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Teaching the Lessons of War and Peace
Posted 01/28/2019 02:18PM
Bill Britton

“This course is the work of my life. I don’t know of another place where I could do this.”

Prep social studies teacher Bill Britton has been a tank company commander USMC, a business executive, college professor, poet, and lifelong student of history.

Today, he brings the full range of that experience to bear in his classroom at St. John’s. In a Classroom Takeout presentation last week, he captivated a standing-room-only audience of parents and alumni with stories about what brought him to the Prep 20 years ago, and what led him to create the immensely popular elective, “War and Peace in a Dangerous World.” More photos on SmugMug

As Britton tells it, his mission was to design a course that would cover the Cold War and the Vietnam War to the present day. From the beginning, he knew that he wanted to do more than study historical events themselves. He felt it was important for students to look at different points of view, consider the obligations of citizenship in a democratic society, and have meaningful conversation about the issues that have brought nations to war throughout history.

“It’s serious stuff,” he says. “I make my classroom a safe space so the boys feel free to express their opinions. The only opinion that doesn’t matter is mine.”

Teaching is something of a team sport for Britton, who also coaches freshman and Middle School football. He makes it a point to invites experts—historians, soldiers, security experts, and scholars—to his classroom throughout the year.

Guests in his classroom have included Gene Baron, Ph.D. ’70, a Prep Latin teacher and classics scholar who explores warfare as recounted in ancient texts like “The Iliad;” Vice Admiral Richard Brown ’81, Commander of the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet; Ambassador John Cloud ‘71, an instructor at the Naval War College; Joe Collins ‘71, an attorney who focused on soldiers as peacemakers during his service as a civil affairs officer; Hank Healy ’71, an educational development specialist with extensive experience the developing world; Commander Kevin Kelly ’65, an instructor at the Naval War College; Jane Mason ’77, a retired FBI special agent who now works as a private investigator; and Gary Smith, Science Department chair at the Prep, who speaks on climate change and its impact on the mission of the US military. All of these expert voices bring depth and dimension to classroom conversations. Not surprisingly, they have become a highlight of the course for students.

A deft and early user of technology in the classroom, Britton takes advantage of multimedia resources like original newscasts, films, music, and poetry to engage students in different ways and different senses. He encourages creativity with his assignments, as well. He proudly fills his classroom with paintings, posters, models, and displays created by students through the years.    

Britton graduated from Northeastern University after attending Keith Academy, the now-closed Xaverian Brothers school in Lowell. President John Kennedy’s call to service left an indelible impression on him as a young man. When he was preparing to graduate from Northeastern, Britton remembered the President’s call. “I was looking for a challenge, and I felt the military was something I could do,” he said. “The three and a half years I spent as a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps continue to define my life in many ways, even today.”

After military service and a successful, 30-year career in the corporate world, he once again felt the call to serve. That led him to pursue a master’s in English literature at Salem State University and five years as an adjunct professor at Endicott College. In 1998, St. John’s was seeking a social studies teacher, and happily for the Prep, Bill Britton once again responded to the call.

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