After the final bell rings on the last day of school, a modest cohort of Atlanta Public Schools (APS) students gear up for the culmination of intense, year-long preparation to participate in the largest academic debate competition in the world.
Every summer, the best of the best join more than 6,000 students at the National Speech & Debate Tournament to compete in front of a hybrid of live and online audiences, hoping to become a national champion.
While celebrating our student debaters’ victories is commonplace, the tales of their devoted educators who coach them often go unheard.
Subsequently, the National Speech & Debate Association created the Thomas Glenn Pelham Award in 1990 to recognize a seasoned educator devoted to the forensic arts, whose character embodies integrity and motivation and who teaches the importance of those qualities to their debate students.
This year, the winner of that prestigious award is Mario Herrera, an 18-year APS educator who teaches English, speech forensics, and several AP classes; and serves as the speech and debate coach at Midtown High School.
Herrera is well-respected in the Forensics community. A reputation he has been cultivating since his high school days in New Mexico when he was a debate team member at Eldorado High School.
He began coaching debate after graduating from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and worked primarily in the healthcare industry. Still his passion for coaching inspired him to get his teaching degree and move to Atlanta where he began his journey as an educator at Grady High School, presently Midtown High School.
“This is my 40th year now involved with this activity,” said Herrera. “I am 54, and for 40 of those years, I have been involved with speech and debate.”
He believes that speech and debate is transformative.
“This activity can provide for personal growth in ways that are unique to the activity,” he adds. “It builds community.”
Currently, Herrera is responsible for coaching and preparing 70 or more speech and debate students from the Midtown Jesters Speech and Debate Club. The students participate in anywhere from 12 – 14 tournaments per school year, with the finale being the National Speech & Debate Tournament.
According to Herrera, it is time well spent because the reward of seeing their progress makes it worthwhile.
“It’s really cool to see when [the students] do well and see them grapple with the struggle of getting better,” said Herrera. “The kids usually give up their Saturdays, sometimes also their Friday afternoons and evenings to compete—It takes a lot of dedication.”
Likewise, the Midtown Jesters have a credentialed history, having recently won their 14th consecutive Georgia Forensics Coaches Association Varsity State Speech and Debate Championship this past March.
They’ve also created a culture of excellence and family within the club, playfully calling themselves “The Collection of Nerds,” a moniker that exemplifies Midtown’s success in cultivating an equitable environment for its diverse student population.
The students feel comfortable and safe leaning into their passions, which in part, is why Herrera teaches at Midtown.
It is the practice of communal responsibility that Carrie MacBrien, Assistant Vice Principal at Midtown, feels both the school and Herrera embody.
“The first word that comes to mind when I think of Mr. Herrera is community,” said Carrie MacBrien, adding that he builds very strong relationships with his students and everyone he comes into contact with. “He meets them where they are, and he invests his time in getting to know them as individuals.”
In addition, Herrera has developed a kinship with the residents in the surrounding neighborhood.
“The Midtown community is so incredibly supportive of the Jesters,” said Herrera. “I am a better teacher and a better coach because of our school community, faculty and staff; and this award is recognition of both my efforts, but also of the efforts of the Midtown community.”
Mike Robinson, a 2009 graduate of Grady High School who participated on the debate as a student and served as vice president and president of the debate team during his junior and senior years respectively, can attest to Mr. Herrera’s legacy of cultivating community.
“[Herrera] has been the most impactful figure in my life outside of my parents,” said Robinson. “As a child of divorce, neither of the places that I lived in my childhood were really my ‘home’. The team at Grady was a place where I always felt I could be myself most fully.”
“His teaching helped to give me the confidence to voice my opinions in public,” he continued. “Members of the team from that time remain among some of my closest friends. Writing debate cases prepared me to write papers in college and graduate school. He has provided a reference for nearly every job opening I’ve applied to.”
Today, Robinson serves as a social studies teacher and the speech and debate coach at North Atlanta High School. Like many former speech and debate scholars, he continues to pay forward the skills and lessons learned by volunteering knowledge to current students in schools across the district.
Their collective guidance contributes to the success of each student, as does Herrera’s ability to motivate his scholars by talking about the issues that matter most to them.
“Students pay attention,” said Herrera. “And when you are discussing issues of the world, when you’re talking about subtleties, when you’re talking about nuance—they like those discussions,” he continued. “They like learning about the kind of the world they’re in, and it’s treating them as young intellectuals.”
Robinson also believes Herrera’s students succeed because he helps students find their voice.
“Come by [Herrera’s] room nearly any day after school and you can find students practicing rhetoric, logic and performance for nearly a dozen different speech and debate events,” said Robinson. “His dedication to debate and his students is truly inspirational.”
Fortunately, the Jesters can expect that same level of dedication from Herrera and the coaching team this upcoming 2023-2024 school year.
“We are starting up our Interpretation events again after pausing them during COVID and bringing an alum onboard to assist with these events,” Herrera shared regarding new developments. “We will also be designing a community service event for the first time to assist the community that has been so supportive of us in the past.”
In the future, Herrera plans on returning that support by expanding his reach to include the thousands of students throughout the APS community and assisting with debate programs throughout the district.
“I just want to keep providing opportunities to students from all walks of life,” said Herrera. “APS has a long history of excellence in competitive debate and [I] would love to be a part of keeping that history alive.”