“You wretched beast!”
It is phrases like this that Global Studies and AP Modern European History students hear as they walk into Mr. O’Brien’s F9 classroom, greeted by his favorite debate nametags plastered upon every wall, a horseshoe of desks around a table that often becomes a step stool during discussions, and his intellectual wit that rings throughout lower Fitts.
This is only a glimpse into Mr. O’Brien’s unconventional teaching methods, which have contributed to Fairfield Warde’s history department and drawn otherwise reluctant students towards the subject for twenty years to date.
In his first class of his first day of his first year at LeMoyne College, Mr. O’Brien studied European history, and henceforward, he knew that whatever he ended up doing in life, he wanted it to be related to that subject. From there, he aimed to get his PhD, but was stopped by what many find to be their biggest obstacle: money.
“I knew it would only take a year at Binghamton University to get a teaching degree at the high school level since I already completed European history coursework at LeMoyne,” said Mr. O’Brien. “So I went that route instead.”
And the rest is history.
The Fairfield resident and father of three prides himself on a teaching style that he hopes is different from what any Warde student has experienced. O’Brien teaches capitalism in AP Modern European History with an arcade ticket game where “anything goes,” and students speak of getting the best grade from “simulating a black market” or “walking out of the class and never coming back.” A castle project in his Global Studies sections intends to demonstrate ancient feudalism, where some of the best constructions have filled the entire classroom. Perhaps above all, Mr. O’Brien’s year-long Enlightenment project encourages his AP students to take societal action and, quite literally, change the world.
“Each class was like a Socratic seminar, and everyone was just discussing history and bouncing off of each other,” said Finn Johnston, a current senior who had Mr. O’Brien for Global Studies as a freshman and AP Euro as a sophomore. “It was such a fun class—captivating compared to some of the others on my schedule.”
Mr. O’Brien will be the first to tell anyone that the content of his course is really what drives student interest.
“European history is a good story that tells itself differently every year based on the current events and the students. I just provide a base of understanding, and the kids then make observations and connections I could have never anticipated.”
His students, though, attribute it all to their leader.
“Many teachers just go along with what they’re doing,” said Johnston. “Mr. O’Brien cares a lot about what he teaches and he’s passionate about his students.”
Mr. O’Brien’s unique personality extends beyond teaching, and it constantly keeps those around him on his toes.
“I play a mean harmonica,” O’Brien said, after joking about playing the accordion and boasting a photoshopped picture on his desk, claiming to have participated in a National Geographic expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro.
The busy history teacher also talks of his love for sweets, specifically “cinnamon buns that hit the plate like a rock with indulgence, and must be baked by a ‘Nana’ or another cute grandmother name.”
O’Brien has been known to initiate “Food Fridays” with his AP sections, to dress up as characters or perform sarcastic tangents, and to even give his students alternative names of which he addresses them all year.
“Halloween is forever Martin Luther day, and most of the historical popes were pretty bad dudes,” said Johnston, when asked of his biggest takeaways from his two-time teacher.
An answer in true Mr. O’Brien fashion.
“I love finding something new in a class I’ve taught 25 times, and I love it even more when the kids come to those realizations,” O’Brien said. “Isn’t that what teaching is all about?”