STOW – Learning is a lifetime skill and even though one teacher is retired, she will return as a volunteer to help coach students on the speech and debate team.
Suzanne Theisen, 70, taught 31 years at Stow-Munroe Falls High School before retiring this year to enjoy hobbies and spend time with her six grandsons.
Originally from Youngstown, Theisen attended Youngstown State University and majored in speech, theater, radio and television and English.
"I ended up with a liberal arts degree, and I was hoping to teach a speech class someday," Theisen said. "Not every school offers speech so I had my English certification to fall back on."
Theisen taught at Mentor High School for one year and then moved to Jackson, Mississippi with her husband, David, and taught for two years for a total of 34 years in teaching.
After eight years in Mississippi and starting a family, Theisen moved back to Ohio. When the youngest of her three children began kindergarten, she began substitute teaching at Hudson and Stow schools before an opening occurred in Stow.
"The superintendent wanted a speech and debate team," Theisen said. "He felt our district had talented kids."
The Stow-Munroe Falls High School speech and debate team hadn’t been active for 14 years when Theisen revived it. Her own experience inspired her.
"When I was in high school, it helped me to become more outgoing, gave me self-confidence and made me value myself as a person," she said.
Theisen said she started with seven students but because of the odd number, one would be left out of debate, so that student did competitive speech.
"Next year our numbers doubled and then tripled," Theisen said. "At one time we had 83 students on the debate team. We were very big and very successful."
The Stow-Munroe Falls High School has four debate categories: Congressional, Public Forum, Lincoln-Douglas and Policy. Speech categories include drama, duo, humor, extemporaneous speaking, informative, declamation, original oratory and program oral interpretation. Details can be found at www.stowspeech.com
"We have gone to nationals 19 times," Theisen said. "We were often in the final four or top six. We were very strong."
The teams have won or placed in the top at state tournaments and had looked forward to this year’s tournament in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but the COVID-19 turned it into a virtual competition, she said.
"It was a real feat to organize all it," Theisen said. "We had different competitions we had to judge and all of us participated in."
The final round was live, and the students could watch the top teams compete.
"With success, you get a lot of kids who want to do this," Theisen said. "I was recruiting out of my speech class. I would see the talent and told them they should be debating or speaking."
Students have learned that being nervous is normal and natural, but they learn to control it and handle it from speech and debate, Theisen said. They learn how to schedule and budget their time, how to research topics and from that, gain confidence, become leaders, good listeners and evaluators.
"If they’re on the debate team, they’re learning logic and reasoning," Theisen said. "They’re weighing the options. What is good or not, positive or negative, what is the best course to take. They have to think fast on their feet and funnel in a great deal of information."
Theisen isn’t walking away from speech and debate. She plans to help students on the teams like volunteers helped her team members.
"The nicest part of the program is how many alumni come back and help when they come back from college or are in the area," Theisen said. "They don’t want to see this team die. They want the young people to have the same opportunity."
Speech and debate teams have a lot of tournaments on Saturdays so it takes dedication from advisers and students.
"You have to love the kids and appreciate what they do," Theisen said. "With the speech and debate team, it is their favorite thing and they can’t get enough of it. It’s exciting to work with kids that really want to do this and appreciate it."
Friendships and even marriages come out of speech and debate. Jimmy and Shelby Denton Miller are coaches.
Jimmy and Shelby competed on the Duo Interpretation team from 2009 to 2012 in which the team acts out a piece of literature.
"We did that all four years together and dated all that time," Jimmy said. "It was amazing."
When Jimmy started, he admits he was shy and they did poorly at first.
"Every year there is a novice tournament for beginners to compete against beginners, and we finished last in that, but we didn’t give up," Jimmy said. "It’s all about hard work, determination and sticking with it."
The biggest thing for the group is building a culture that promotes good team work with support, Jimmy said.
"If someone goes to the final rounds, we encourage others to go and watch," Jimmy said. "I remember when we were in the final rounds, we saw teammates watching. We encourage that."
The team wouldn’t have existed without Mrs. Theisen, Jimmy said.
"When she came to Stow In the 90s, the team had pretty much died and she revived it," he said. "She’s incredibly dedicated to make this team work."
Although Shelby said she liked to perform and was more outgoing, she didn’t have a natural talent at speech but figured it out. She was dating Jimmy and asked him to be her partner for speech.
"Being a duo, it felt like it kept us together," Shelby said. "It taught us to work together and through problems."
Theisen believed in her students wholeheartedly, she said.
"She saw something in us when we didn’t see it," Shelby said. "She was always willing to sacrifice her time and work with us."
Stow-Munroe Falls High School English teacher Amanda Bader, who has taught for 15 years, said she admired Theisen’s ability to cultivate relationships and create a sense of community for the students.
Theisen was able to evolve and adapt through the many changes in education, Bader said. Her upbeat and smiling disposition never quit.
"Some older teachers remain set in their ways but not Sue," Bader said. "She was an excellent colleague and teacher. She has taught every level and kind of learner."
She has a wealth of knowledge and experience and offers sage advice to those with less experience, Bader said. Theisen didn’t just teach from a book but would bring outdoor sources to the classroom whether it was a video or new discovery about England, literature or the history of language.
"We had a shared love for our subject and passion for further research," Bader said.
Bader put a parade together May 27 to honor Theisen at the end of the year since a normal retirement party was impossible because of COVID-19. Students, alumni and colleague drove around the high school driveway loop and Theisen was presented with balloons, cards and gifts and was able to talk with them in their cars.
Gannett reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at email@example.com