He’s made a career out of teaching others about public speaking, but DeKalb High School teacher Greg Solomon says he isn’t immune to the nerves that come with speaking in front of a crowd.
It’s that kind of authenticity that has earned Solomon the trust of students since he became DeKalb’s forensics coach 23 years ago. His team has won 18 regional titles and nine sectional titles and has sent more than 30 finalists downstate – three of whom have won a state title. The success of the program has seen it grow from eight participants when Solomon took over to around 60 today.
The IHSA recently named Solomon the Outstanding Speech, Debate and Theatre Educator of the Year in Illinois. Solomon sat down with Daily Chronicle reporter Chris Burrows to answer a few questions about his journey to the top.
Q: How did you first get involved with speech competitions?
A: I’ve actually been doing this since I was in high school, because my brother did it, and my brother was my role model. He was four years older than I was, so everything he did I thought was amazing. I did it four years in high school and four years at NIU. As soon as I graduated from NIU, I student taught here and took over the program, so I’ve been in forensics and speech for over 30 years now.
Q: What is your best public speaking advice?
A: The more you do it, the easier it is. Public speaking is a class that is required in the state of Illinois, and yet a lot of schools have eliminated it and spread it out over four years. It turns into a book report, and they grade you for your delivery, but they don’t help you improve it. The only way to get better at it is to do it. Is it fun? No, but by the end of the semester usually you are more adept, it’s easier to do, and you figure out what you need to do to be less nervous.
Q: What has been your most rewarding experience as an educator?
A: I’ve had the same experience both in the classroom and with forensics just seeing that person who was so petrified when they first came in, and didn’t want to get up there, and the progress that they can see over the course of a semester or years in forensics. One individual who I will not take credit for because he was a brilliant performer was Brandon Kallembach. When I first met him, he couldn’t look me in the eye – couldn’t talk to me. But when he performed he was just a completely different person and went on to be a two-time state champion. By the end of the semester not only could he perform, but he also had much more personal skills and was able to communicate better on an everyday basis. That was really neat to see.
Q: With all the titles that your teams have won, why do you think you’ve been so successful over the years?
A: A lot of it is, when you have a team that size, they push each other. We’re very fortunate that even though we’re that size, they’re really good friends and so they help each other. So in a lot of competition situations, they’re competing with one another, and we’ve really fostered the attitude that by making other people on your team better, you’re going to make yourself better. As much as the coaching staff has helped, our talent and our students themselves have really worked together to have that success.
Q: Have you ever been asked to give a speech at a wedding, and how did it go?
A: I have, and I hate it. I’ve been asked to make a toast at a wedding; I’ve been asked to host various things at the high school, and as much as that’s what I’m supposed to teach – just like with everybody else – it’s nerve-wracking. It’s gut-wrenching, and it’s gone just fine. I tell the kids, ‘You’re going to be nervous, just deal with the nerves and be yourself, and as long as you’re prepared you’ll be just fine.’ I’ve had my disasters in public speaking just as everybody else has.