Speech and debate have long been fixtures of the UTS co-curricular experience, and the school’s record of developing oratorical skills and succeeding in competitions goes back decades. Still, the current UTS speech and debate coaches describe this year as a pivotal moment in the program.
“It used to be a very competitive and closed society, and we’re trying to open it up and expand it while maintaining our successful, streamlined competitive program,” says Liz Stratton, now in her third year as a speech and debate coach at UTS. “We want to make sure it’s benefiting the whole community, and make sure that we’re focused not only on winning each competition, but on training young people to speak articulately about the big issues of our time.”
Liz, who gravitated to her role in part due to her own background as a competitive high school debater, says students who aren’t interested in high-level competition can still learn valuable public speaking, research, listening and collaborative skills by participating in the speech and debate program.
Sagalina Doré, who joined UTS this year to run the program alongside Liz, agrees that the value of debate goes beyond competition.
“I find that students who feel like they have the least to offer the program often have the most to offer,” says Sagalina. “They come to learn, they drop their ego at the door, and they show us that having the top debater or public speaker isn’t what builds a program. It’s the students who show up early, help us set up and support the younger members.
“Students in the program are constantly working on their communication skills, their presentation skills, these life skills that you need no matter what field you go into. You need to be able to collaborate with other people and put in the work to discover, together, the answers to the problems you encounter.”
Sagalina’s own path to UTS backs up this point. Unlike Liz, her debate background doesn’t extend back into her own schooling experience. Instead, she took up the role of debate coach when she got her first job out of teacher’s college, reading and researching intensively so that she could gain the skills and knowledge establish that school’s fledgling program.
For the past two years, Sagalina has led speech and debate camps at UTS over the summer and March break, getting a sense of what UTS is about in the process. “I know that the kids here have the desire to learn and grow that I had as a student. Now I can help those kids reach their highest potential.”
Sagalina and Liz have a dedicated office space at the temporary UTS location at 30 Humbert Street, as well as the mandate to ensure their program enriches the overall educational experience at UTS. As Liz puts it, speech and debate is a perfect example of inquiry-based learning, one that can help teachers, as well as students, refine their classroom performance.
“All we do is ask difficult questions, learn more, discuss, and then ask more difficult questions.”