A Critique Of Hiring Norms In Speech and Debate

As the season continues to wrap up, more debate institutions are announcing their new staff hires. It is an exciting time for everyone; former competitors are eager to dive into the world of coaching and students are looking to see who they will be learning from. Yet, despite the momentum behind new staff hires for debate institutions, there isn’t much transparency. Unsurprisingly, the debate community is littered with stories of abuse and inappropriate conduct. Consequently, many discussions have arisen regarding various issues and potential solutions.

This article is a call to action.

The goal of this article is threefold. First, and most importantly, we want to encourage students and parents to specifically research how debate organizations they may be working with – especially in-person camps – hire on their staff. Second, we hope to encourage former debaters and coaches looking to work at these institutions to apply for positions and work with organizations that have done their due diligence. Finally, if there are any folks who have hiring power at a debate institution, I hope that this article will encourage you to continue to improve your own hiring practices and increase transparency in the process.

To be clear, this article is intended to critique larger community trends, not any one person or organization. We are also not exclusively talking about debate camps, though they are often the biggest offenders. Prep groups, year-long classes, and even debate teams hiring multiple coaches are still relevant to this discussion. We are calling for widespread change.

Please be aware that this article will discuss serious and disturbing issues including harassment, assault, discrimination, and more. If that is upsetting to you, please proceed with caution.

Why do hiring practices matter?

You may be thinking, “It is a private company, they can hire however they want!” or “They have no obligation to disclose hiring information!”. And with the exception of federal and state labor laws, you’re right. Private companies get to choose how they hire, and what they choose to disclose.

But private companies are also built around sustaining themselves through capital. For debate institutions, this is predominantly accomplished through registrations for summer camp programs, debate prep groups, or courses/modules that students purchase. In other words: students and parents have all the leverage, because debate institutions cannot exist without their support. For this reason, it is my belief that those who sustain these organizations have every right to make demands. Essentially, consider these camps less as “they’re a private company, they can do what they want” and more as “they are providing a service, and we have the economic power to make demands”, similar to how boycotts function. They serve you

But even if people have the right and/or power to ask questions about how debate institutions hire, why should they? What tangible impact does this have on the student, parent, or safety of the program? The answer is a lot.

The point of thorough hiring practices (that exist in nearly every other field) is to weed out unqualified applicants. In this case, being “qualified” does not just mean that a person has debate knowledge. It also means that they must be able to pass on that knowledge, pass background checks, follow rules/regulations set in place, be professional, create safe learning environments, handle crisis scenarios, and more. It really doesn’t matter if a debater won nationals or had 10 bids if they cannot do any of the above. Almost every other job/field not only requires an interview, but asks these types of questions. It should be a red flag when a debate director emails you about a job offer, as opposed to you applying. If a debate organization reaches out to you with a position, while it might feel awesome at first, I encourage you to consider the lack of safety protocols with what transpired. Though you may not have any intention of putting children in danger, the same cannot be said for every person in the debate community. Having a position of power requires multi-dimensional experience. Especially when working with children.

Failure to institute these types of protocols increases the risk of hiring staff who jeopardize the safety of students – an occurrence that is all too familiar in the Speech and Debate space.

In the last year alone, multiple articles have been published on this topic. To truly understand the issues we are dealing with, I would encourage folks to read the article “Competitive Debaters Are Ready For Their ‘Me Too’ Moment” published by Emma Gray in the Huffington Post. Not to mention the countless organizations that have popped up in the last year (Speech and Debate Stories, Speaking Up Safely, etc.) that have hundreds of members of our community sharing their experiences of abuse, harassment, discrimination, and more.

