Teacher Feature: Patrick O’Brien


O’Brien twinning with his daughter after a Rage Against the Machine concert. (Photo courtesy Patrick O’Brien)

Hailey Church

Known as “The History Guy” here at Hills and beyond, Patrick O’Brien is one of those teachers’ students will not soon forget once they leave Warren Hills. 

That is not by mere happenstance, but by design, as O’Brien said he had a teacher in high school that he tries to model after in his own teaching style. 

“I model my teaching style, somewhat, after Anthony Petrarca, my history teacher for three years. I remember how he had a great rapport with the students, did his best to make us comfortable, and sometimes told self-deprecating stories,” he said. “I can’t recall any specific stories, but I remember they almost always began with, ‘My mother used to always say to me… Anthony…’ and then talk about something foolish he had done.” 

O’Brien grew up in Staten Island, and played baseball at Tottenville High School, earning him a half scholarship for academics and to play at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Newburgh, NY.

       He then transferred after two years to State University of New York at Binghamton where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics and Law. To further his education, O’Brien went to Lehigh University and graduated with a master’s degree in American Studies. 

       O’Brien said he never originally planned to teach; his original goal had been to go to law school to eventually become a lawyer. 

“I was about to sign the papers to attend law school at St. John’s University School of Law and decided in the final few seconds, that I didn’t want to get hundreds of thousands of dollars further into debt,” he said. “That is when I pivoted to education.” 

O’Brien, who has been teaching for 21 years, said some things have changed over time.

“Students are more politically aware,” he said. “Standardized testing has certainly increased since my teaching career began in September 2001. My approach to some of the content has changed as well, because, as a society, we are more mindful of the effect of our words when discussing past tragedies.” 

Yet, for O’Brien, the job is its own reward. 

“Some of the most rewarding things for me as a teacher is hearing the kind words of students telling me how they enjoyed my class and learned a little,” he said. “It makes me very happy to hear students tell me they were inspired by my class to become a history teacher.” 

Ever-thoughtful, O’Brien has specific ideas as to how the teaching profession could be improved. 

        “I would professionalize teaching, meaning I would increase the requirements to become a teacher while also increasing the professional autonomy and salaries,” he said. “In Finland, for example, teachers must earn two master’s degrees, prior to entering the classroom and are trusted, as professionals, instead of micromanaged.” 

O’Brien had some sage advice for both potential and current teachers.

“I would be overloaded with work, and I realized I was giving too much to my students and was indirectly giving myself too much as well,” he said.  “So, one of the biggest pieces of advice I would give about teaching is that you need to make sure you love the subject you teach as well as maintaining a healthy work-life balance.”