SOMERVILLE, NJ - Immaculata High School history teacher Pete Keller, who is celebrating 50 years as an educator, writes the word RESPECT in big letters on the white board the first day of school to deliver a message.
Respect is the cornerstone of his educational career. “I think it is the key on how I have remained relevant for so many generations. I tell my students how important it is that I will respect them and they, in turn, must respect me and their classmates.”
A graduate of St. Peter’s High School, New Brunswick and Assumption College, Worcester, Mass, Keller began his career at Mt. St. John’s Residential Home and School in Connecticut in 1968. Working with troubled teenaged boys, Keller perhaps learned the secret of reaching a young audience. “To gain respect, you must give respect and from there you can build upon trust, understanding, and learning.”
When legendary St Peter’s High School history teacher, Francis “Bud” Murphy died, Keller got the call to return to his alma mater. “I always said that no one can replace Bud Murphy, a World War II hero and extraordinary history teacher who taught me; I simply took his spot.”
From 1969 to 2007, when St. Peter’s closed its doors, a new era of a legendary History teacher was born. “My first assignment was teaching the Problems of American Democracy to seniors. Those students were expecting Mr. Murphy, but fortunately, they knew how much I admired Bud and they graciously accepted me.”
For most of his tenure at St. Peter’s, Keller taught US History and the History of New Jersey to sophomores and seniors. The Civil War reconstruction era and the colonial period remain Keller’s favorite periods in history. Ironically, when Keller started out, so many key events of the modern US History had not even occurred.
“I can give them a front row seat interpretation of the Vietnam war, Watergate, the American Embassy hostage crisis, the attempted Reagan assassination, the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, 9/11, and our current political dilemmas. I think the students find that valuable.”
Being a parent of two children with different learning styles helped him to become a better teacher feels Keller.
“My son, who is a professional actor and adjunct professor, was a very strong student, for whom learning came easily. My daughter was classified, but she overcame her learning disabilities and now serves as a head librarian in a large public high school, after she obtained her master’s degree. So I learned how very important it was to relate differently to my students, based on their academic needs.”
Besides teaching, Keller served many roles at St. Peter’s. He was athletic director for 6 years and coached baseball for 25 years and softball for 3 years. He also was the substitute athletic department bus driver and served as senior class moderator.
When news of Keller’s 50th anniversary reached the St. Peter’s Alumni Facebook, it was flooded with accolades about him. Alumni from all generations noted his patience, his dedication, his contagious enthusiasm for this subject, and his devotion to Catholic education. “I remember Mr. Keller,” says Marc Koller, a 1991 graduate of St. Peter’s High School, “as a faith-filled man who cared deeply for each of his students. He sought to make history come to life and did in each class. The most memorable lesson would have to be how Washington crossing the Delaware showed that you will win through determination.”
Keller inspired many of his students to follow his path into teaching. Cathy Dusault Zisk, a 2004 St Peter’s alumni, is one such person.
“To say he was a memorable teacher is an understatement; I do not think anyone who had him ever forgot his dry sense of humor, interesting stories, and charismatic attitude. He always had a way of making history class more than dates and figures. In his class history became alive and dynamic. As a history teacher now, I tell my students that I was privileged to have had great teachers and that I wanted to try to do the same for the next generation. I hope in my lifetime, I can give my students a passion for learning and history, as Mr. Keller did for me.”
In 2007 Keller started the second chapter of his teaching career at Immaculata High School. “I was absolutely struck when I got here by the visceral connection here with the students, current and former parents, and alumni. Immaculata really is a community. And I was so impressed with the level of participation by students in Campus Ministry, Music, and Athletics. Nearly every student is engaged in some extra activity.”
As soon as Keller joined the staff, he became immersed in the Spartan culture. Besides teaching his standard load of courses, Keller served as Spartan Spirit Senior moderator, the site supervisor for sporting events, the boys’ basketball timekeeper and on-call public announcer, as well as a Model UN chaperone.
Spartan students view Keller with great fondness and admiration. Syracuse student Jen Bercaw’15 says, “Mr. Keller scores an 11 out of 10. He instilled a love of history in all of us, just through his own love of the subject. He is so funny, caring, and genuine that all students loved him.”
Asked how he is able to keep his presentation fresh after all of these years, he says, “I never feel that I am going to work; I am going to school to be with the kids. That’s a huge advantage. Embracing technology and all it has to offer allows me to always keep my material current and engaging. Teaching in a Catholic environment is important to me. I feel that it gives me intellectual freedom and allows my students to discuss critical issues that they perhaps could not do in the public school environment. I love working in a faith-filled atmosphere with prayers, liturgies, and the support of the religious orders.”
Perhaps Keller’s biggest compliment and greatest motivator was expressed by one of his students, who said, “You really like teaching us.”
And so he does.