Disclaimer: This article is not an authoritative writing. It is particularly based on my personal experience of managing my high school debate club that was quite successful (I thank my colleagues, juniors, teachers, and school for their help), and intended to provide suggestion that may be applied to make debate club more sustainable. But I also have to point out that debate clubs may have their own set of problems that need certain ways to handle, and that my suggestion may not work out pretty well. But it does not mean that applying general suggestion would be invalid as like it is not invalid to apply basic first principle to specific context in a debate. This writing aims to provide insights of one from many strategies that one can think and apply.
Note: The provided strategies are focused to high school debate club. Those can also be used for varsity debate clubs as well, but several adjustments will probably be needed as that university has their own system, ways of doing stuffs and may be different from school.
I am writing this article due to my personal concern of seeing my local debate circuit dying, especially for high school debate (at least in the viewpoints of me and some of my friends).
There are several reasons of why debate circuit is dying, maybe due to lack of competition that eventually make debaters’ critical thinking to be stagnant because of lack of competitiveness that stimulates growth or hampering the process of knowledge sharing, or due to the lack of veteran debaters that are willing or able to contribute back to the community and share their debate knowledge, lack of quality in debate training that eventually hampers the development of debaters, etc.
But there is one issue that is not so commonly addressed in the discourse of reviving the debate community, which is recruitment, particularly in the setting of debate club as essential stakeholder that influences the growth of one’s debate community (a healthy debate club, meaning that the club is sustainable in its recruitment and effective in its training, can provide the much needed regeneration of debaters and rigorous competition in a debate circuit.
When we have many dying debate clubs, the circuit will be severely affected for reasons that we all can think of).
There are many articles or videos out there talking about the importance of having a healthy, sustainable, and competitive debate circuit, and also providing guidance of developing / improving the quality of debate training, or how to improve ourselves as debater with fancy matter and debate strategy.
However, I personally think there is not enough substantive out there to at least provide us some basic guidelines of how to operate debate club, particularly in a matter of making it sustainable, and especially through recruitment. Being good in debate does not necessarily mean that you can effectively operate debate club, and having good debaters in your club is essential but not the only factor that affects regeneration of the club.
The community apart from discussing about debate circuit development should also lend a hand to dying debate clubs, at least by having discussion of how to help them in the micromanagement.
And with this writing, I intend to do so, at least in the spectrum of recruitment. It is pleasant in the eyes and heart (and perhaps provoking positive jealousy) to see that a debate club is able to send 5 teams, or even 8 teams!
When people talk about club recruitment, they tend to imagine in their mind of conducting such recruitment in school / varsity orientation day by setting up promotional booth, and perhaps promoting one’s club by going “door to door” to selected / all (if a club has many manpower) classrooms, faculties, or departments.
And the existence and usage of social media also helps to further promote the club. And that’s it. But that unfortunately in some situation will not be enough at all. There are several reasons to not use the promotional strategy above as sole means of recruitment:
Debate club is not the only existing and exciting club that people can find.
Do not underestimate other established clubs that are focusing on different student activities. You will need to vigorously compete with them to recruit young eager minds.
And in the context of orientation day, it’s going to be like a big food bazaar where many (and I mean “many”) people will gather in one place.
And then they will start to wander around to look at one by one of the club booths, and other types of booth. The surfacing problem here will be about the lack of engagement that your debate club will have to potential new members because there are many other booths as well that they want to visit.
Lack of engagement means lack of time to have that personal communication to new people, lack of time to explain and the most important one, to convince them why your club matters and why your debate club is what they need to develop their skills.
The problem is also applied to “door to door” visit because other clubs will do that as well. The impact is that you may not be able to recruit the amount of new members that you want, or that simply you lose to other more prestigious and mainstream clubs;
Social media is not really that effective as well.
While it makes information more accessible, it does not limit the competition that your club will face against other clubs in the digital world, moreover, social media can also be a problem because when information is so accessible, it means that there are tons of information that can be accessed but not really processed by readers because they will tend to read a bit, then scroll, and so on.
Social media is not really the effective way to make people focused on your debate club. When they read about your club, they will have another tab about other clubs, and perhaps another tab that show cute puppy of the neighbor that sways the reader’s interest and focus to the puppy. Information is vast that readers will have obstacles to really control what they want or need to read;
Another problem is that, well, some people are just couch potatoes!
They know about the clubs, they have acquired the necessary information, but they just do not want to initiate at all even if they are able or have potentials. And that’s the pain of promotional recruitment because the club’s initiative is very limited and you need to wait for people to approach you, and they may not at all! It’s very sad especially when you have tried your best during the orientation day.
