I am not a natural public speaker.
I remember distinctly: in Form Two, I was so shy that I refused to order food from hawker stalls. Instead, I made my mother do it.
Yet, as a debater, I would win two national debating championships with SMK Damansara Jaya (SMKDJ).
Under Ms. Magdalen Su Ai Tiing’s guidance, I was transformed from a skittish, stuttering student into a confident, composed orator. My debate coach was a miracle worker. Unflinchingly, she sacrificed her personal time our afternoons were spent writing scripts, constructing arguments, and rehearsing speeches in musty classrooms.
We were inducted into the selective club that is Malaysian high school debate and introduced to the esoteric language of the art: the poise, the charm, and the eloquence by which one could win jousts, rouse spirits, and tantalise audiences. s triumph in the 2003 Wira Cup.
To me, however, that is not Ms. Magdalen’s greatest accomplishment. The greatest teachers know that the most impactful thing they can ever do is not to merely teach well, but to inspire, provoke, and incite ordinary people into doing extraordinary things.
It was for Ms. Magdalen that I went back to SMKDJ to coach after SPM, to give back to my alma mater for all it has given me.
Now, going back to school to coach is uncommon, by all means – most of us are full-time students, with our time and energy harnessed by academia until we graduate from university. I was, however, in a delicate situation. Firstly, in July 2005, I had just returned from a fully-sponsored six-month student exchange program to the US under AFS Malaysia’s Youth Exchange and Study Programme. Secondly, I was determined to go to university in America, where intakes are in August, without any pre-university qualification. Hence, I had a gap year-and-a-half of non-study after SPM. My impetus for coaching could therefore be realised in this unstructured milieu.
Thus, I became a coach for two SMKDJ debate teams. This time around, it was I who forced my debaters to maintain eye contact, write succinctly, and throw their voices; it was I who enforced discipline and dictated deadlines. The reversal of roles was jarring at first; I now held the power and responsibility to mould my students into speakers, just as Ms. Magdalen did to me.
Every debater knows that the most heart-wrenching portion of any debate is the aftermath, where your coach tells you what you did wrongly and how you should improve. These sessions are necessary; they are the coming of age, the puberty, the pimples, and the heartache of debate. As a speaker, there is s mistakes and correcting them. The greatest they are the most bruised and resilient at heart. However, I was now in charge of inflicting pain.
It was then that I finally understood the pedagogue’s paradox. On one hand, the blunter I was and the more honestly I exposed the weaknesses of my students, the faster they could improve. At the same time, I had to be careful to not demotivate them so much that they would give up and quit debating.
I learnt to teach.
Things were also much clearer on this side of the microphone. What was previously a jumble of concepts, thoughts, and assertions to myself as a debater now seemed to self-organise. As an outsider, I realised that I could identify arguments, formulate rebuttals, and demolish stands with much less effort.
I became a better debater.
Furthermore, I was working together with two other coaches. We disagreed on certain issues at times, but when we made a decision, we closed ranks and stood by it. We enjoyed the sparring sessions with our debaters, dreaded the long hours of editing every script, and gave pep talks to rally our spirits before every performance. Most importantly, we celebrated when our blood, sweat, and tears paid off.
I discovered that I work best in teams.
For this is the beauty of service: one does not merely give back – one gains so much more from the experience. The benefits are mutual, tangible, and transformative. Service offered me an environment rich for introspection and understanding – from helping others, I learnt so much about myself by consciously marking my transition from awkward boy to assertive debater to altruistic coach.
And it has been worth it, for we achieved the impossible: both teams clinched their national titles, a first in SMKDJ history.
My achievements as a debate coach are but my homage to Ms. Magdalen and all debate coaches. And it is my humble hope that you will be inspired to do the same – to take the road less travelled by, for this will make all the difference.
Andrew Loh is studying Political Science and Islamic Studies in Swarthmore College, USA. Click here for more articles.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.