Even if you’re unconvinced by “anecdotal” stories or examples, the data is quite clear that students, even in Speech and Debate, are at risk. A report conducted by the American Association of University Women found that nearly half of surveyed students experienced some form of sexual harassment in one year alone. A collection of research by Bjork et. al (1994) found that for Speech and Debate specifically, “71% of the female coaches and 40% of female debaters at these tournaments indicated that they had experienced unwarranted attempts to discuss personal and sexual matters” and “Slightly over 47% of male coaches and 30% of male debaters reported such experiences”. Another paper by Ron Price studied sexual harassment in Speech and Debate that affects LGBT+ self-identifying participants in particular, noting that “60% of respondents have been sexual harassed by someone in the speech and debate community or during a speech and debate event”. Without a doubt, the evidence clearly shows that harassment and discrimination affects our students, especially those in Speech and Debate. As such, it is unacceptable to not take action.

What is wrong with existing hiring practices?

There are a number of issues with how most debate institutions hire staff members, in large part because so many organizations do things in different ways with very little transparency about their procedures.

The first issue is that some debate institutions do not even have application portals. Failure to even have an open or accessible application means that not only are many qualified applicants (who don’t have some connection to the organization) excluded, but it also indicates that there is very little transparency on how exactly staff members are hired. An institution that works with children must be very upfront about how they selected those staff who will be in charge of taking care of said children.

The second issue, and perhaps my biggest concern, is that many staff are being hired based on connections, nepotism, or directors sending offers to first-year outs directly. No interview takes place. This means that not only do debate organizations fail to ask those crucial questions discussed earlier, but it also means that staff hires are based on:

  1. Preconceived yet arbitrary determinations made by a few select top staff members, likely based on limited interactions OR
  2. The proximity that a debater has to a top staff member with hiring power, i.e. nepotism

In either case, the issue becomes that staff members are not fully vetted in an unbiased manner, and that debate institutions are overlooking highly qualified applicants that could have demonstrated their ability to teach, lead, and be responsible, but were never given the opportunity.

Furthermore, these hiring decisions that rely on biased perceptions made by a handful of staff members often come at the expense of POC in particular. Systematic discrimination and racism are ingrained in hiring procedures across the country and in every field. How can we expect the debate space to be any different, especially when these organizations are making decisions based on opinion or nepotism, rather than objective measures of qualification (i.e. reference checks or sample lessons)? Far too often, debate institutions are staffed predominantly by white, male and/or wealthy coaches. In large part, this may also be a reflection of the fact that race, wealth, and gender are statistical indicators of success in debate, with POC, low-income individuals, gender minorities, and LGBTQ+ debaters facing higher rates of discrimination and resource disparities. As such, debate institutions typically have more white staff, straight staff, cisgender staff, wealthy staff, and/or male staff rather than a diverse pool of educators. Those with hiring power at debate organizations must recognize their positional power, and confront the existing inequities that may also spill over into their hiring decisions.

The most likely reason why this occurs is that debate institutions tend to act quickly to grab up the most successful recent graduates. Emailing the TOC champion with “Hey, we’d love to invite you to apply then potentially interview with us” is likely to get ignored, and that debater will probably go on to accept another direct offer given by a camp who just doesn’t interview. And securing the most successful debaters that year is an important goal for many debate organizations, especially those whose staff is predominantly first-year-outs and/or the bulk of their marketing is based on “Look, we have X champion! Join us!”. 

And to be clear: I am not against camps promoting or sharing the success of their students or staff. Rather, the issue I have is when debate organizations focus so much on being able to promote the staff with the most success/clout, that it takes priority over creating safe and transparent hiring mechanisms that weed out potentially dangerous or unqualified individuals. 

The third issue is that some camps, not all, but some, fail to do background checks on all staff members. Background checks should be a requirement in an industry that is centered around educating students. 

On top of background checks, debate institutions should require references. And I don’t mean having the applicant include some friends or a private coach they hired. These references should be professional references, from adults who have experience and positions of power, and can truthfully attest to the skill/responsibility of the applicant. Professional references are also far more accurate and truthful. A teacher at a school or the director of a debate organization is far more likely to be honest about the qualifications of a staff member because their recommendation holds more weight and they have a more significant reputation to protect.

