By Brenna R. Kelly
Ron Skillern tried to retire. Really, he did.
But after 28 years in the classroom, he just couldn’t stay away. Instead of playing golf or indulging his woodworking hobby, Skillern just kept coming back to Bowling Green High School.
For nine months, he volunteered at the school he graduated from and taught at for 18 years.
“Being in my own classroom was something that I missed,” said Skillern, who returned to the school full time in 2015. “I decided as long as I feel like I’m doing a good job and I’m enjoying it, then I’ll keep it up.”
Students, principals and administrators in Bowling Green Independent have long known that he was doing a good job, now the entire state knows. Skillern, 62, who teaches social studies, was named 2017 Kentucky Teacher of the Year at a ceremony in Frankfort last week.
Skillern was chosen from among 24 teachers who received the 2017 Valvoline Inc. Teacher Achievement Award. As the group waited for the winner to be called in the Capitol Rotunda, he said he took a moment to look around at his fellow teachers.
“All of them had spark,” he said. “You would love to have your children being taught by them. I just felt really privileged to be in the 24 and then winning – it’s just amazing. There are just so many great teachers in the state of Kentucky.”
As Skillern accepted the award, it was Bowling Green Superintendent Gary Fields whose eyes filled with tears.
“This is the moment that everybody else is seeing what I’ve gotten to see for the last 20 years,” he said. “A lot of my career is credited to him.”
Fields and Skillern were both hired as teachers at Bowling Green in 1996, when Skillern was an 11-year teaching veteran and Fields was in his second year of teaching.
“He’s been a mentor and a great friend,” Fields said. “He’s one of the driving forces that allowed me to become the principal at Bowling Green High School and he was one of my biggest supporters to help me become superintendent of the schools.”
Skillern also recommended hiring William King, now principal of Bowling Green High, into a social studies teaching position at the school.
“He takes people under his wings,” King said. “He’s always looking to the next generation, and that’s the sign of a good leader, you’re willing to pass on the torch and build up other people.”
Skillern likes to help others shine, but stays away from the spotlight himself, King and Fields said.
“He’s always in the background, Fields said. “He’s never really gotten a lot of recognition, except from the people he cares about, the students.”
When Skillern’s students, who were in class with a substitute, heard the news, they held a spontaneous celebration. Texts and Facebook posts from students who graduated more than 20 years ago poured in. The next day, students lined up first for hugs, then for television cameras to praise his teaching.
There’s something about Skillern that makes students gravitate toward him, King said.
“He’s like a magnet,” King said. “He’s just that kind of person who takes the time to talk to each kid and find out about what’s going on in their lives and encourage them.”
Before school, during lunch and after school, students flock to Skillen’s classroom, a 5,000-square foot converted welding shop with an open ceiling and 100 desks. American flags, historical memorabilia, quotes from figures in U.S. history and hundreds of books line the walls.
“I purposely asked for them to schedule my planning period during the lunch periods,” Skillern said. “It lets me have time to conference with kids who can’t come before school or after school. I can talk to them about maybe getting their ACT up a few points.”
Skillern leads ACT and PSAT test prep sessions before and after school, holds review sessions for his five AP classes and is often in his room writing college recommendation letters – even on the on the weekend.
“I don’t own a boat. I don’t want to be in a country club. I really like spending my time the way I’m doing – working with kids,” he said. “Whenever there is an opportunity to do something for kids, it energizes me.”
That’s part of the reason he wanted to be a teacher in the first place. Though Skillern planned to be a lawyer, he realized while pursuing his master’s at Vanderbilt University that he needed to be a teacher.
“I’ve always loved the energy of a school,” he said. “At this age, they are so fun and so full of neat ideas.”
After years teaching U.S. history exclusively, Skillern now also teaches AP Government and Politics and a comparative political science class. Each year, he takes more than 200 students to Washington, D.C., for a seven-day exploration of America’s government and its institutions.
“It opens up students’ eyes to what is out there in the world like you would not believe,” he said. “When kids travel, they have such a greater worldview and they see there opportunities outside their hometown.”
More than 60 percent of students at the 1,100-student school qualify for free and reduced-priced meals and would not otherwise be able to experience such a trip, he said.
Being able to help the school’s many minority and economically disadvantaged students achieve their dreams particularly motivates Skillern.
“If you can move an underprivileged student from maybe a 16 on the ACT to a 21 or 22, they will likely get full ride to college based on financial need,” he said. He also works with athletes who have been offered scholarships but failed to meet a certain NCAA requirements on the ACT to qualify.
Skillen’s belief that students can achieve more when challenged led to him to expand the school’s Advanced Placement (AP) offerings with open enrollment, Fields said. The school went from about 129 students passing AP exams 14 years ago to nearly 400 last year, he said.
Skillern recalled a student at his previous school who was told he couldn’t take an AP class because of his reading level. Skillern let him in anyway.
“Sure enough, the first test I think he got a D,” he said. But the next test the student got a C, then a B, after that he consistently scored As throughout the year.
“He stepped up.” Skillern said. “A large number of our kids, and I’m talking about nationwide, can do better than they are. And we have to work harder to try to get them there.”
Skillern has been working doing that for years, King said. And his hard work has resulted in many of his former students becoming teachers and college professors, he said.
“Ron’s an asset to our school,” he said, “and to our state.”
Ron Skillern Ron.Skillern@Bgreen.kyschools.us
William King William.King@Bgreen.kyschools.us
Gary Fields Gary.Fields@Bgreen.kyschools.us