The power of connection
Parson named Teacher of the Year, stepping down from Speech and Debate
June 15, 2023
At the traditional end-of-the-year bonfire for the Green River High School Speech and Debate team, Dan Parson got a surprise.
The bonfire has always been a special time for Parson. He hosts the event in his own backyard, inviting team members to get together for one last celebration, reminisce on the season, burn the ballots from tournaments that didn't go well for them, and generally enjoy time together as the family they've become. Past bonfires have been important events in Parson's life, including being the reason he met his wife.
This year the bonfire was bittersweet, as everyone knew it was Parson's last. The head coach told his team at the beginning of the season that he would be stepping down, and he announced at the end of the school year that he'd accepted a teaching position at Expedition Academy. To say goodbye, the team put together some gifts for their departing coach. One was an ice auger to use in his ice fishing adventures. Another was a framed puzzle.
"All the pieces matter" is a phrase the Speech and Debate team members know well. For years, Parson has said it to the team and had them repeat it back to him.
The phrase has been an important one in Parson's entire teaching philosophy from the moment he put it above his classroom door.
"I wanted to say: all of you matter," he explained. "Each piece of our learning matters, it's all heading towards something. Each day matters. Each assignment or activity matters. But more importantly, each of you matter, in what you bring to the class but also to us personally."
The same sentiment easily transferred over to Speech and Debate as he encouraged the team members that not only do all the pieces of their competition matter, from humor to poetry to speeches, but they each matter as individual pieces of the whole team.
The students not only took the lesson to heart, but they decided to show their coach just how much his piece mattered.
"The thing that just moved me so deeply was they went through and found everybody who ever earned a letter in Speech and Debate over my almost 20 years," Parson explained. "They wrote their name and the rank that they earned on a puzzle piece. And they put the whole puzzle together and they put me in the middle."
Parson stopped, his voice breaking as he thought about the significance of that gift.
"They framed it and it was lovely," he continued. "It's one of the coolest things I've ever gotten."
Parson's team members are not the only ones to recognize his central role and many contributions to students and the school district as a whole over the past several decades.
Teacher of the Year
This week at the Sweetwater County School District No. 2 Board meeting, it was announced that Dan Parson was chosen as the district's Teacher of the Year.
"He is a great advocate and he will be a great representative for our district, but he's also a great representative for the teaching profession," Superintendent Craig Barringer said during the meeting.
"Beyond all of his accomplishments, Dan is a good guy who works hard and does the right thing," the original nomination said. "He is humble and kind and so good at working with troubled kids. He always sees the good in everyone and never gives up on a kid."
Parson admitted he thinks he's "good at being nice to kids," which is because he genuinely loves them and feels comfortable interacting with them. But he also feels that he's watched the brilliance of other teachers in the district and simply tried to learn from them. So he was "shocked" to not only be nominated but to be chosen.
"The other people who are nominated are so professional and dynamic and interesting, and to be included in that crowd is flattering and shocking," he said. "I'm sort of speechless about that, which is a little unusual for me."
Still, Parson is grateful for the recognition.
"It's one of the biggest honors of my life," he said.
He's also happy for the chance to make his wife proud, and to feel that some of the loved ones he's lost are smiling at him now, including some of the people who were influential in his teaching career and his journey in Speech and Debate.
Twenty years of coaching
Parson first came to Green River after teaching at an inner-city school in Chicago for four years. A struggle with a serious illness and a desire to move away from city life led him to apply to schools in the Rocky Mountain West. Green River was the first to call for an interview, and Parson got the job.
He started teaching at the old Lincoln school in 1996, later moving to Monroe when it was a middle school and ultimately moving to teach at Green River High School in 2010.
Back in 2003, Parson started noticing emails asking for an assistant coach for the high school's Speech and Debate team. The team had been through a number of coaches in quick succession and was in desperate need of an assistant coach to work with Matt Prevedel, the previous assistant coach who had stepped up to be head coach. Prevedel told Parson "anybody with a pulse will do."
"I knew nothing about it," Parson said. "I'd never really done anything with it. I'd sort of barely heard about it."
Despite his inexperience, Parson took the position. He thought it would be something interesting to do during the winter, and he had heard Prevedel was great to work with, which proved to be true.
"I learned an enormous amount from Matt right away," Parson said.
But the next year, Prevedel took a job with Cheyenne East, leaving the head coaching position open with no applicants.
"I had gotten very close to the kids and I'd already fallen in love with it, and so I applied for the head coach job even though I knew I was completely unqualified," Parson said. "And I got it. And so the rest is history. I jumped in with both feet and started recruiting really hard and the team started to grow and grow and grow."
