporter for KTVT-TV, Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas

Delivering live television news daily is an arduous team task that the viewer at home does not see. My experiences in high school performing arts taught me every individual performance isn’t about a who, but a whole. It has served me well in my news-reporting career.

We start our news workday planning and communicating as technical, managerial and performing talent just as we did in our school rehearsals. Before “showtime,” the producers or news director will give me an assignment. As I begin gathering information and preparing, a photographer is shooting the video we need. 

An assignments desk is passing information along, and a producer is choreographing where my segment will air and how I fit into the larger show. There is a floor crew in the studio operating cameras for the anchors, directors pushing the buttons that get us on air, and a live remote engineer sending our live signal back to the station from the field all so that my “performance” can air within the show.

It is the same type of execution and interdependence I learned in performing arts during high school.  

We execute our jobs knowing one succeeds or fails depending on the other’s performance. We all think about solving problems to ensure the news is delivered no matter the conditions, apply our combined creativity to make our product the best, and nurture the passion of newcomers into the business with the understanding that talent, skill and communication shared in a team improve the individual. And, just like in any live performance in high school, the team feels the entire stress and pride in the end process.

Meggin Rutherford
Speech and debate, band at Tascosa High School, Amarillo, Texas
Currently owns The Rutherford Law Center, LLC in Golden, Colorado

Being involved in speech and debate taught me critical thinking and writing skills. I cannot hear a news story, testimony in court, or even an advertisement, without thinking through what I’ve heard. Despite being the bane of advertising agencies and politicians, I consider this a very important skill. Nothing is ever as it seems because we all have different perceptions of the same information. By being able to quickly scan for biases, logical fallacies and missing information, I can determine quality of the information and how I can use that information. Of course, as a lawyer this is very helpful. But I think it also is essential for being a good member of society and informed voter.

Additionally, speech and debate made me a much better writer. Many teenagers are disappointed to hear that being a lawyer is 80-95% writing, and only a little bit of public speaking. The drama on TV is very misleading. Big trials only happen a few times a year in my practice, and it is far more boring than dramatic. On the other hand, I draft motions, settlement documents, and compose formal letters and emails every day. The ability to organize my thoughts into an easily read and precise document quickly and efficiently makes me a more effective attorney.

This is not only useful professionally. As my grandparents’ health has been failing, I find that the ability to send emails to many family members that can communicate essential information so that everyone has the same understandable and thorough message is invaluable.

Ray Seggern
Speech and debate at Georgetown (Texas) High School
Currently partner of The Wizard of Ads Group, Austin, Texas

Anyone who has ever watched a football game knows that the coin has two sides. Anyone who has ever had a heated argument with a spouse (or teenager) knows that the sword is often sharp on both edges. And those of us who ever logged any time on the debate team in high school learned many powerful skills, starting with the ability to see issues from both sides.

In debate, the terms of competition require that we set aside our preconceived notions and personal biases. We are not given the luxury of leaning on deeply entrenched notions. In fact, we have to be prepared to argue just as quickly against them.

There is merit in both the yin and the yang. Our differences afford us the opportunity to bring us closer, and to explore a deeper truth. Of course, the sad truth is that they just as easily have the ability to divide us and reduce us to juvenile bickering and rudeness. A more enlightened approach is to pull opposing ideas close together and appreciate the electricity that exists between them.

And to share a nugget of wisdom learned from the debate team: Logic does not always win the argument…it’s very often emotion. In fact, we don’t so much decide what to think first, and then let our feelings get in step with that. More often, we feel what we feel at a gut level, and then figure out how to logically justify those feelings. As such, logic may be overrated - and emotion underrated - whether you’re trying to persuade a panel of debate judges, or a jury, boardroom, spouse or teenager.

I couldn’t appreciate all of it then, way back when. But with hindsight and the opportunity to connect the dots, I’m sure I learned all this as a result of my high school participation in competitive speech and debate.

Phillip Taylor
Football, basketball, track, tennis, theatre, speech/debate at Gatesville (Texas) High School
Currently Coordinator of Fine Arts, Fort Bend (Texas) Independent School District

As a member of the speech team and theatre department of my high school, I developed skills to work collaboratively with others. These activities equipped me with the tools to succeed as an educator and administrator for the 21st Century learner.

I have been fortunate to have success as a student, coach of speech events and director of the one-act play contest. Many colleagues have been surprised at the level of input my students had in the play selection and direction process of the contest show. Each fall, my advanced theatre arts students would read five to 10 full-length plays that were screened for content and approval. Then students voted on the show for the upcoming UIL One-Act Play Contest.

One year, my students fell in love with a play that could no longer be produced for contest. They suggested that we adapt our own play from the original story. This process included translating the story into English, 10 drafts of the script, and a few rejection letters from the UIL play approval committee. However, the students took the rejection and feedback as a challenge. Little did we know this collaborative project would lead us back to another state championship. The culture of collaboration I experienced as a speech and theatre student impacted my teaching in the classroom and coaching of extracurricular events.

Now as the coordinator of fine arts of Fort Bend ISD, I oversee theatre arts, dance and arts integration for 11 high schools, 14 middle schools and 20 elementary schools. I coordinate and facilitate quarterly meetings that are focused on collaboration with all teachers as we have established professional relationships, developed curriculum and created standards for our fine arts programs. One of our collaborative efforts has been recognized by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Recently, the Fort Bend ISD Department of Fine Arts and the Alley Theatre were selected as Kennedy Center Partners in Education for our work and commitment to arts integration in elementary schools. Effective collaboration fosters educational growth and creates a positive, supportive school environment for teachers and students.