The final issue I have identified is that most debate organizations that are hiring individuals to teach are not requiring them to demonstrate their ability to teach. For most teachers, sample lessons are a basic part of the hiring/application process. This is because educational institutions have recognized the importance of being able to display an applicant’s teaching skills for a job centered around teaching. This isn’t to compare a freshman in college who did debate for four years to a certified teacher, but to demonstrate that similar industries have far stronger standards.

Many former debaters who had a lot of success get hired without anyone at that organization reviewing their ability to actually teach until it is far too late (i.e. during camp). Being good at debate does not make someone a good educator. Having a lot of TOC bids does not mean someone can handle serious crisis situations – like a student getting lost or an argument in the classroom. The point is: having success is, in my opinion, far less important than the ability to teach that knowledge to students. Right now, most camps do not have a system in place to review whether applicants have the skills and ability to teach and manage classrooms. A great first step is requiring sample lessons as part of the application process.

That is a lot of problems… what can be done?

With so many issues at play, it can seem tough knowing where to begin or what to do. But ensuring that students are safe should be the top priority for any educator, and we shouldn’t back down just because there is a lot of work to be done.

At the beginning of this article, I discussed the three goals I had: to inspire parents and students, coaches, former competitors, and those with hiring power at camps to improve hiring practices. Now, I want to highlight specific measures that can be implemented.

First, debate institutions must have basic hiring practices that operate as a filter system for candidates who lack debate knowledge, teaching ability, classroom management skills, professionalism, and more. This isn’t to say that an 18-year-old should be expected to know everything about being an ideal educator, but that there should be systematic requirements to exclude interested applicants who fundamentally lack these skills so much so that students’ education or safety may be jeopardized. 

These hiring practices should, at a minimum, include open application processes, an interview, and background checks. Ideally, debate institutions will also include reference checks and sample lessons as elements of their hiring process. We must strive to eliminate the rampant nepotism that exists in the debate community and institute a fairer and more transparent hiring process. And, making these types of changes are highly effective. Research finds positive outcomes associated with hiring practices including reference checking and training. One study found that network-based hiring resulted in lower average wages and losses in quality of work, among other factors. Another piece of research found that specific “objective measures of aptitude and learning” for teachers in hiring were correlated with student outcomes. And, there is also literature that demonstrates effective approaches that various organizations can take. For example, a paper published by Stronge and Hindman in 2003 outlined several questions that organizations can ask teachers to gauge the effectiveness of candidates.

Second, staff must undergo proper training in order to work with students. This should include anti-bias training as well as sexual harassment training. Not only do staff need to learn how to avoid these scenarios with students themselves, but they should also learn how to identify them in a camp/classroom setting. There are plenty of organizations that provide experienced and quality training for staff members and educators in particular. Some include RAINN, The Center For Racial Justice In Education, and NAEYC. For debate-specific organizations, The Women’s Debate Institute provides training to debate organizations, and George Lee Speaks also provides anti-bias workshops. Ideally, training is live and thorough with instructors/coaches having the ability to ask questions. This training should occur prior to any staffer working with students. Evidence by Kirti Nandavanam Shivakumar of the KLS Institute of Management Education and Research found in 2020 that “Training is one of the most effective ways to develop a comprehensive approach to the prevention of sexual harassment and any kind of misappropriate behaviour”, with additional suggestions including implementing formal policies and grievance procedures.

Third, should incidents arise, organizations must have clear procedures for reporting grievances, as well as clear disciplinary measures. Students should have a safe way to communicate any and all incidents. In a virtual format, this can be achieved through an anonymous Google Form. In person, debate institutions should have an ombudsperson to act as an objective reporting agent. Ideally, this person is not to be an instructor or staff member, to avoid bias. One study researched grievance and disciplinary measures in educational organizations specifically, finding that when “disciplinary actions are stipulated” and “workers had adequate knowledge about the grievance handling procedure” it was very effective. 

