The Importance of Our History Teachers

Interview with Mr.Fitz


When a nation feels divided, or is met with unprecedented troubles, studying it’s history acts as a guide for how to move forward. A nation that is able to view it’s troublesome present under a historical lens is better equipped to understand the present and decide on what actions are necessary to move forward and make progress. Those who take the time to teach students history in classrooms play a large role in this, considering they provide students with the tools to interpret both historical and recent events, and move forward based on their understanding of them. The teaching of history is essential especially today, where the ongoing pandemic has evidently called for a reflection of this country’s history, as many of the issues that have only grown in the pandemic (poverty, lack of healthcare, mental illness, and educational damages) have already been preexisting.

For this reason, we were curious about the history teachers here at PASE, as well as what they value in their classrooms and discipline. We thought about the experience of a history teacher who has taken the time to teach us in our previous high school years, whose values we still take with us today as we move forward. 

Interview With Mr. Fitz – conducted by Yamilka Moreno, Synai Roman, and Angelina Aguilar 

Yamilka- What school did you study at?


Mr. Fitz- So I’m from the Philadelphia suburbs. I went to a highschool called Wecell College highschool in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania. For undergrad I went to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. 


Yamilka– What made you want to become a history teacher? Was it your first choice?


Mr. Fitz– So, it is now my first choice but growing up, I wanted to do a lot of things,  quite obnoxiously, I wanted to run for office and be a senator or be in the Navy and work in the state department with the CIA, or all of those things. Then, overtime I didn’t want to do that for various reasons and then thought I wanted to be a professor or work in international development and live overseas. So, teaching wasn’t my first choice then, but it is my first choice now. It is not what I imagined I’d be doing twenty years ago but it’s hard to imagine doing anything else right now. 


Yamilka– Is it easier than what you thought it would be? 


Mr. Fitz- Much harder, much harder. Well, partially because my dads a teacher, and he never brought anything home. Part of it and just the nature of his work, and there came a time in his career where he didn’t have to bring anything home because he’s been doing it for so long. He’s a middle school special ed teacher and a lot of his energy was managing issues there and then, so he never was like, grading papers at home, so, I won’t complain, but I have to grade your papers. 


Synai- Alright, what were some of the challenges you’ve had when you started teaching?


Mr.Fitz- I think every new teacher struggles with how to run the classroom, you know, behavioral issues. My first classroom that I was in was Marist Highschool in Bayonne, which is no longer open, the teacher who left mid-year, left because he kind of got into a fight with a student, so I was walking into that. It was mid-year, and actually I didn’t know it was an accounting class, and I had never taken an accounting class, let alone teach one, but they’re like,”here, you can do it!” So that was pretty difficult, knowing the content, managing the classroom, keeping things moving. Classroom management is always difficult.


Angelina– The next question is what is your favorite era or period to teach in history?


Mr. Fitz- I would say 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s. Social movements, both international and in the U.S. I haven’t taught it in a while, but hopefully, all of the independence movements in Africa, you know, Ghana leading the charge and then in the Middle East, Nasser’s movement and so much happening in the 60’s and 70’s. Obviously exciting stuff happening in the U.S as well and groups that are Black liberation and third worldism, that was the name of the movement then, and the non-aligned movement is just kind of exciting, often violent, but like, people becoming free. I don’t teach world history, but that was my, when I went to graduate school, specializing in the Middle East in the 1950’s, 60’s,70’s, 80’s, 90’s, so I kind of get excited when we move that way. In the U.S. curriculum, it’s kind of like when things are winding down you only have five minutes on each thing, which I don’t think is enough time.


Yamilka- That’s perfect for the next question too, what is one history period/era that you wish you ha more time to teach?


Mr. Fitz- I would say, yeah, the present. I think a lot of people are afraid to teach the present because it’s so… ripe, so they don’t want to offend anyone, but I think we have to talk about the Iraq War, we have to talk about the Afghanistan War. It’s not in the curriculum as much. I would say that’s something that strikes. You know how in U.S. history, we got to the 1980’s and we got to Reagan, and it was like all of a sudden you have to do the next 40 years in 2 weeks, and there’s so much there. I mean I get it, but at the same time I wish there was more time.


Synai- How do you encourage your students to care about events that happened long ago?


Mr.Fitz- Yeah that’s a difficult one. It’s not always easy. I try to do like a current events book, and still that doesn’t necessarily mean people are interested.  For example with my U.S. 2 class today, we’re talking about Reconstruction, post Civil-War, disenfranchisement of Black people, particularly Black men, and 15th amendment, we’re doing it around the election next week in New Jersey at least nationally, to get people thinking, there were a lot of people, I was surprised too, but it made for a great discussion, a lot of people were saying it “Shouldn’t just be age, people should have a certain type of education and knowledge.” So we had a good discussion and they were like “Yeah, people should be knowledgeable, but, are you going to give a test about it?” some people were like “Yeah, yeah!” And then like tomorrow or next week, we’ll go like, “Yeah, they gave tests back then, right? That targeted and made sure Black people couldn’t vote?” So kind of connecting it to the present. You know, I’m kind of older, well not that old. Angie would say extra, no? 


