Teaching by his book

— Award-win­ning Eng­lish teach­er Frank Stepnowski re­lies on hu­mor and hon­esty to tell his tale of Amer­ica's edu­ca­tion sys­tem.

Fishtown nat­ive Frank Stepnowski, an Eng­lish teach­er at Pennsauken High School, wrote two books about the di­lem­mas and joys of teach­ing. He is cur­rently work­ing on a third one, which he hopes to fin­ish by Au­gust. Al­though he has been cri­ti­cized about his teach­ing meth­ods, which in­clude dis­cus­sion on contre­ver­sial is­sues, he be­lieves that those meth­ods work and earned him re­spect, Tueas­day, June 12, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)


Frank Stepnowski re­calls see­ing a news­pa­per help-wanted ad­vert­ise­ment for a “private school” Eng­lish teach­er.

Since he had a de­gree in Eng­lish lit­er­at­ure from Temple Uni­versity, Stepnowski was in­ter­ested.

The young edu­cat­or was hired and began a 15-year ca­reer at the Delta School, loc­ated in the Far North­east. It was in­deed a private school, but he taught Phil­adelphia and Trenton res­id­ents with some severe men­tal and emo­tion­al is­sues. Some days, Delta School made a nearby dis­cip­lin­ary school, Shallcross, seem tame by com­par­is­on.

Still, Delta School was free of drugs and ra­cial strife, and Stepnowski settled in well.

“I loved it,” he said.

The ex­per­i­ence at Delta School provided him with enough ma­ter­i­al for a 2009 book, Why Are All the Good Teach­ers Crazy?

Names were changed and ele­ments fab­ric­ated in the “fic­tion­al nov­el based on ac­tu­al events.” It was 355 pages, but could have been 1,000. It sold well enough to land on Amazon.com’s top 10 books un­der the teach­er cat­egory.

For the last six years, Stepnowski — who is called “Step” by stu­dents and all oth­er ac­quaint­ances, oth­er than his wife and kids — has taught at Pennsauken High School.

Last year, he re­leased S.C.R.E.W.E.D. — An Edu­ca­tion­al Fairytale, which was a gen­er­al diatribe about edu­ca­tion. S.C.R.E.W.E.D. is an ac­ronym for “Step Com­ic­ally Relates Ex­actly Why Edu­ca­tion is Doomed.” A por­tion of the pro­ceeds went to the Wounded War­ri­or Pro­ject, a Jack­son­ville, Fla.-based non­profit that provides aid, pro­grams and ser­vices to mil­it­ary mem­bers in­jured on or after Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, he’s plan­ning a third self-pub­lished nov­el that is be­ing billed as an un­apo­lo­get­ic coun­ter­punch against en­abling par­ents, wishy-washy politi­cians and clue­less ad­min­is­trat­ors. It’ll be out by the end of 2012.

“It’s go­ing to be a little an­gri­er,” he said.

Like the first two books, it’ll be a funny and hon­est look at the edu­ca­tion sys­tem. The au­thor will ad­vert­ise it him­self and he hopes that word of mouth will spur sales.

Stepnowski, 44, is a Fishtown nat­ive who grew up on Moy­er Street and at­ten­ded Holy Name Ele­ment­ary School and St. Joseph’s Prep in North Phil­adelphia. He re­calls his neigh­bors won­der­ing why he didn’t join the rest of the Holy Name boys at North Cath­ol­ic. He also re­mem­bers some Prep stu­dents from the Main Line be­ing a little wary of the kid from work­ing-class Fishtown.

His days at the Prep were a lot dif­fer­ent than what he has seen at Delta and Pennsauken. The Prep stu­dents were ex­pec­ted to keep their ties on even when wait­ing for SEPTA’s Route 15 trol­ley at the end of the day.

Today, he lives in Cin­nam­in­son with his wife and three teen­age kids.

At Pennsauken, a di­verse school of 1,600, he teaches Eng­lish to fresh­men and ju­ni­ors. He’s also the fresh­man class dean.

To be ef­fect­ive, he be­lieves, teach­ers have to love and care for their stu­dents.

“If you don’t,” he said, “they’re like sharks with blood in the wa­ter.”

In deal­ings with par­ents, he is dir­ect with them, but not overly de­fens­ive. He’s ac­cess­ible to stu­dents and their par­ents, in­clud­ing on week­ends by e-mail.

It’s all worth it, in his view, when a stu­dent sends him a note at the end of the school year to the ef­fect that, “I know I’m go­ing to re­mem­ber what I learned in this class.”

It’s even bet­ter, he said, when former stu­dents be­come suc­cess­ful col­lege stu­dents.

Teach­ers have sum­mers off, and quit­ting time is 3 p.m., but Stepnowski said the pro­fes­sion is more chal­len­ging than that.

He likens it to par­ent­ing, with re­stric­tions.

“If you care about it, it’s really hard to do. It’s a 24-7 job. I don’t take any day for gran­ted. I have noth­ing left [at the end of the year]. But it pays off,” he said.

Stepnowski isn’t big on les­son plans. He talks about cur­rent events such as the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion and health care to en­gender de­bate in the classroom. He stresses punc­tu­al­ity, work eth­ic and qual­ity of work, all at­trib­utes de­sired by em­ploy­ers. And he tells stu­dents to say, “Ex­cuse me,” in the crowded hall­ways.

His over­all man­tra is, “The kids can handle the truth.”

The res­ults are on his side. He’s no fan of stand­ard­ized tests, but his stu­dents have a 93-per­cent pass rate.

A former stu­dent, Tan­isha Craw­ford, nom­in­ated him for a Teach­er of the Year con­test co­ordin­ated by the Phil­lies. And there he was, be­ing in­tro­duced on the field dur­ing a May 11 game at Cit­izens Bank Park as one of the top 10 teach­ers in the tri-state area. He’s the third win­ner from Pennsauken in the last six years.

Stepnowski likens teach­ing to bar­tend­ing, a job some say is 5 per­cent mak­ing drinks and 95 per­cent deal­ing with people. He can ima­gine ad­min­is­trat­ors say­ing, “I don’t know what he does. I don’t want to know, but it’s work­ing.”

“I teach them to think,” he said of his ap­proach to stu­dents.

The stu­dents seem to ap­pre­ci­ate his ef­fort.

“He’s the realest teach­er here,” said Jo-El Ma­tos, who just com­pleted his fresh­man year.

“He’s really dif­fer­ent,” said Glenn Nuckles, who just fin­ished his ju­ni­or year. “He can re­late to the kids. He keeps us in line. Learn­ing Eng­lish is really fun. I ac­tu­ally en­joy go­ing to Eng­lish class.”

Teach­ers make a re­l­at­ively mod­est salary, and Stepnowski could try to move up to an ad­min­is­trat­ive role, but says he is “not in­ter­ested at all in be­ing an ad­min­is­trat­or.”

Things are too good right now in the Pennsauken High Eng­lish de­part­ment, with teach­ers col­lab­or­at­ing on best prac­tices.

“It’s amaz­ing what you can ac­com­plish when you don’t care who gets the cred­it. That’s our Eng­lish de­part­ment,” he said.

Stepnowski likes teach­ing lit­er­at­ure and in­tro­du­cing nov­els to the young people in his charge. And he be­lieves he is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.

“You have to love what you do, and I was born to do this,” he said. ••

Frank Stepnowski’s books are avail­able on Amazon.com; Amazon’s Kindle; iBooks, which can be found at the iTunes App store; and on on­line book stores. For more in­form­a­tion, check out the Fans of the Au­thor Frank Stepnowski page on Face­book.


You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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