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For UM debate coach, teaching means helping students learn on their own

At the start of every semester, David Steinberg tells his classes more or less the same thing.

Most of you, he’ll say, are going to look back on this class and find that you learned really valuable skills. You formed great memories, you use what you learned on a daily basis.

“And you won’t remember me,” he says. “I’m a facilitator.”

Steinberg, director of the University of Miami’s debate team, received the 2013 Robert and Christine Staub Faculty Excellence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Effective Teaching at the University of Miami School of Communication. The award recognizes effectiveness in teaching, advising, mentoring and service roles in and outside the classroom.

Steinberg joined the university in 1990 and has been the school’s debate director for 23 years. He’s also an expert in political debates, rhetoric, speeches and political campaigns.

His approach to teaching is the opposite of intrusive. “They learn by what they do, not by what I say,” he said. “(The students) conduct their own learning environment. I do not call the plays from the sideline. I empower the debaters and assistant coaches to design their strategies.”

Steinberg said over the years, he’s noticed the best students don’t always make the best grades.

“A lot of students find it frustrating, but each individual student has to find their own way,” he said. “I won’t impose myself on them.”

Regardless, he’s set high expectations for his students and his debate team.

“I expect them to be prepared. They have the responsibility and freedom to approach debate in their own way, as long as standards are being met,” he said.

As passionate as he is about debate, it’s clear that Steinberg cares about the relationships he’s built and maintained over the years. On an average year, he and the team travel as many as 15 times together for debate tournaments.

“They are my family,” he said. As for his two children and wife — they’re also part of the team. “My boys travel with me, and my wife is a mom to the debate team.”

For Steinberg, teaching isn’t work; it’s pleasure. His father valued the profession and instilled that in him at a young age. “I really love teaching,” he said. “I certainly learn way more from my debaters than they do from me.”

Winning the excellence in teaching award has been humbling and satisfying, he said. His name will be displayed permanently in the school of communication’s reception lobby. He’ll also receive $2,500.

“It means a lot to me because my parents would honor and respect it,” Steinberg said.

The bookshelves in his office are stacked with books covering politics, debate and critical thinking. Debate makes you better in every aspect of your professional and academic career, Steinberg said. “You’re less likely to have a knee-jerk reaction to a political policy.”

He finds his students are more capable of making “good decisions,” are more open-minded and form well-informed opinions.

“Influential people across the country come out of debate,” he said. “Debate puts people in a world where they’re often defending what they do. They have to really love it. It creates a perspective that has real value to the people who do it.”

During the school year, he meets with the debate team at least three days a week, in addition to most weekends. “It’s so intense and difficult and challenging to be able to compete with some of the best debaters in the country,” he said. “The less I do, the more they learn. I just have to present them with appropriate challenges and feedback.”

Ryden Butler, president of the debate team, said that Steinberg always makes sure the team is ready to compete successfully. “He really understands and remembers what it is to be a student,” Butler said.

Butler, a junior majoring in political science, history and economics didn’t participate in debate competitively until college.

“Debate really helps you in all of your classes,” he said. “It helps you talk about a number of subjects, and it teaches you valuable lessons about training and leadership.”

Under Steinberg’s leadership, Butler and his partner Ali Jessani won the Delta Sigma Rho-Tau Kappa Alpha national championship held in March at the University of Florida.

Butler and a group of students nominated Steinberg for the award. They filled out forms, wrote essays and encouraged others to nominate him as well.

“If we could do anything to give back to Dave, it was a no-brainer,” Butler said. “We certainly tried as best we could.”

Although it’s clear that debate is his passion, his family — both immediate and debate-team — is most important to him. Photos of his family are visible in his office everywhere you look.

Debate team member Renee Reneau said that he’s been a father figure for her and the team. “I was the only girl, especially second semester. I never felt singled-out.”

Steinberg values a combination of effort and talent. “The level of respect he gives his students makes him different from other teachers,” Reneau said. “He’s also very good at providing constructive criticism.”

Reneau, a sophomore majoring in political science and intercultural communication, said her ability to solve problems has improved since she joined the debate team.

“His style is very much to throw his students into the deep end and watch them swim,” she said. “He assumes your intelligence is at a certain level. I’m (now) able to approach things with a different viewpoint.”

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