Debate Director’s Absence and Office’s Repurposing Frustrate Students

The old debate office. Photo by Reid Alexander.

When senior Addie Lowenstein, a member of the policy debate team, returned to school this fall, she walked up to the debate office, located on the third floor across from the health room, to find the plaque which had previously read “Debate Office” now engraved with the word “Counselor.” She found the office devoid of the debate program’s books, trophies and resources. None of the team’s members were informed prior to the removal, and Jon Sharp, the director of the debate team, was not there to defend them.

Sharp has opted to remain virtual for the 2021-22 school year. In an interview with the Bit, he explained that he opted to remain virtual to take care of his sick mother in Alabama. GDS has mandated in-person instruction for the year, so Sharp is currently unable to teach the two classes he usually does at the high school. He continues, however, after a brief period of personal leave which lasted from the start of the school year until Sep. 29, to lead the debate team virtually. 

While Sharp expressed gratitude that the school has let him coach debate virtually, he disagreed with the school’s decision to not allow any virtual teaching this school year. 

“There are upsides to the virtual teaching experience,” he said.

Sharp explained that he believes that virtual teaching could be used even in post-pandemic times since it allows students to focus and engage with sensitive material, such as the topics of gender and sexuality his classes cover, from the comfort of their own home. 

High School Principal Katie Gibson explained that the school’s in-person teaching policy stems from a belief that having both teachers and students in person creates the best learning environment. 

“We didn’t want to open a door of exceptions,” Gibson said. “Because Jon has been the heart of [the debate] program, it felt like that was a place where it was specific enough that we could make an exception.”

When asked about whether he’d be back to teach next year, Sharp said he hoped he’d be.

“The circumstances keeping me virtual mean that planning is not really on the table,” Sharp said. “What an unimaginable privilege that I’ve had for all of these years getting a group of totally engaged, fascinating deep-thinker students.”

Science teacher Gabe Koo has filled in as an assistant debate coach and works alongside Sharp, who assists in a virtual capacity by coaching and giving advice. Koo declined to comment for this article, citing the temporary nature of his position. 

According to Lowenstein, Koo “is really awesome, and he knows debate.” However, she expressed concern that Koo would not have sufficient time to devote to coaching debate due to his heavy teaching schedule of four classes, compared to Sharp’s former schedule of only teaching two. 

“If Gabe were not there, I do not think I would be allowed to direct virtually on Zoom, and I’m not sure it would have worked,” Sharp explained, adding that it would have been necessary with or without his being virtual. “GDS kids cannot be managed from a distance.” 

The debate office, which also served as Sharp’s personal office, was given to a counselor. Gibson explained that her request of Sharp, which she made over the summer, to move the office was in order to make space for one of the school counselors because the counselors’ old office was needed for extra classroom space. The new debate office, which Sharp said will be  “open and functional by the end of winter break,” will be located in the administration’s old rooms in the hallway across from the English department’s office.

“It was really important that the counselors felt like they were near each other, because they talk to each other a lot and offer support and guidance,” Gibson said. “There was really nowhere else up on the third floor that had a space big enough and private enough.”

Sharp described Gibson’s request as “strongly worded” but made clear that she emphasized getting the old office back was both the anticipated and most preferable outcome for everyone. 

“I think [the relocation is] kind of disrespectful to Jon’s legacy,” junior Griffin Brown, a member of the debate team, said. “We did not know, and we were definitely kind of mad about it.”

Even without the troubles concerning the office, Sharp’s virtual status has had a large impact on students, particularly those on the debate team. 

“He was very emotionally present,” Lowenstein said. “He could read his students.” 

Lowenstein described a time when she was on the verge of tears and Sharp took her outside discreetly to check in with her. She also remembers a conversation she had with him about issues she was facing as a woman on the debate team, saying “he was so receptive” to her concerns.

Brown also said that Sharp coached students in life as well as debate.

“He was more than just a debate coach because he was there for us in ways outside of debate as well,” Brown said. “He was really like a mentor and a friend figure to a lot of the debate team.”

The administration notified Sharp’s advisory about his virtual status last spring, and Sharp notified the debate team in mid-August. Lowenstein, Brown and a former member of Sharp’s advisory, senior Harold Oppenheim, all described feeling sad when they found out about the change.

“I feel like [the administration] could have done more,” Oppenheim said. “It’s not really a normal circumstance, and he’s pretty much unanimously considered by all students one of the best teachers that the school has.”

Oppenheim described what has made Sharp so vital to the GDS community. 

“People talked about how brilliant he was,” he said. “[He] definitely made me think more critically.” 

Lowenstein emphasized Sharp’s effect on her and others. “It was very much like a family with him,” she said.

Even with displacement and uncertainty, Sharp expressed complete faith in the debate team’s future. 

“When it is finally possible for us to say that this crisis has passed,” Sharp said, “the GDS debate that we will have then will be stronger, and sharper, and more impressive, and much, much stranger than we can even imagine right now. We are going to come out the other end of this stronger than we were before.”

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