Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Training Judges for a Speech Tournament: A Reflection on How Students (Even Adults) Learn

By on October 26, 2014

We just finished hosting our first quarter speech tournament on Friday night.  Our league, to our knowledge, is one of the largest middle school leagues in the country, and the coaches meet frequently to ensure that our tournaments run as smoothly as possible.  It’s hard.  I’ve been annually hosting at least one of our huge tournaments for the last 11 years, and each year we focus on improving the process as much as possible.  But there are a lot of cogs in a machine when planning a tournament.

Visually, our team hosts a great party.  We had food trucks that help with fundraising for the buses needed for this year’s tournaments.  We had welcome signs and decorations produced by both the Speech team and ASB.  We ran around the day of, posting signs to help the competitors get to their rooms.  After all, we have a big campus, and many of the students competing came from small private schools or after school organizations.  The mere size of our middle school campus can be intimidating, and we wanted it to be welcoming.  The rooms had all the furniture loaded to allow for certain events.  The donated food to feed the almost 100 volunteers was set up and ready to be consumed.  The computer program was ready to go, the PA system tested, and tab room organized.  The only thing that was needed was training the adults who were volunteering to judge.

And there’s the rub.  Prepping adults (family members, teachers, alumni, community members, etc…) turns out to be the most difficult cog of all.  More difficult than invoicing 20 organizations.  More difficult than convincing territorial teachers that you need to use their rooms.  More difficult than coordinating with district facility managers.  With all of our prep and hours and hours of uncontracted work to ensure the tournament might end at a reasonable hour, the fact remains that the real wild card were the judges.  As many speech coaches know, a single adult who doesn’t follow directions can bring a tournament to a screeching halt.  Enough halts, and we’re still handing out trophies at midnight.

We’ve been burned in the past by judges who didn’t understand the ballots, with judges who didn’t attend the training, who assumed they could do it without instruction, or judges who evaluated in a terribly harsh way for middle school level competition.  But I vowed it wouldn’t be this time, because it was our fault as coaches that our judges hadn’t been better equipped for the job.

After all, there’s a difference between being a coach and a teacher.  I believe that my fellow speech coaches are, in fact, teachers when it comes to handling their students.  But when it comes to handling the adults, it’s as if all research-based teaching strategies go out the window.  (This is not unlike teacher prep programs, by the way, but that’s for another post.)

In the past, when training adults, many coaches assume that just reading through a handout with adults watching them would be enough for those volunteers to understand the complexities of assessing and giving feedback to our students.  On occasion, a coach might throw in a whiteboard here and there, scribbling numbers down throughout the 10 minute presentation and thinking that this would be enough.  But as a full-time teacher, I couldn’t help but see the deficiencies in our league’s judge-training process.

It was time to treat these adults like the middle schoolers they were evaluating.

Now, don’t be offended.  I’m not saying that adults can’t listen or learn just by hearing instructions.  Oh, wait.  I am.

The fact is, that many adults assume that teaching is an easy thing.  But as we know, this isn’t the case.  The most intelligent person in the world isn’t going to just hear a process and be able to participate in that process.  It can be  told, and told, and told, and still not be absorbed.  Strategies need to be used that keep a learner engaged no matter the age.

So I began experimenting for this tournament by designing a Google Presentation that included text and images combined with individual handouts that each volunteer could refer to and write notes on.  After all, interacting with the material is a much better way to understand the material.  I also used some movement so they would attach memory with content.

For instance, each tournament, an embarrassing number of adults get confuddled on the concept that the 1st  Place in the room scores a 1, while the 5th Place scores a 5.  In other words, it’s a rank order system where the 1 is high and the 5 is low.  I totally understand why this doesn’t stick in some people’s heads.  But the mistake can cause a very deserving kid the loss.  So I had my “class” of judge trainees hold up the #1 finger and yell “One is for First Place!”  I got some eyerolls, but C’est la vie.  I predicted, based on experience, that someone in the room would still get it wrong, so encouraged them not to be embarrassed when it happened.  “Let’s say it again,” I said.  This time, more people joined in.  In the end, rather than 10 judges making a mistake that the tabbers hopefully caught in time, only 2 did, and we caught it before the mistake ended up costing a hard-working kid a trophy.

I was very transparent with why I was going into such detail:

Screen shot 2014-10-26 at 12.27.47 PM

I also provided examples of how to give feedback that was straightforward, concrete, and formative without collapsing the heart of a middle schooler who was just trying the sport for the first time.  In particular, I wanted the judges to focus on performance rather than appearance.  Sometimes we get judges who criticize kids for their wrinkles or an oversized jacket.  But I reminded the new recruits that some kids have to borrow clothes and their appearance might represent the best they could do.  These volunteers, in this case, the parents and family members, know the reality of their individual students, but teachers see many realities.  Sometimes we have to remind people that there are other experiences out there.

Some of the feedback examples I gave were as follows:

Screen shot 2014-10-26 at 12.31.28 PM









Giving evaluation is hard.  I read over the ballots for all of my 72 students before handing them out, and we ended up with some great, detailed, and helpful feedback for those who trophied and those who did not.  I’d say of the approximately 80 judges, we only had a small handful that still couldn’t manage to remark beyond “good job.”  And middle schoolers are no dummies.  “Good job” is bad feedback and, ultimately, bad teaching.


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