Around the World with Mr. McTernan

Mariam Khan ’24

As he does on any average weekday, Mr. McTernan earnestly wrestles with his computer speakers, occasionally to no avail. Though his students generally agree that he has lived nine lives and has practiced just about every profession possible, his daily battle against technology continues to wage onward. 

However, Mr. McTernan never fails to capture his students’ attention with his jovial laughter and intriguing persona. Throughout his history lessons, he finds opportunities to make classes more interesting by peppering lectures with anecdotes of his past experiences; from his 2-week trek in the Himalayas to his ample knowledge of sports as a father to athletes, he’s never lacking in the story department. He says gratefully, “I’ve done a lot in my life. It’s been fun. Sometimes not so fun, but usually fun.”

Mr. McTernan grew up in Basking Ridge and attended Ridge High School—back when his current classroom in the 500-wing did not even exist! After attending college, he began his career as an investment banker, where he was rewarded the opportunity to travel to numerous places around the globe. His business-casual attire of khakis and a button-down shirt coupled with a vest serve as a testament to his time working on Wall Street. 

From there, after living in London and Tokyo, he decided it was time to return home to give back to his community. He ran for office and served his town for a few years, before pursuing a career in teaching. When asked about his favorite historical period, Mr. McTernan answers by listing basically all of them. And fun fact—even though he is a history teacher, he is also qualified to teach science. 

Thankfully, beyond his busy life as an aspiring author, dad, teacher, and regular knowledge-seeker, Mr. McTernan was able to fit in the time to answer some questions for RDA. As a teacher with an accomplished history (pun intended), people contemplate whether he has been to Mars! RDA’s Mariam Khan ‘24 sat down with him for an exclusive interview, but 25 minutes was hardly enough to understand the convoluted life of Mr. McTernan. Speaking from his classroom at Ridge High School, he retrospected on his past endeavors, his current passions, and lessons he has learned thus far in life. Here are some highlights that are edited for clarity.

Q: Where is the coolest place you have traveled to or lived in?

A: Early in my career, I was transferred to London— a very interesting city. I loved the history of it, the different cultures, and I loved the access that it gave you to see all sorts of different countries. And that was all awesome, but what was particularly cool, upon reflection, is that I was living in a place that was at the front row of history, much more up close and personal than if I was living in the US. I worked in London from 1988 to 1992 which was when the Berlin Wall came down and when Eastern Europe overthrew communism. The reunification of Germany happened—and as a historian, that’s big. I did my final senior thesis on Germany. I got to see all of that first-hand. 

I also went on a trip once to Nepal. I went trekking in the Himalayas and the place is so spiritual; you cannot help but be moved by it. You’re walking through these villages and you’re staying with local people and then you go up into the mountains and leave the world behind you, literally. It also gives you an aspect of a different culture and how people live. Amongst all that beauty, you had people who worked so hard to make $3 a week. It was really educational and was one of the more memorable places I’ve been to.

Q: Where did you gather your knowledge about History and the world in general?

A: It’s a lifetime pursuit. Originally, I was not going to be a history major in college. In RHS, I was a science person, but then I had collected so many AP credits, that I placed out of college science. With my extra time, I took history classes along with economics. I woke up one day and I realized I could double major in history and economics because I already had so many of the credits fulfilled. That’s when I realized I loved it, and after that, I joined history book clubs, etc. 

Q: What is your favorite coronavirus vaccine and have you gotten it yet?

A: I got the Moderna shot. I’m all in on getting vaccinated and I think everyone should. 

Q: You’ve been a student, an investment banker, a teacher, and you’ve even done weddings for people before. Which career that you’ve had is your favorite and why?

A: I would say that at every point of life I was in, I was always very very satisfied with my occupation. When I was a student, I loved being a student. I was one of those students who, when there were paper encyclopedias, I would read them at home. My wife still makes fun of me for that. But when I got into finance, I really enjoyed that; I did it for 20 years, and I found it exciting. When I lived in London, it satiated my passion for history. You analyze how markets work, how people work. It’s demographics, history, and economics. I got to do that for a living, and I also got to travel a lot which was very neat. But like everything in life, when you do it for a while, sometimes the challenge lessens. And it was time for me to do something else. 

One thing about finance is that you don’t get a lot of time to do other things. I got to do things in the community that I really loved: one of which was run for office and perform weddings—to be part of something that is that joyful, to actually be a part of the ceremony is really really fulfilling. You realize that your community has done so much for you, and it’s nice to give back on the local level. Now I get to teach! The weird thing with teaching is that I knew I wanted to teach the day I graduated college, and my friends made fun of me for decades. They would say ‘When are you going to teach history, huh?’ And I would say, “Don’t worry.” And when I did it, they were amazed. This is the right stage in my life to do it. I’m loving it. I’m learning a lot, because when you do new things, you are engaged, it makes you challenged, and every day I learn something new. I love being in the classroom with students. Zoom, not so much. 

Q: What is one thing or person you can’t live without?

A: My family. They support me. You mentioned that I’ve done a lot of things, but I couldn’t have done all the things I’ve done without my family. 

Q: I know you went to Ridge a while ago. So if you remember, were the classrooms at Ridge any different in the 20th century than what they are today?

A: Where we sit in social studies did not exist! The building had no 500, 600, or 700 wings. The gym didn’t exist, and the current guidance office used to be the auditorium. Now, there’s more real estate and many more teachers and students. When I graduated, there were 250 students in my graduating class. A lot has changed for the better. The new gym is great, the PAC is awesome, putting in new labs has improved the school, and overall, the Board of Education has done a great job funding the building. 

Q: Do you have any pets? 

A: I have a 6-year-old cockapoo (12 lbs, very feisty) and a 3-year-old Goldendoodle. I love dogs. I’m very allergic to animals, but hypoallergenic dogs are a great invention!

Q: Where is your favorite location to grade papers?

A: I have a little office in my house that I’ve created and I’ve filled it in throughout the pandemic: I have all my favorite possessions in there; I have maps, I have citations from the NJ state legislature, things from my working career. All that gives me joy. 

Q: In terms of teaching, what is one thing that you cannot wait for once the pandemic is over, hopefully, this September? 

A: Never having to wear my masks again. But also, I joke with my friends and family that I’ve had enough Zooms to last me the end of my life. 

Q: What is your favorite historical period or event?

A: It’s not a section of history we teach in 9th grade, but I’m really into antiquity history. I’ve been trying to write a book on the Hellenistic period after Alexander the Great died, when his generals fight over the empire. I also like WWII and European history. From our curriculum, I like the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution because those are things you look at every day and say, “We wouldn’t be having this conversation right now without those inventions.” 

Q: If you could give one piece of advice to the people reading this article, what would it be?

A: I would say take advantage of all the opportunities you have; from a learning perspective, extracurriculars, etc. You go through stuff, and you look back and you never want to say “I should have done this.” The people who want to make that extra effort to engage and try new things, take risks, and get involved with new groups are the ones who make connections and learn things and have their passions shone to them. Say yes to things because you never know where they will lead you.