Coaches of the Year

Congratulations to our 2021 Middle School Coaches of the Year: Melissa Hart & Eric Li!

This year has presented many unique challenges for students, teachers, and coaches. Between the highly personal criminal justice topic, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the adjustment to virtual learning, this has been a season like no other! On the whole, our coaches have handled the task with persistence and grace, but our program staff couldn’t give everyone the award. They chose to honor just two of our top coaches this season: Our 2021 Teacher Coach of the Year, Melissa Hart from Ramsey Middle School, and Eric Li, our Student Coach of the Year from Sanford Middle School!

We spoke to Melissa and Eric about their experience coaching during the virtual season. Check out their reflections on this season – and the value of debate in this moment:

Melissa Hart – Ramsey Middle School, St. Paul Public Schools

Melissa Hart and Ramsey Team

Melissa Hart was named our 2021 Teacher Coach of the Year at the Middle School Championship.

Ms. Hart formerly coached at Battle Creek Middle School and is now the coach at Ramsey Middle School. She has built a warm and enthusiastic team culture among the students at Ramsey.

What has motivated you to get through this challenging year?

I can honestly say the kids motivated me. They are craving connection and meaning and normalcy, so it’s really motivating to continue to show up virtually and laugh with them, talk about what is happening in the world, and stimulate their critical thinking skills with things like debate. In many ways, kids have more free time than ever, so they’re digging into content at deeper levels, and it’s really rewarding to watch them wrestle with real issues in nuanced ways.

What’s the most rewarding part about coaching?

My favorite part of coaching has always been the community — the sense of family. Kids get to show up as their authentic selves and they genuinely root for each other and support each other, both in debate and in life. I really believe that when kids are surrounded by an authentic community who constantly cheers them on, they are able to overcome challenges, as well as identify all kinds of strengths they didn’t know they had and see possibilities they didn’t know existed.

What were your goals for the season? Did you accomplish them?

My goal was to build community with a diverse group of debaters, and I knew it would be more challenging because of the virtual aspect. We definitely felt like a family — sometimes kids would log into our “classroom” after a long debate tournament and debrief together until late — 9:30 pm one night! It was always good to be “together.” I do feel like we didn’t reach as many kids as we would have in person–kids who need the hands-on instruction and encouragement and steady wifi access and everything else that pandemic inequities exacerbated–but I’m looking forward to reaching more kids next year as we’ve done in years past.

Do you have any highlights from the season to share?

My favorite moments were hanging out with my team in Google Meets. We called the first ten minutes of practice the most random part of our week. Kids would talk about what snacks they were eating, tell silly jokes, show off artwork, or say, “Wait, what are we doing?” because there would be five conversations happening at once. It became a running joke or tradition, and I noticed it was special to the kids so it became special to me too. But I was also really powerful to see kids really invest in this topic on their own time. Several of the kids went back to the evidence and found the original sources and read up further on them. One girl ordered some nonfiction books on race and the criminal justice system from Amazon and stayed after class discussing all kinds of nuanced, complex issues. There were truly so many rewarding moments!

What do you see as the value of debate?

Kids love to argue! Often in educational systems, argumentative kids are discouraged or silenced or told to reign in this skill, as if it’s a weakness. I love watching kids argue and being able to say, “YES! This is a powerful skill! Let’s use this skill! Let’s hone this skill! You’re going to change the world with this!” And kids just so naturally and authentically rise to the occasion. I’ve had the opportunity to bring so many kids to debates over the years who’ve had behavioral difficulties in school and society, and yet they always show up professionally with brilliant arguments and respectful back-and-forth during cross-examination–and they usually win because they truly are brilliant at arguing–and I think that’s what happens when we treat kids with a strength-based approach. It brings out the best in them and shows them the potential and possibilities within them!

Student Coach of the Year: Eric Li, Sanford Middle School

Eric Li and Team

Eric Li, our Student Coach of the Year, poses with fellow Eagan HS competitors.

Eric Li is a current varsity debate competitor (and MSHSL State Finalist!) at Eagan High School. Eric has drawn upon a wide range of debate knowledge to teach competitors at Sanford Middle School. This led to their most successful Championship tournament yet, with top 5 preliminary seed teams in most divisions!

What has motivated you through this challenging year?

Definitely the passion for debate that I have, and the fact that debate has impacted my life in so many ways-  whether through developing my research skills, persuasion, and even just becoming even more confident in general. That makes me extremely motivated to help my students learn the skills for debate. I personally know from experience that it pays off greatly in the future.

What’s the most rewarding part about coaching?

I think the most rewarding part of coaching is knowing that you are contributing to someone else’s success,  either in tournaments or even smaller things such as reading comprehension, public speaking skills, etc. I think whenever my students come back from around and explain to me that I helped them win that round, whether because of the drills that we did or because of the lectures I gave, that is definitely the most rewarding feeling and part about coaching. I also am interested in becoming some type of educator when I grow up, so I felt that it was really cool to work with Mrs. Lund and see how she taught a class in ways that were different and oftentimes better than I taught.

What were your goals for the season? Did you accomplish them?

My main goal was making sure that the entire team and members each had their moments of success and that I would provide as many opportunities as possible to get them there. Although there is always room for improvement, I think I accomplished my goal as I think Sanford as a whole was fairly successful this year. I made sure to provide as many opportunities as possible, from emailing lecture notes and additional resources to all squad members as well as giving individualized help outside of practice for teams that felt like they were behind or needed help.

Connect more students with great mentors like Melissa and Eric! A monthly gift of $25 can pay for a stipend for a high school student like Eric to become a middle school coach. Become an Advocate for Debate today.