This page is intended for teachers, college students, or community members that are interested in forming their own high school policy debate team. It’s not easy but, speaking from experience, it is one of the single most rewarding and meaningful ways to help students achieve educationally.

Even with the best of intentions, there are hundreds of missteps to be made along the way. Here’s ODEF’s 4 step program for forming your own debate team.


1. Contact ODEF. Write us an email that says you’re interested. We can put you in contact with helpful mentors, interested community members and other useful people that will prevent you from making the same mistakes others have. We can discuss specific strategies and considerations for your school, coordinate schedules, and solve other major headaches before they arise.

2. Find interested students. You may think this is putting the cart before the horse, but every step afterward will be easier if you have the inertia to overcome bureaucracy that comes from having actual warm bodies on your team. There’s a couple ways to do this.

Giving a talk in a class or explaining the benefits of debate to as many students as possible. You can read our site here for some talking points. Here are a few that I’ve discovered that can really resonate with high schoolers. High School students are anxious – more anxious than ever – about college. Make sure to explain how debate can help you get into college, get scholarships for college, and give you skills to prepare for college. Additionally, do some work to overcome the myths about debate that deter lots of people: 1. it’s nerdy. 2. I’m shy so I have nothing to contribute. 3. I’m bad with words so there’s no way I can compete, etc, etc. If you’ve done debate, tell the story of your experiences.

Hopefully you’re starting with at least a handful of students who’d like to participate, who should be able to encourage friends and acquaintances. Whether you’re starting from a couple interested students or zero, do yourself a favor and do some up front research. Has your school ever had a team? If so, did it have any famous alumni (you can look up Oregon state speech champions from many years past here, or check out some old yearbooks)? Are any faculty members debate alums?

It’s generally best to appeal to students’ pride when trying to get them to join debate. If you’re in an area that hasn’t traditionally had a debate team, tell them that they have an exciting opportunity to blaze a trail and change their school forever. I’m also not above motivating students by telling them how good their rival school is but how vulnerable they could be if only the right team would come along. It’s good to explain how it’s more satisfying to beat a crosstown rival in a battle of wits than one of strength.

Try to talk to couple classes, stage a public debate, or use promotional materials like fliers, posters, etc. (although many students are “poster-blind” from the daily assault of event promotions). Get teachers to refer potential team members you can talk with privately, and really flatter them with how good you think they’d be. This means not only AP students and high achievers, but also the bright kid in that’s always in trouble because he’s bored. The classic book “Cross-X” by Joe Miller describes the fruits of the process of searching for recruits in In School Suspension.

Here’s a few more Recruiting Tips by West Coast Publishing. Hopefully recruiting will be an ongoing process but the more you can get done up front, the easier the next step will be.

3. Talk with administrators. This is likely the first step that will cause you significant heartache and confusion. First, every school is completely different in its rules, regulations, and interest in debate. Work on contacting administrators systematically and at a time and place where you feel most calm. You should fully expect to have some difficulty getting a hold of someone that cares about what you’re trying to do. Not only are administrators busy and overloaded, but some will be have significant antipathy for debate in particular.

The best way around this? Find an ally. Try to work around people that aren’t encouraging and find an administrator that is debate friendly, or at the very least not actively hostile. I’ve heard administrators say that they want nothing to do with your program, that their students don’t need it, and that you are a headache for asking. This can be extremely disheartening, but don’t give up. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be such a good payoff. Even if certain staff members are very negative, they are generally not negative enough to oppose you openly in something you are trying to do for the good of his/her students.

After you’ve obtained an ally or a helpful administrator, you need them to answer a ton of questions. This is why it’s important they like you. You need to understand school rules and policies before you start, including: what are the rules for out-of-school volunteers (if you are one), how does a coach rent school buses or use school facilities, how does a new team secure funding (does student government have control? Does the athletic director control all activities funding?), how does the debate team get a class, what certification do I need to chaperon children, etc. This is a great time to reapply those talking points about why debate is important, and keep hammering in that this is an investment for her school. This is the first person that should know when you win a tournament, and should be thanked gratuitously for his help.

A final tip in dealing with admins: good lord, befriend the secretaries. They’re the ones that really run the school, know the ins-and-outs of policies, and can secure good favor with the powers that be. And they’ll be able to guide you from experience on the next step.

4. Budget for the year. Start with some goals. How many tournaments does the team need to go to? I like to design an ideal budget for the year, as if money grew on trees, and then pare it down based on how much income you expect the team to receive. This allows you to recognize where the most cost saving opportunities come up, but you have a higher amount to shoot for in case your funding or fundraising situation is better than you expected. Create a list of tournaments and research travel, lodging, and entry costs at a minimum.

Most budgets are tighter this year than ever before, and most new schools will have even less funding available than an established school (there are exceptions; for example, it is easier to secure donations and team funding for starting a brand new program than continuing a fairly new program – you should really build up your budgeting skills for your second or third year).

Some things to expect on your rough budget:

– Your biggest expenses will be hotels. Any trip that can be made in a single day or is close enough to commute will dramatically reduce your yearly costs. It is difficult to commute before and after a ten hour day of debate, however, and you need to think about whether this is honestly viable.

– Your second biggest expense, anyway, will be gas, so you want tournaments to be as close as possible.

– After that, you should estimate how much it would cost to pay entry fees for the amount of students you expect to attend. Many of our colleagues are willing to waive entry fees for new participants, but plan and fundraise as if you have to pay all of them.

– A big cost and time saver that hasn’t found a spot earlier: find an assistant if you can. ODEF can help you contact people with experience in the area, or you could decide to co-coach with another teacher or parent. Whether he or she can only help a few weekends or is interested in being a full-time assistant, any help makes your job a lot easier and tends to reduce costs, too. For example, having a second person to drive makes commuting a hundred times more viable.

– Leave room for general costs, too: meeting snacks, t shirts, printing.

If you can manage these four steps, in some order, then you’ve cleared many of the major hurdles to developing a debate team. Forming a team is never done of course – there’s always more recruiting to be done, administrative obstacles to be cleared, and unexpected pitfalls. A huge congratulations is due to anyone who undertakes this Herculean task. You’ll find that it’s all worth it once you get students that are excited about debate.

We hope this has been useful for your debate team plans. As this site develops, we’ll have more articles that talk about the day-to-day running of a debate team and building a team from the perspective of interested students. Please check in occasionally to find useful tips and tricks! Additional parting words of advice for coaches from West Coast Publishing.

Hope to be seeing you at tournaments soon!


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