By Jennifer Kotila
DASSEL, COKATO, ADRIAN, MN As a young kid with a speech impediment, Jason Olson took part in activities in which he had to get up in front of people and talk, which made him feel more comfortable.
Those activities led to a passion for speech and one-act play, activities which he has coached at Adrian High School in southwestern Minnesota for 10 years since joining the staff as a social studies teacher.
Olson recently won recognition nationally for his coaching skills, receiving the National Federation of State High School Associations’ Speech, Debate, and Theatre Educator of the Year Award.
Recipients are nominated by their peers, and the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) chooses the winner from Minnesota.
“I think what has given me the passion for speech and one-act is the confidence I got as a child from taking part in these activities,” Olson said.
He credits the teachers and instructors he had while in high school and college for igniting his passion.
“It started at Dassel-Cokato, when I had amazing teachers like Dave and Linda Metcalf in theatre, and Mike Worcester and Mari Pokornowski in speech,” Olson said. “I still consider them my mentors.”
After his passion was ignited, students continued to fan the flames.
“[Students] are the ones dealing with six classes a day, homework, jobs, and sometimes other school activities,” Olson said. “But they still find time to want to be good (at speech and one-act), and that is really half the battle. They are passionate, so, I am.”
However, Olson was not planning on becoming a teacher when he was in high school, instead wanting to become a lawyer.
He changed his mind when the late Gail Schwandt asked him to assist a gifted and talented first grade boy in Jean Searles class who was becoming bored.
“Even now I am not sure what she saw in me, or why she chose me,” Olson said about Schwandt, who he had only had for one class throughout his high school career.
“Perhaps the decision she made to choose me seemed inconsequential at the time, but it changed my entire outlook and career choice,” Olson said.
Building successful speech and one-act play teams
Before Olson became a teacher at Adrian High School, the school did not participate in one-act.
“The school was very supportive, as they said, ‘give it a try,’” Olson said, “and they have continued to allow me to keep trying for 10 years.”
The one-act program did not do well for the first five years, Olson said.
“We had great participation numbers and have always reached the maximum amount of students allowed by the MSHSL, but the judges didn’t rank us highly,” Olson said. “I think I overcame this by being stubborn, and knowing that part of the job is being willing to realize that continuous improvement is needed for success.”
Now, ten years into his coaching career, Olson is still constantly trying new things.
“Some work, some don’t, but being willing to and wanting to continuously improve yourself and your methods is key,” Olson said.
He also acknowledged the students who did not give up on the program, either. “They stayed with it, and they stayed passionate. That helped greatly,” Olson said.
“When we haven’t succeeded, we don’t blame others or complain about others, we ask ourselves what can we do to improve, and how can we become better competitors,” Olson said of the one-act and speech programs at Adrian.
That has been true for the Adrian High School Speech team, as well, which Olson has assisted in coaching since he joined the staff at the school, becoming co-coach four years ago.
In the last few years, the speech team has more than doubled in size.
“I am a shameless recruiter. Kids know that I will try to ask just about anybody and everybody if they are interested in being in speech or one-act,” Olson said.
A student once said to him, “Mr. Olson, you think everybody will do speech,” to which Olson replied, “[You are] wrong. What I believe is that everybody should do speech.”
Olson noted that people list public speaking as their second-greatest fear in many polls, and it usually ranks higher than death, which is why he believes everybody should participate in it.
“Speech isn’t just for people who already talk well, and one-act isn’t just for people who can act; it is for people who want to improve and better themselves,” Olson said. “That is the philosophy of the program and I hope that buying into that philosophy is the reason that the team has grown in size.”
Participating at the Communication and Theatre Arts Association of Minnesota’s annual conference has assisted Olson in creating successful teams by connecting him with hundreds of fellow coaches who are willing to share what they have done to be successful.
Olson has had the same opportunity to share his knowledge by counseling at the Gustavus Adolphus Summer Speech Institute, which brings together more than 150 students from around the nation to work on their speech events in July.
“To be honest, there really is no great secret to winning awards or being successful,” Olson said. “The main thing that needs to happen for success is to surround yourself with others who are passionate, and know what they are doing. That is what I had at Dassel-Cokato, Southwest Minnesota State, and, fortunately, that is what I have had at Adrian.”
Olson noted that the length of his coaching career reads 2002-12, but the important part is the dash and all the people who were a part of that dash.
“How many people affect us every day, and make us become better people, and they don’t know it or we forget to thank them,” Olson said. “I can’t thank Dassel-Cokato High School enough. So many of the people who work at the school are a part of my dash in life.”