Danville Express

Cover Story - December 14, 2007

Speak out

Mr. Matley helps kids conquer their fear of public speaking

by Natalie O'Neill

Mr. Matley approaches the center of the classroom and students sit up a little straighter. The dull buzz of the first period bell has just rung and excited chatter from students is tapering off.

At the whiteboard, the speech and debate teacher writes something quickly in green marker, then turns to face the classroom. Eyes are on him.

"I have a couple of announcements," he says.

The morning sunlight is creeping in through the window shades.

"First-" Matley starts, then stops. He smiles, noticing one student.

"Spencer, why are you wearing a suit?"

"Extra credit," the thin freshman says. The black pin-striped suit he's sporting is a few sizes too big.

"You look sharp," Matley pops, then continues on with his reminders.

There's a weekend carpool to organize. And the final exam preparations to reiterate.

David Matley, an 18-year Monte Vista teacher and debate team coach, knows how to talk to his students. He knows how to inspire them - how to wake them up.

"It's a tough art," he says. "You have to establish a line of communication - sometimes that means talking to them about things outside school or utilizing humor. You have to be attentive to them. It's easy to be in your own world."

In his classroom, years of speech and debate trophies take up nearly a full corner. The gold cups and plaques are from local, state and national competitions. Some read "Martin Luther King Invitational," "Glenbrooks Invitational, Chicago" and "California Invitational."

At the 1st League Congress tournament this fall in San Francisco, Matley's team took home 67 awards and also boasted six undefeated debaters in Sebastopol. Over the years, his teams have taken home four state champions in foreign extemporaneous speaking - one of the most challenging events because its subject is world affairs.

"A lot of teachers are smart but they don't know how to explain what they're teaching. With Matley, you have more incentive to listen," says Brian Louie, Matley's student aide and a member of the speech and debate team.

One girl overhears him and chimes in.

"He's engaging," she adds.

Ask other students what they like about the coach they simply call "Matley" and you might get your answer in the form of a persuasive speech. The topic: How Mr. Matley has boosted my confidence.

At an October school board meeting, Matley's accomplishments were honored by trustees and some of his more motivated students even gave short speeches about him.

"I wholeheartedly say Mr. Matley has been the greatest teacher in my high school career," said Jibran Khan, an upperclassman.

Brian Louie was there then, too, and he told a bit of his personal story.

"I took his class when I was a short awkward kid with no future of public speaking," he said.

He spoke eloquently into the microphone in front of the board. "I would have probably been the one sitting in the back, hesitating to come a foot closer."

Being a speech and debate teacher is arguably one of the most time-consuming, personally draining positions in the district.

There are long weekend hours, faraway tournaments with kids, and dedicated students who all require individual attention. Speech and debate coaches tend to burn out after about five years, Trustee Joan Buchanan explained.

Debates are usually every other weekend and are as far away as Chicago. Matley comes two hours before school starts, stays two hours after and still has energy for weekend tournaments.

"You don't get a whole lot of sleep," he says of the long-distance events. "It's a very demanding schedule with very demanding students."

In Matley's first period class the students are mostly freshmen with a few sophomores mixed in. It's 9:40 a.m. and the class' first debate of the year is about to start. The subject: Should standardized testing in schools be eliminated?

The first speaker, a tall black boy in a hooded sweatshirt, makes a point about low income schools being at a disadvantage when it comes to national tests.

"It's not those students' fault and they shouldn't be punished for it," he says to the class.

Matley is sitting on a high chair at a podium, grading each speaker. He rubs his chin and nods his head slightly when kids make good points. Then he scribbles onto the grading sheet.

After the debate, he stands up and addresses the class.

"Well, this first debate was a raging success," he says earnestly.

Next, he asks the class to consider advantages and disadvantages of standardized testing.

Several arms rise into the air. But he calls on one boy who doesn't have his hand up.

"Jason, you're smart. You should know this," he says, matter-of-factly.

On this morning, students are bouncing opinions and logical arguments off one another. This is what Matley likes to see.

"I want them to be able to stand up and speak their mind. The No. 1 thing is that I want them to feel good about themselves," he explains.

The speaking styles he teaches range from interpretive speech, which is theatrical, to impromptu and persuasive. In his class, the only way to learn is by getting up and doing it, he says.

"It's everyone's greatest fear. But once you face it, you can get over it," he says.

Other teachers at Monte Vista say they've noticed his teaching philosophy and have respect for the way he runs his classes.

"He's surprisingly laidback, yet strict. He runs a tight ship," says Patty Carothers, 2006-2007 county Teacher of the Year.

Back in October, school board members detailed how impressed they were with the clear passion his students have. And they pointed out the dedication Matley shows.

"The legacy you're leaving is immeasurable," longtime board member Buchanan told him.

Peek into one of his classrooms and you'll likely find groups of kids scattered about. One group is researching. Another is outside "talking to a wall" in preparation. From an outsider's perspective it can look a bit chaotic, Matley says.

"It might seem like kids are just doing what they want to do. But all that stuff is orchestrated," he explains.

This is one of his secrets to enjoying a job that has so much potential to be draining.

"It's delegation. I will say, 'Look. You do this,'" Matley says.

He gives kids responsibility, holds them to it - and they somehow love him for it.

This is where his older students come in. He builds solid leaders, starting with freshmen. Then, by the time they are upperclassmen, they can be role models. The system takes some of the weight off his shoulders.

"You have to be able to set limits and realize you're not a superhero. If you try do everything yourself - forget it. You won't have an outside life," he says.

When the 10:20 a.m. bell rings to signal the end of the class, students crowd around him.

Some have homework questions; others want to tell him about a new speech and debate movie. They want to talk to him. And Matley knows how.


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