From having only half a dozen students the first year Parson stepped in to help, the team grew to sometimes having over 100 students actively participating, with most years having around 70 to 80 team members.
Then, they started winning.
"In 2008 we won our first State title," Parson explained. "We went second in 2009. And then we had seven State wins in a row. And we've placed in the top three, out of my 20-ish years, all but three times. So I feel really good about that."
Parson had help from a number of coaches during his time with the team, but especially from Carina White. A previous state and national Speech and Debate champion herself, White was excited to step in to help. She took over as head coach in 2009, with Parson stepping back to assist. Later he took over the head coaching position again as White became ill and took a step back to focus on her health.
White passed away a little over a year ago.
"That was hard," Parson said. "She was an awfully fine and good friend and a wonderful coach. She did a lot of good for a lot of kids."
Losing his fellow coach within months of also losing his mother caused Parson to stop and reflect.
"I started thinking about the fragility of life and how fast it goes by," he said. "I just started thinking, you know, it's been 20 years, and I don't want to give up on trying to find ways to be of use to kids, but I do want to live a little quieter life."
Stepping down and making changes
Parson felt that lots of little things came together to make it clear to him that it was time to be done coaching Speech and Debate.
While being able to spend more time with his wife was one of Parson's motivating factors in stepping down, it was also his wife who encouraged him to coach for one more year. This gave him the chance to let the team know he was leaving from the start so he didn't feel like he was pulling the rug out from under them. It also helped him have less pressure over his decision so he could focus on enjoying his last year.
"I had the best season," he said. "We were first or second at every tournament this year. We were one point away from a state championship."
Going out on a high note was the perfect way to wrap up 20 years of coaching for Parson. He knew that as he was starting to get older and starting to struggle with some of the demands of coaching and the subtle changes in the Speech and Debate world, he wanted to do what would help the team the most in the future.
"My energy for it was just starting to ebb, and they deserve an energetic coach who wants the best for them and is gonna give it their all all the time," Parson said.
He also believes the team will have this in the future under new Heach Coach Jericho Morrell and Assistant Coach Dianne Kurth.
"They're going to do great," Parson said. "The program is in really good hands. So that was a relief. You put 20 years into something, you want to make sure it doesn't just die," he added. "I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it. I really did."
Parson also noted he doesn't intend to completely fade away, and will be available to help the program and the team as he can, but he also wants to give the new coaches space to put their own stamp on things.
The ability to give the team a little extra space came when another opportunity opened up for Parson. He received a call from Lee Harper, the science teacher at Expedition Academy. Harper had decided to be a halibut fishing guide in Alaska, and he was wondering if Parson was interested in taking over for him. Definitely interested, Parson took the job.
"It was serendipitous that the EA job became available for this next school year," Parson said. "It does a couple of things. It helps me make a clean break away from the [Speech and Debate] program so that I can still be helpful to it, to the team, but without being right there and being a shadow. So I think that's cool. But the main reason I want to go to EA, overwhelmingly, is that I've always had a strong desire to work with at-risk kids."
With smaller class sizes and more time to get to know and work with kids one-on-one, Parson hopes to be a part of helping kids turn their lives around.
"I want to try hard to be really good and really effective with some kids and really bond and try to be a positive influence as well as a good teacher," he said.
Connecting and making a difference
For Parson, bonding with other people and being able to make a difference in their lives is a motivating factor in almost everything he does.
"The biggest reward I feel is when I have a connection with others," he explained. "When I connect with other people, that really is affirming to me. I had some struggles as a young man, and it was teachers who saved me. And I have a profound need to pay back what was given to me."
This desire to connect with others has often come in the form of instruction, from teaching to coaching Speech and Debate to his "summer and weekend gig" of being a fishing guide.
"It's so fun to teach somebody how to fly fish if they never knew how and to watch them catch their first fish, or to watch an inexperienced angler catch their biggest fish, or watch a father-son pair who haven't seen each other in a year have their vacation together, and I get to be part of making that successful and fun," Parson said. "There's a benefit to that. I go home feeling like I did something good for somebody. I helped them connect."
While he knows retirement is on the horizon for him eventually, Parson doesn't know that he'll ever want to stop instructing and connecting with people.
"I think what I want to do is teach and guide until I just really can't," he said. "I'll know it's time and then really just be done, be a full-on retiree. I don't know if I'll ever be able to do that," he added with a laugh.
For now at least, Parson plans to fish a little more, hunt a little more, train his new bird-dog puppy, spend more time holding hands with his wife, be a strong presence at Expedition Academy, and keep cheering on the Speech and Debate team.