Tonganoxie’s debate coach honored by peers
Steve Harrell's windowless classroom may be nicknamed the cave, but his debate and forensics students call his room their home away from home.
When Harrell was honored last week with a plaque naming him a top state debate coach, and another plaque that celebrated his students' first place wins in two-speaker and four-speaker State debate, Harrell's students said he deserved the honors.
All around the room at Tonganoxie High School, shiny trophies attest to Harrell's success with the school's nine-year debate and forensics program under his leadership.
On one wall hang posters from Baltimore, Chicago and Niagara Falls, areas where his teams have participated in national competitions.
Next year, expect to see a New York City poster added to the wall when the group returns from a Memorial Day 2001 weekend national debate tournament.
"The atmosphere here is so much more of a family than of a team," said Luke Manson, Tonganoxie High School senior.
Even going so far to say that he and a fellow debater have referred to themselves as Harrell's surrogate sons, Manson added, "He's like a father to us."
And the tradition carries on when Harrell is gone.
"He's set up a webbing so that when he's not here, the older kids will take care of the younger kids," Manson said.
Marissa Stephenson, senior, agreed.
"Even though he has a family and two little girls, he still makes time for 60 debate and forensic students," she said.
His hours are long, the students agreed.
"A lot of teachers want it to be an eight-to-three job," said Stephenson, who sometimes calls him for help on weekends. "But for Mr. Harrell, it's an around-the-clock job."
Andrew Becker, sophomore, said part of Harrell's success is that he is willing to put in the extra hours.
"He's in here as much as we are, if not more," Becker said. "He spends probably 12 hours a day five days a week in here during January before State. And he gives up two nights a week to come in here and work with us."
Caleb Poterbin, sophomore, said the hours may be grueling, but Harrell makes it fun.
"He takes an activity in which competition is fun, but practice can be boring," Poterbin said.
And for those who are shy, Harrell takes the pain out of it.
"We have actual competitions in class," Poterbin said. "When you need to practice, the rest of the class is practicing out loud, too. The whole room is talking at once, so you don't feel self-conscious."
Students say Harrell's personality adds to the program's success.
"With Mr. Harrell, when you walk into the cave, you just never know what to expect," Stephenson said.
Harrell, 35, who spends 25 weekends a year taking students to tournaments, has good words to say about the students.
"I don't know that I would travel so much with high school kids if I didn't like doing it and being with them," Harrell said. "I miss my family."
But debate is a part of his life. "I started debating in high school, debated through college, and I've been doing it here for nine years," he said. " When you like doing something, working doesn't seem like work."