AP, Honors chemistry teacher leaves school after 25 years

Chemistry teacher Stephen Marsden wrote famously fast responses to student e-mails. But to e-mails for this article with questions about why he left the school, Marsden wrote no response.

“He was amazing in terms of responding to e-mails, which completely influenced me,” Marsden’s former collegue Chris Dartt said. “I’m sure he would have helped you with chemistry past midnight, on weekends, but that was the line. Beyond that, he was pretty private.”

And it was in this fashion that Marsden ended his 25-year teaching career.

He sent an e-mail in March to his departmental colleagues and Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts announcing his departure, but asked them to keep it secret. He did not go to the end of the year faculty party where President Thomas C. Hudnut usually recognizes departing teachers. When some faculty members tried to throw him a party, he said he would not attend. And without a word to students about retiring, he left his Munger desk on the last day for good.

“Mr. Marsden didn’t want anyone to make a fuss,” Dartt said.

Dartt began teaching AP Chemistry three years ago, most likely in anticipation of Marsden’s retirement, Dartt said. He will assume Marsden’s role as team leader of AP and Honors Chemistry. He will share the Honors Chemistry load with Krista McClain and new teacher Stephania Quan.

“[Marsden] was a very conscientious, very caring person,” Huybrechts said. “I frankly think that he might never have left had there not been a good person to take over for him.”

Huybrechts made Marsden’s departure public through a June e-mail in which she detailed her admiration for his teaching and future plans.

“I sort of doubt he will be teaching,” Huybrechts said. “I know that he and his partner like to travel. He has a lot of hobbies and likes to garden. But it might just be that he is retired, period.”

Huybrechts taught alongside Marsden for two years in AP Chemistry.

“He was shy and quiet and it was not surprising that he wanted his departure to be unannounced,” Huybrechts said. “Sometimes the best thing you can give a person is what they want, and what he wanted was just to fade off into the sunset.”

Gina Chang ’09 was surprised when she went with AP Chemistry peers to give Marsden their class gift, and he gave them no hints about his retirment.

“He just said ‘have a good summer’ and ‘see you next year,’ ” Chang said.

But Chang said that she knew Marsden was never a fan of attention. And while other Marsden students were shocked at the news, they recognized, like Chang, that their teacher disliked the limelight.

“I think we were all surprised by his departure and certainly upset, but I don’t think anyone was surprised by his manner of departure. He’s always been very low-key,” Adam Rothman ’09, Marsden’s student in AP Chemistry said.

Marsden was the team leader for the AP and Honors Chemistry courses and taught AP Chemistry since the merger. He structured the program since the merger, department chair Larry Axelrod said. He also wrote all the lab text for the course, and for some labs he attributed content to outside sources.

“He left the campus a much better place for a student to learn chemistry,” Dartt said. “When your kids take chemistry at Harvard-Westlake, they will take a class that is heavily influenced by Mr. Marsden.”

Outside the classroom, Marsden would often help out colleagues with computer programming and questions about chemistry and lab equipment.

“Because he has such expertise, other colleagues would come and ask him, and he’d bend over backwards to help you,” Axelrod said.

Marsden set a standard in the science department with his integration of technology, Dartt said. He created the Honors and AP Chemistry course websites and used programs to present information in his classes, created by others or by himself.

“He was innovative in using technology if it were effective in teaching,” Axelrod said. “He’d be more likely to write a program from scratch than use an already-created program that he didn’t trust.”

Marsden created numerous original calculator programs for Honors and AP labs. He wrote a program that controls the Texas Instrument program Calculator Based Laboratory, a program used in Honors and AP. He also modified the program to make it more user-friendly and reliable, Dartt said. And even before its creation, Marsden wrote a program performing the CBL’s functions that were “very advanced for its time,” Dartt said. On top of making calculator programs easier to use, Rothman said his style of teaching eased his understanding of AP Chemistry.

“It’s no small feat to make ridiculously complex concepts easy to grasp. It’s another thing entirely to make it fun,” Rothman said. “That was Marsden’s real gift: making us enjoy the most stressful and difficult class we will probably ever take.”

From her two years of working with Marsden, Huybrechts also said she learned a lot.

“There’s no individual that has taught me more about teaching than Mr. Marsden,” Huybrechts said.