Angelina- What? 




Mr. Fitz– So like, I don’t like to do a social media thing just because “Oh! Kids use social media” but, I, once in a while will create a meme or create a protest poster, right? So, last week, the non-AP class, this is a little more wiggle room, they created–I had them pretend they were former general and president Grant, whose back from the dead and is walking around and sees all these statues of Robert E. Lee, who of course was the loser, Grant was the winner and was president, “Why are there so many statues of Robert E. Lee?” So then they got to make memes. They at least acted like they had enjoyed it. So yeah, I don’t do that much of it cause I don’t want to be like, social media this social media that, but once in a while. 


Angelina– The next question is, what is one event you believe should be taught in every history class?


Mr. Fitz– Oh, wow. So, there’s so many to choose from, but I would give you two answers here because they’re kind of the same: The Gulf of Tonkin resolution– The Gulf of Tonkin incident and resolution, and the Colin Powell, who just died last week, his speech at the UN in 2003, which both are the beginnings of wars, right? And, I think there is no more important question than when a nation decides to go to war. And, yet we keep doing the same thing, right? We keep doing the same thing. And maybe if we taught those more seriously, then we would have less war. Now, there might be some well-intentioned people who study that well and say “You know what Mr. Fitz?” or students, or colleagues, “even though that might not have happened I think we should have still gone to Vietnam” or, “even though we should have gone to Iraq, I’ll definitely disagree…” But, teaching them, you know, how to pick apart the evidence is very important. It’s not that people have to come to the same conclusion, but, let’s look at the phone transcripts of President Johnson, and how much do they know or not know before the Vietnam War? If people studied history more or were able to pick apart evidence more would the U.S. have gone to war, then? If 8,000 American troops, let alone 3-4 million Vietnamese, Cambodians. 


Yamilka– Do you look up to anyone in your career such as activists, authors, historians, or other teachers?


Mr. Fitz- My dad, definitely, Dr. Barbosa – miss her – and then, yeah, there will be teachers there. Definitely activists and scholars. Noam Chomsky, if you know the name, he’s getting up there, he writes a ton, and he certainly has a bias but he uses declassified stuff from the government, so he’s like, “This is what the government is saying.” I think of historical figures as well would be Frederick Douglass, the other day I was thinking about who would be the most important people, I mean, this is not a question you could really answer, but Douglass and Harriet Tubman, they did it all. Nowadays, there are a lot of scholars, teachers; Greg Grandin is another historian I read a lot, like his work. People who are involved in scholarship, education, activism, reflection. 


Yamilka– Do you have a favorite historian?


Mr. Fitz– Yeah, probably Greg Grandin. I’ve only come across him in the past 2-3 years, but he has a lot of stuff on the border. I recommend “The End of the Myth.” It is a very good book, which actually won a Pulitzer. For what it’s worth, he also has done– well he has a lot of books. He just has a way of weaving facts but makes it very interesting– but yeah, Greg Grandin. 


Yamilka– What do you want students to take away from your class?


Mr.Fitz– The ability to think critically. People don’t have to agree with me, but like– in fact it’s better, it’s more fun when they don’t. Like when people say if they want to get vaccines or not, you know it. But, the approach of reading critically, thinking critically, and then writing. Like, I think, you’ll forget a lot of the content, but like, did you become a better writer? It’s harder when you have, you know,  a class of 30. But to be better critical thinkers– and therefore to be the positive contributors to our country and the world. And for me, that would be peace, justice, equality, but hopefully other people think the same. 


Angelina- The next question is, what happened to the politics club?


Yamilka– Everybody wants to know.


Mr. Fitz– Do we want to do it? 


Yamilka & Synai– Yes.


Mr.Fitz– Okay, so, I mean we could do it, the thing is, I mean I know we’d want to do it in person, but with my daughter, picking her up from daycare. I gotta pick her up from daycare everyday, would people still go if it was virtual? Or would that be cheesy? 


Yamilka– I would still go, I don’t know about other people.


Synai– Yeah, I would still go. 


Mr. Fitz– Cause I can maybe do it virtually, cause like, my tutoring for AP, I’m gonna do that virtually because I can’t do it after school and the mornings stink, there’s always too much stuff going on. We could do it virtually if people would do it, you know, I can send out a– you know, and see who is interested. Virtually, it would also be after 4:30 probably. Obviously you’ve got dinner, and stuff like that. We can drink coffee together and someone can lead the presentation, I’d be willing to do it. If there’s an interest, yeah. It certainly doesn’t have to be me, if another faculty member wanted to do it and have it in person, because obviously in person is better, but as I told the kids with tutoring, virtual is better than not having it, right? But yeah, I think it’s important. 