Now, I am not saying that recruitment by promotion during orientation day or social media publication is bad or entirely obsolete. That kind of recruitment has its own merit, one of it is the wonderful idea of open recruitment to allow many kinds of people to have the opportunity to try debating.
What I mean is that we need another effective way of recruitment to complement and solve the problems of the existing way. We need a recruitment procedure that allows us to effectively engage with young eager minds, and also to win the battle of recruiting people with potentials since we cannot deny that flair is also needed to re-energize a club.
There are 2 recruitment strategies that me and my friends used back then during high school. The first is scouting, and the second is direct personal approach. Scouting here means that you look for people to be approached rather than waiting for people to approach you.
We will look for students that we want to recruit based on the criteria that we have set up (the criteria depend on what your club need), and back then our criteria were pretty general: English proficient, active and eager in learning, and showing attitude of enthusiasm (the criteria are not authoritative and you should develop your own criteria).
After deciding the criteria, we will approach teachers of classes and subjects to ask for names and recommendations, and then approach those names. You scout for students that are entering their last year of primary level education, and also students from secondary level education if your debate club is focused on secondary and high school debaters.
You scout for students that are entering the last year of secondary level education and students from high school level education if your debate club is focused on high school debaters.
And even better, if you can do it (or to be more exact, willing to do it), scout for students that are still in their early or middle year of certain education level. The reason is that so you can track down those students earlier, observe their development, and know their potential skills better.
And this all has to be done way back before school orientation so that you are early enough to know potential student and that you can directly approach those names after they are eligible to debate, or better, even before they are eligible so that you have at least imprinted their memory with your debate club.
After you have scouted for names, then do the direct personal approach strategy. Invite the students to attend introductory meeting of your club, or even better, literally approach those students.
Introduce yourself, your club, explain how you get their names, and tell why you want them and that the club is what they need, how their skills can be sharpen, why debate is important and exciting, the prospect, etc.
Be enthusiastic, persuasive, and friendly, engaging in the discussion. This direct personal approach is handy because not only that you have more time to engage with the students, and that you can get their full attention, but when you directly approach them, you also show dedicated effort to recruit people, your seriousness to the club, that you are willing to spend / allocate your time to look for them, and that your engagement is genuine.
Students will feel appreciated due to your effort, and that they will feel flattered and will have more tendencies to respond to you positively. It instills the aura of respect, and the aura that you and your club mean real business.
But when they reject you, then respect their rejection. Ask them about the reasons of rejection and then ask whether it will be good to approach them again next semester or next year. Don’t get spammy. Respect is important.
And it is important to also note down that before you will do the strategies above, it is important for you to firstly inform the school about your club and your intention of recruitment.
Discuss with your teachers, head of department, or even the principal if possible. It is essential to consult with the hierarchy of your school, get their permission, and consider their suggestion so that your club will get the necessary support from the school.
Your good intention will be viewed positively by teachers and perhaps your club will get better stability or even resources. The last but not least is to prepare your club’s portfolio. You do not want to approach teachers or students with empty hands of information. You need to know what you and your club are doing and show that you know your club well.
A lot to be done isn’t it? Definitely!
In order to build and sustain a debate club, it takes a lot of effort and strategy. You need to be serious in what you are doing, and that you also need to invest a lot of time in it. Doing it half heartedly will make your club goes nowhere.
And patience is also an important virtue as you need to believe in the system and that it will take time to be fruitful. Keep evaluating your club’s performance.
Handling a debate club can be a daunting task for some, and therefore it is imperative for senior debaters or other veteran debaters to lend a hand to high school students by providing guidance, suggestion, and technical support. And it will also be beneficial for high school debate coach to not only focus on coaching, but to also help students in managing the club, and in this context, the recruitment strategy.
Many debate clubs are dying due to several reasons, and one of it is the lack of focus to recruitment strategy. Therefore, recruitment of debate club, and the management of debate club in general should also become important discussion in debate circuit.
I came from a school that once was productive in debate. Now, the same high school debate club that I know and am proud of is dying (or even dormant) due to several reasons. It is personal and painful for me to know that.
Now as an alumnus, I will look forward to help my high school debate club in the best way I can. And I also hope that the debate circuit will also pay attention and help debate clubs that are dying and dormant. Debate clubs are the heart of debate community. As we are caring to our debate circuit, we also must be caring to debate clubs.