James Taafel, a 2005 graduate of Randolph-Macon Academy, completed his bachelor’s degree at Dickinson College in 2009 with a major in law and policy. A high school champion forensics competitor who was successful at the college level as well, it was no surprise to anyone when Mr. Taafel returned to Randolph-Macon Academy and became the speech and debate coach in 2010.
“When I was here we were mostly speech,” he observed. “When I came back, we were mostly debate.” Since his return, Mr. Taafel has shifted the team back towards speech, although he is always mindful of a student’s talents and interests. That change quickly proved successful, as the team returned to the national competition scene in 2013 and again in 2014.
“If a student comes and competes, he or she has a chance to go to nationals,” he says. “Even those who don’t go to nationals have a good chance to medal at smaller, local tournaments.” His proudest moments have come from seeing students with very little experience go out and triumph at events. “There’s a lot of value in being earnest or genuine,” he points out. “You have to straddle both sides in oratory, for example—you have to be conversational but authoritative. I try to emphasize with the competitors that there are judges with new eyes and ears every time they give a speech, and that they can’t take anything for granted.”
When he became the head speech and debate coach, there was one important activity Mr. Taafel encouraged with enthusiasm: the well-loved tradition of the team hosting bi-weekly shows on local radio station WFTR. (These shows are available as podcasts.) “That’s a great experience for the students,” he says. “They are hosted by Doug Pratt, whose daughter Valerie [a 2011 graduate of Randolph-Macon Academy] was a nationally ranked speech and debate competitor during her time here. Even after his daughter graduated, Mr. Pratt has supported the team in both at the radio show and as a judge at tournaments.”
In addition to moving from being a team member to a coach, Mr. Taafel also shifted from being a student to a teacher as he took over the Computer Literacy courses at Randolph-Macon Academy.
“I’ve learned that there is a very different skill set needed to be a teacher,” Mr. Taafel says. “As a teacher, you’re accountable for all the learning material. And the way I learn may not be the way the students learn best.”
Mr. Taafel’s goal is to challenge both his students and his speech and debate competitors. “I like helping the students,” he says. Having been a student at R-MA, he has a special understanding for where the students are coming from, and has found it easy to maintain discipline in his classes.
- B.A., Dickinson College
- Courses: English 11, English as a Second Language, Sociology and Criminology
- R-MA Mentor, Speech and Debate Coach, International Club Advisor, "Mandatory Fun" Faculty Advisor