Synai– Next question, since we know you’ve been in the navy, in what ways has being in the navy impacted your life?


Mr.Fitz– So, it taught me, I saw a lot of bad leadership, I saw some good leadership, it taught me a lot about boredom, and like, there’s a lot of downtime in the navy, like a lot. It taught me, I mean these are  kind of spiritual and emotional lessons, but it taught me how to cope. You know, things get stressful here at school as a teacher, but like not even close to being in the navy, so it’s like, you’ll be alright. You learn how to cope and when you’re out at sea and it’s like 2 A.M, and it’s just you and the ocean, you get a lot of time to think. If your head is on straight, you’ll think about some good things. There are sadly, you know, people whose heads aren’t on straight and think about a lot of dark things. Which is why in the military, there’s high levels of substance abuse, and depression, and suicide, and suicide attempts. But anyway, all to say, it taught me how to– it taught me a lot of things about leadership, taught me how to put up with some crap, taught me how to figure out what’s what. Here’s the thing, I went to a very, very white highschool. Notre Dame is a very, very white college. The military is relatively diverse. Now, not always for the reasons I think as we were sharing. Nevertheless, people come from all over the place, socioeconomically, race, religion, etc. It taught me to work with people who are not from the same background as I am. And then, how it influenced me, here’s the irony of it, I was in the navy when the Iraq war started, and that kind of changed everything. So, I knew that I couldn’t be a part of the machine for that much longer, and I knew from that experience that I would get out and try to work for peace, and against war and militarism through various ways. One way through teaching, which goes back to the Gulf of Tonkin, people actually studied and knew to approach things critically, we would always be in the same mess. I think if people who have read their history, “Okay, this is a complicated thing, these events are complicated, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no right or wrong.” 


Yamilka– And, what advice or life lesson do you value that you would give to students at PASE?


Mr. Fitz– Good question. Yeah, wow. Read, like it doesn’t have to be history. Just read. I should probably read less history. Like I don’t read enough fiction or poetry or things outside of my wheelhouse. My wife says I would be a lot more pleasant of a person if I read less history. You know, just read up, read novels. I don’t know, what do you think? Did I give you any good advice? 


Angelina– Self-educate.


Mr.Fitz– Self-educate? Alright. 


Yamilka– Yeah, I feel like, I don’t know if I know how to say it. Like being open to hearing other’s opinions. I’m so used to hearing myself all the time, but hearing other opinions is not always necessarily a bad thing, especially because it can influence them too.


Synai– Like what Yami said, online, it was quite hard to learn, but seeing you put in that effort and seeing the class also have discussions based on topics that we had mostly disagreed on. It was interesting to see different viewpoints and learn to respect others viewpoints. It’s something that I’ve learned, that it’s okay for someone to disagree with you, and that you’re not always going to be right.


Yamilka– Also another thing, get comfortable in being uncomfortable. 


Synai– Yeah, that too.


Yamilka– Because a lot of people– what was it about the Lavender Scare? We had to play the role of somebody who isn’t straight at the time of that event. For many people it could’ve made them uncomfortable, but I think being uncomfortable is good sometimes, beecause a lot of people don’t get that perspective.


Mr.Fitz– That’s a good uncomfortable. What I wouldn’t want is anyone who was questioning their sexuality to feel uncomfortable in that case.  It was for allies. So yeah, reading, self-educating, being uncomfortable with discomfort, which is not the same as being unsafe, right? It’s a safe classroom, but it’s going to be uncomfortable. I didn’t want to say something genetic like do your homework.


Yamilka– Something else I think too is checking your privilege. Although a lot of us, especially in this school, we’re people of color, there’s levels and a lot of intersectionality so, although I’m a Black woman, I’m able-bodied, I’m straight, so I feel like privilege was definitely something I learned. 


Mr.Fitz– Particularly when you say able bodied, take it so for granted that it doesn’t even come up in my list of forms of discrimination. Yeah. I think at PASE, people feel the pressure, because you pick a pathway and you have to know what you’re going to do but, like, you can change that. It’s not always easy, depending on the way you want to go. If you want to go from teaching history to engineering or teaching history to becoming a doctor, that’s a little bit harder. You can do it. But the opposite is a little easier. I am very passionate about the topics that you all are, in the spirit of Dr.King and many others, you still hope for the conversion of the other. So I have to remind myself, not to sound preach-y, but love is the ultimate value. The reason why we do all this reading and studying is so that we become more loving, kind people. I might go after people from a place of love. I think the way King practiced that radical love is something we can take.  


Thank you to all the history teachers who dedicate their time to transparency, advocacy, the good and ugly, morality, togetherness, perspective and most importantly, truth. They have taught us that history is ongoing, which is why it is crucial that we are it’s positive contributors. 


“We are not the makers of history. We are made by history.” -Martin Luther King Jr. 

Special thanks to  Mr.Fitz & Angelina Aguilar Torres for participating in the interview!