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2021 Teacher of the Year: Jim Fagan

Recognizing Excellence in the Field of Education:
Jim Fagan Named 2021 Teacher of the Year

Since 2018, the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation has recognized one teacher from the State of New Jersey who has made valuable contributions to the study and teaching of the Vietnam War Era. The Foundation seeks to celebrate and show appreciation to our long-time network of educators that has made teaching this complex history a priority. 

Q&A with Jim Fagan

Why is this era so important to teach? 

I think that this era is so important to teach because it contains so many levels and viewpoints. The Vietnam Era is not simply about the fighting in Vietnam, but also fits into the larger narrative of the Civil Rights Movements, the Cold War, and even Watergate. This era can also be studied from many different viewpoints. Meaning one can look at the historical context, as well as the psychological and sociological views.

This era is also important because there are still many lessons that can be learned from it and still even more stories that have not been fully told. The Vietnam Era encompasses many shifts in American history, and to fully understand our history, one must understand those shifts.

What does bringing students to the NJVVMF add to your classrooms? What are the major takeaways students leave with? 

Bringing students to NJVVMF provides the students with an opportunity to see many different primary sources and to hear from the people who were actually there, as opposed to hearing it from their teacher. The students have a far greater appreciation when hearing these first-hand stories as it greatly personalizing the experience for them. They are often taken aback when they hear how young the men were when they were in Vietnam. Also, they gain a better understanding of the toll that the war had.

Military history is an important piece in your classroom – why is it so important? 

Military history is important because it helps to tell the full story of a country and the experiences. It should also instill a sense of not only pride but also an appreciation for all that we have. This comes from understanding the sacrifices that have been and are still being made, and to see that there are some things that are bigger than one individual.

You run the History Club at Manasquan High School- what do students gain from participation in this club? 

The students in the history club are afforded the opportunity to learn about history in different ways. We try to take at least two field trips a year and perform community service for different organizations. We have guest speakers and host the annual Vietnam Veterans Day at the school. This year the students are all doing presentations on different topics that are of interest to them.

Local and oral histories are important. How do you tell the story of New Jersey history in the classroom and from the perspective of people who lived it? 

Local and oral history is extremely important because it helps students form a connection to different events. It is often difficult to fully grasp history unless one can actually see or hear evidence of it.

One way that I do this is by finding people that can tell those stories or taking students to those places. The students are often amazed to find out how much there is so close to them.

What is your favorite song of the Vietnam Era? 

My favorite Vietnam Era song to use in class is County Joe and the Fish’s “I Fell Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”. I find that this song is extremely complex when fully analyzed including the music itself, the lyrics, and even Joe McDonald’s military career. I also enjoy Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” because it hits upon not only Vietnam but also all of the other events that were going on in society. Therefore, it creates a full picture of the time period.

While not a Vietnam Era song, I will also mention Alice in Chain’s “Rooster”, which is about Jerry Cantrell Sr.’s (Jerry Cantrell Jr. is the guitarist/vocalist in Alice in Chains) time in Vietnam. The lyrics provide a rather in-depth look at the viewpoint of a soldier at the time. I also like that you have a grunge band finding its way to teach history.

What can students learn from the Vietnam Era? 

To answer this question, I have attached a document titled “What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam”. It is an article from American Heritage magazine from 1987. A history teacher decided to do a project where he contacted different people who were major players during the era. The article has their responses.

I included this because I am not entirely sure that it is my place to say what students can learn from the era, as I was not there. It is far better that those who were there share their lessons and experiences.

With that said, I do not want to completely punt on answering this question. One major thing that can be learned is perspective. This era means a lot of different things to different people. It is important that all of those sides are explored and heard. Students should also learn that the way that history is studied evolves over time and that it is important to continue to look at different eras to see what new lessons can be learned.

In light of teaching during COVID, what do you think students can learn as they are literally living through history? 

During my first year teaching, I had one of my dad’s childhood friends come in and speak to my classes. Dennis Caddigan, who has since passed away, was a Vietnam Vet. During his first mission, a grenade went off in his face and he was left holding his eyes in his hands. He started his talk by saying that he was a living primary source and that he was going to talk about what it was like to be coming of age in the mid-60s and into the early 70s. He then said to the students that all of them were primary sources and that one day someone will ask them what it was like to be alive through certain events.

COVID has provided that opportunity to students today. One day they will be asked what it was like. How did it change their lives? How did you make them make it through and pass their time? My hope is that the students understand that and appreciate that these are historic times and that lessons can be learned and stories should be told.

The NJVVMF Teacher of the Year Committee is always looking for nominations from colleagues, administrators, and community members. If you know of a teacher that is making important contributions to the teaching of the Vietnam Era, please send their name, school district, and a little bit about why they should be nominated to Keri A. Giannotti at for consideration by the committee.

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