Finally, debate institutions should institute wage transparency. All staff members of equal positions should receive the same pay – regardless of how many championship titles they have or their bid count. Consistent wages ensure that all staff is paid fairly and equally. Far too often, gender minorities, queer staff, and staff of color are underpaid. Wage transparency forces debate institutions to equalize pay and confront any potential biases, whether intentional or unintentional. There is research to suggest that pay transparency improves the quality of job matches and leads to more engaged/productive staff members. Furthermore, research by PayScale found that “the wage gap effectively closes at all job levels when there is pay transparency.” 

Overall, though there is a lot of work to be done, these steps are relatively simple, low cost, and reasonable given several organizations that have already begun to implement these practices. In particular, Debate Boutique LLC has publicly shared their interviews and the Women’s Debate Institute has published codes of conduct and training. While there are certainly other organizations that have implemented some of these strategies, many debate institutions do not include all (or most) of these practices. A critical step to improving the safety and educational value of debate programming is getting most debate organizations implementing all of these practices.

Okay, but.. I’m not a camp director. So what can I really do?

While it is true that many of these decisions must be made by administrative staff members at debate institutions and organizations, there are still plenty of steps you, on an individual level, can take!

If you are still debating:

  • Inquire about camp safety measures – directly ask organizational leaders about their hiring practices, training, grievance/reporting procedures, and more. Choose organizations that incorporate safety measures. These inquiries can apply pressure for organizations to make changes if they feel the demand.
  • If possible, be vocal about malpractice you’ve witnessed or experienced with organizations. Did you attend a camp that didn’t have a way for you to safely report incidents? Did you join a coaching group where staff were not trained to handle incidents that arose? If you can safely and comfortably speak about these occurrences (even anonymously), do it. The more information that exists, the more the public can push organizations to do better and the more students can make informed decisions about working with these debate institutions. Students can also still participate in surveys and sign or create petitions for public awareness. Educating others is still a valid (and crucial) form of activism.
  • Work with organizations pushing for change. Plenty of students who were still competing were a part of organizations like Speech and Debate Stories and Speaking Up Safely. There are even student-run organizations that are pushing for change within the debate community (ex: Ohio For Equity). Regardless of the specific group, students have the option to join organizations at the forefront of demanding change in the debate space.

If you are a former debater or coach:

  • All of the aforementioned recommendations still apply to you! Inquire about camp safety measures, speak out, sign petitions, and join organizations advocating for increased safety measures. 
  • Refuse to work at debate organizations that are demonstrably unsupportive of safety measures. This is a hard pill to swallow for some. Many debaters dream of receiving offers to do debate work. How could we not; getting paid to do what we love is the dream! But if one cares deeply about creating a safe and educational environment for students (which, ultimately, should be the goal in education), one must reject organizations that are actively working against these goals. Not to mention the countless stories that staffers have shared expressing how these unsafe practices have directly harmed their mental and physical health. Sometimes, people think they can work with organizations “on the inside” to change, but unless you have a senior-level position, that is unlikely to be successful because you don’t have much real power in the organization to begin with. Furthermore, this works as an added incentive to improve practices. If reputable members of the community don’t support an organization’s policies and procedures, they’re likely going to be forced to accommodate these demands for long-term sustainability. 
  • Create lists of safe organizations to work with. It is increasingly difficult for students/parents to sift through dozens of camps, let alone reaching out to each organization to review their safety measures. As coaches, our students would benefit from our assistance. Do your own research, and locate debate organizations that you feel meet the necessary criteria in terms of hiring practices, training, and more. Many students rely exclusively on coach recommendations, so it is important that we are as informed as possible for students who rely on us. 

Of course, there are dozens of other steps that students, former debaters, and coaches can take to increase safety and equity in Speech and Debate at large. These recommendations focus specifically on how we in the community can improve the procedural mechanisms of debate organizations that often result in less educational or unsafe learning environments for students.

These recommendations are by no means all-encompassing. Rather, I hope my suggestions can function as a starting point for further discussion. Over the last two years especially, there has been an increasingly larger and more serious discussion of issues arising in Speech and Debate. I hope this article furthers an aspect of that discourse, with direct policy recommendations. 

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