Faculty Profile: Debbie & Ryan Skelley
The number 52 is special. It represents learning and expanding your horizons. 52 is a symbol from our guardian angels that we have to continue learning new things because that is the only way to progress. For Bishop Montgomery teachers Debbie and Ryan Skelley ‘04, learning to teach side-by-side – they literally teach across the hall from each other in rooms 308 and 309, respectively – could have been awkward for both. You see, they are mother and son. But they have made it work and work well. And with the start of the 2021-22 school year, they mark a combined 52 years of teaching at Bishop, learning from each other every day.
Debbie begins her 40th year teaching at Bishop, making her one of the longest tenured teachers in the history of the school. When she arrived in 1982, she was mentored by people like Bill Wolfenbarger and Dietmar Farkas, two BMHS legends who combined to teach at the school for over 70 years. “When I first arrived, Wolf and Dietmar showed me the ropes,” says Debbie with a wry smile. “So you can blame them for everything.” She has spent all of her career in the English Department, but has also taught classes in theater arts and assisted in the Activities Office.
Ryan begins his 12th year teaching in the Math Department, but he has been around Bishop Montgomery all of his life. He grew up coming to games, plays, and events on campus and even served as a batboy for the baseball team at a young age. When it was time for high school, Ryan naturally came to Bishop and counts all the wonderful relationships he formed with his Bishop baseball teammates and coaches as impactful in his life to this day. In fact, when he gets married in November, four of his six groomsmen will be Bishop baseball connections in teammates Ryan Rosso ’03, Nathan Peranelli ’04 and Aram Schotts ’04 and coach Eric Fuller ‘94, who he currently serves under as an assistant coach (the other two groomsmen are also BMHS graduates: Micah Horwood ’05 and Bobby Jakucs ’04).
Teaching across the hall from each other in the third building was not originally in the plans. When asked if she ever imagined teaching alongside her son, Debbie always imagined Ryan working for a professional or college team in analytics. When he finished his Master’s Degree in Sport Management from Long Beach State, he was getting set to interview with Bishop alumnus Brandon McLemore ‘95, who works for Nike’s Jordan Brand. Then, the job market crashed and things changed. “Ryan finished his Master’s mid-school year and I remember asking him what he wanted to do,” recalls Debbie. “He said he was not sure, but he knew he didn’t want to teach.”
Little did Ryan know that a position as a long-term sub was opening and a call from then-principal Rosemary Libbon was forthcoming. It did not hurt that while earning his Master’s he had already started coaching baseball at Bishop and was on campus every day. The fit was natural, even if Ryan did not necessarily see it at the time. “Ryan was one of the best students of the game I ever coached,” says Andy Marafino, his baseball coach at Bishop. “He played almost every position for us during his four years and his knowledge of the game rubbed off on his teammates. He might not have known it at the time, but he was teaching his teammates every day through his actions on the field.” It did not take Ryan long to start to shift his career goals. “As I was subbing, I realized that I really liked teaching and felt connected with high school students,” he says. When the subbing job ended, Ryan was hired full-time in the Math Department where he currently teaches Honors Algebra II and AP Statistics.
Mother and son teaching across the hall from each other is certainly a unique situation and one that started with some apprehension, at least as far as Debbie is concerned. The Skelley’s have made it work and they have learned a great deal from each other. “I wasn’t sure it would work at first,” she says. “You have to be careful with the boundaries of different relationships we had with colleagues on campus.” Debbie cites her working relationship that she forged with Megan Ashby-Moreau ‘01 and Melissa Rhoades-Rudder ‘01, two women who teach in neighboring classrooms. She worked with them prior to Ryan arriving, “but he is friends with them and closer in age, so I have to respect that we have different relationships with them,” she says. Debbie also was very active in attending senior Kairos retreats, but took a step back when Ryan showed interest in going on those trips. “I don’t think it was right for both of us to be on those retreats,” says Debbie. “I’m happy that Ryan has the opportunity to attend Kairos and make a difference in the lives of the students. I’m totally okay with stepping away.”
Debbie admits that, at first, she found herself paying some attention to what was going on in the room across the hall, but quickly knew that Ryan needed to do his thing and that her job was to teach the students in front of her in her own room. What Debbie did not know was that Ryan uses a great deal of what he has observed from his mom over the years in his own classroom. “She’s my mom, so naturally I’m going to pick up some things from her, but I have learned so much about classroom management from listening to her and observing her,” says Ryan.
Perhaps the most important thing they have learned from each other as teachers is that they share a love of seeing their students succeed in the classroom and beyond. “I never knew that I would be so invested in my students’ well-being and success,” says Ryan. “What has kept me teaching for so long is the satisfaction of seeing former students go on to be successful and content human beings,” adds Debbie.
When asked what is one thing people might not know about them, Ryan did not readily admit that he plays the guitar, sings and writes poetry and songs. Debbie said she speaks five languages (English, Spanish, Dutch, German and Italian), but the shocker came when she said “I’m pretty good at math.” Anyone that has had Debbie as a teacher knows that she famously dislikes math. “She’s a fraud,” jokes Ryan. “She really likes it.” We learn something every day.