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Teacher looks to lead team to third straight academic world finals.

By Zak Minor
March 27, 2009

When Richard Winfree inadvertently agreed to revive the Odyssey of the Mind team at Dare Elementary School three years ago, he had no way of knowing what he was in for.

At a new-teacher orientation, the first-year music teacher made a rookie mistake.

"They were trying to find someone to do the 'OotM team,'" Winfree said. "I asked, 'Do you mean Odyssey of the Mind?' -- and they said yes and wrote my name down."

Three years later, Winfree is helping his team make a third consecutive run at the world finals.

That means Winfree -- as a brand-new teacher and first-time coach -- led his team to first place in the regional competition, a top two finish in the state competition and then the world finals. Then he and an all-new team did it again the next year.

"It depends on how much the program excites you as a coach," Winfree said, regarding whether consecutive trips to the world finals happen often. "It depends on the kids you get together and if all the cards fall in the right place."

Odyssey of the Mind is a competition that requires students to work as a team to solve problems. Competitions include a long-term problem and a spontaneous problem.

The long-term problem is revealed in September and involves the construction of an object to solve a specific problem. This year, teams built a vehicle that can change appearance to fit into four different environments.

Spontaneous problems require teams to work together to solve a problem on the spur of the moment.

For Winfree, being a good coach means knowing when to back off and let the students work the problems out for themselves. He credits team building and his ability to step back with Dare's success over the years.

"As a coach, I know to do as much team-building exercises as we can," Winfree said. "Part of the success is to walk away and let them run their own meetings. Once they learn how to run their own meetings and be productive, they'll be a success."

Fifth-grader Hailey Lukehart said of her coach, "He usually says, 'Well, I can't help you. You have to figure it out by yourself.'"

That's not to say Winfree isn't involved. He keeps time during practice exercises, demonstrates construction techniques, reminds students about the rules, makes suggestions and asks questions.

"All I can do as a coach is ask questions," Winfree said. "I'm not allowed to give them any ideas. One thing you have to get through to the students is no idea is stupid. A lot of times, the idea that sounded the weirdest is the idea we ended up selecting later on."

Dean Lytle, a fifth-grader and the only returning member of last year's world-finalist team, credits Winfree with pushing him to be more creative.

"He's a really good coach because he's always like, 'Work faster,' Dean said. "He makes it fun."

"He uses 'Glue faster' a lot, and he's a really good, friendly coach," Hailey said.

In its first year at the world finals, Dare finished 20th of 60 teams. Last year, Dare improved to 11th.

This year, Winfree hopes to finish higher.

"They're a great team," Winfree said. "If they stick with it and continue to gel as a team, I think we have a chance to break the top 10. We'll see. That's my personal goal."

Winfree hopes that the morning and Saturday practices team members have put in will help get them back to the world finals this year and keep his streak going. The team took its first step toward that goal on Saturday, taking first place at the regional competition and advancing to the state finals April 18.

But he also knows that the experience of Odyssey of the Mind is what's most important.

The lessons that his students have learned could help them in school and for the rest of their lives.

"I've learned to try to be more creative, and I've learned to make friends faster," Dean said.

"I like how we just have fun and build teamwork with other people," Hailey said. "You get to meet more students."

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