Park City High School debate coach recognized as Speech Educator of the Year
Encouraging teenagers to disagree is not something most teachers would enjoy taking on, but Sharon Ellsworth-Nielson thrives with the challenge. As the debate coach of Park City High School, she has taken the team from feeble beginnings to first-place at the state tournament last school year.
Because of the efforts she put into the team, the Utah High School Activities Association awarded her the 2017 Distinguished Service Award as Speech Educator of the Year.
Jamie Sheetz, athletics and activities director at the high school, said that she was the obvious choice for the honor. He nominated her at the association’s meeting, and was not surprised to see that she was selected.
“In four or five short years, she has taken the program from being a simple, extra-curricular activity that some kids participated in to second place two years ago and state champions last year,” he said.
Ellsworth-Nielson originally became involved in the program six years ago after volunteering to help a teacher who was coaching at the time. The next year, her co-coach left the school and Ellsworth-Nielson was left with the team.
As an English teacher for 27 years, she said she has always tried to incorporate speech skills into her lessons, so transitioning into debate was not too difficult.
“Part of English and the standards has always been speaking and listening,” she said. “Even in my English class, I’ve always encouraged kids to formulate opinions and share them and defend them and talk about them and counter them, because it’s just a valuable life skill.”
Since then, she has brought students to the national debate championships the past two years and leads a team of 66 students.
Ellsworth-Nielson attributes the success of the program not only to her dedication — she said she puts in about 350 hours a year – but support from Sheetz, Principal Bob O’Connor, parents and the students themselves.
O’Connor helped expand the debate program to Treasure Mountain Junior High, so now eighth- and ninth-graders can be members of the team. Since there are few elective options for those students, a large portion of the team comes from these grades, Ellsworth-Nielson said. With more years on the team, the students can learn even more.
“Every eighth-grader who stays with us means there is a life whose trajectory is completely different because they put themselves through the rigor of debate,” she said. “Now they know what to do with the adrenaline they feel when they’re in a job interview, they know how to recognize when they’ve gone from logical reasoning into emotional reasoning, which will help them in every heated conversation they have with someone they love.”
Ellsworth-Nielson’s passion for what she does is part of what makes her team so successful, Sheetz said.
“She motivates them, she keeps them going, she does the right things with them, and then the kids take ownership of the program,” he said.
The older students teach younger students in a majority of the debate classes. Many schools divide beginner and advanced debate students, but Ellsworth-Nielson keeps the advanced debaters in the room, mentoring the beginners instead.
This helps create unity, she said. The mentors are invested in their mentees, and the young students get excited to do the same as they age through the program as well.
She said she loves seeing the students transition from being “awkward, scared, insecure, inarticulate” to being “confident, smart and kind.” For her, training them to see the other side of their argument will only benefit them in the future. As she pushes them to be scared over and over again, they mature into better people.
“I think it changes students’ lives,” she said. “If you change students’ lives, then we change society and the way we deal with problems. My ultimate goal is to live in the best society possible by bringing on one student at a time and having them look at themselves and challenging their beliefs.”
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