WILMINGTON — In chemistry, sometimes things happen by accident. Mixing the wrong substances could have disastrous effects. But other times, the result is a good thing.
The “happy accident” result could describe to how Steve Skinner ended up in a classroom. He never intended on being a teacher when he was in school at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa., but there was a mild economic depression when he graduated, so he accepted a long-term substitute teaching job. Teaching was in his family’s blood; his grandfather had taught at the former Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, and both his mother and grandmother were teachers. Skinner had some job offers while substitute teaching, but he found that he liked being in a classroom. He’s never left.
After 33 years at Clearview Regional High School in Mullica Hill, N.J., Skinner came to Salesianum School, where he is in his second year. Recently, he was selected by students to be part of The Dialog’s Teacher Feature.
“In this business, you normally don’t get a lot of recognition until your product is out of school,” he said. “There’s a lot of great people here. I’m honored that they even considered me.”
After more than three decades in a public school, Skinner said the time was right for a change.
“I really wanted to go to a college or a private school. I enjoy this age. I always have. I enjoy watching the lightbulbs come on and them understanding it,” he said.
He appreciates the spiritual aspect of Salesianum. It is something he has discussed with a friend of his who taught with him in New Jersey.
“It’s really fantastic that this isn’t just education about academics. We’re educating them for life and to be good citizens and strong Christians. I really appreciate that,” he said.
Prayer is important, he said. He likes that Salesianum starts every period with the direction of intention, a short prayer that offers to God what the community is going to do while accepting whatever comes.
Salesianum also reminded him of his days at Eastern, which is now Eastern University. It is a small Christian college, and coming to Salesianum felt like coming home, he said.
His teaching philosophy centers around enthusiasm and being available to students. He said young people don’t get enough credit for being able to read into others.
“I think they see that I generally love what I do and that I want them to succeed. And have a good time while we’re doing it,” he said.
There haven’t been too many mishaps along the way with science experiments. Some of the work he has done over the years sticks with him. He taught a research class at Clearview that studied the tensile strength of spiderwebs, and another examined short-term caffeine addiction in mice. At one point, there were more than 500 mice with varying amounts of caffeine in them at the high school, although none were able to get loose.
There are some standby chemistry experiments and demonstrations that teachers have used for generations, but with the advent of YouTube and other online platforms, students have seen many of them already. Still, he sees value in getting his students outside the classroom to see how their work applies to real-life situations.
He points to his summer employment as an example. For years, Skinner has worked at a campground swim club in New Jersey, where he lives. The staff uses herbicides to treat the lake. Measuring the amount of chemicals in the lake and documenting the effects is a real-life application of chemistry. The fact that the instrumentation necessary to do that is available in a high school confounds him.
“It’s just amazing,” he said, “what is in a high school nowadays compared to what we only had in college. And some of that was only at the major universities.”
Skinner, 59, coached three sports while at Clearview, so adjusting from a coed to an all-boys setting did not take too long. One of the things he’s noticed is that the boys know why they are at Salesianum. Having students thank him on the way out of class took some getting used to.
“They really value their education, and they appreciate someone that is trying their best for them and has their best interests at heart,” he said.
He is an avid golfer and is still involved with the sport on the high school level in New Jersey. He calls his wife, Marie, “a golf widow,” but each of his four children like to play.