Teaching by his book

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.