You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t love Peter Fiddner.
“When I first started at Burley, I knew Peter was going to be one to watch out for, in the best way possible,” Kasaundra Blount, principal of Burley Middle School, said. “I knew he was going to keep me on my toes because he was such a great advocate of making sure that we as a school were doing what was best for students.”
And that’s just what he has done.
Peter joined ACPS in August 2000 as a fifth-grade math teacher at Brownsville Elementary School. Right out of college at the age of 22, he was still finding his footing as an educator. Teaching was something he was interested in, but helping students connect to the world around them taught him that teaching was more than just a job. It quickly became his life’s calling.
“At that age,” he said, “kids are just starting to find out who they are. I like being able to reach them at that age and help them figure out where they fit in and how math fits into their life.”
He said that in the fifth grade is when students start to take a look at how different types of math impact the world, now that they have the basics down pat.
“There are some cultural elements to teaching math that I didn’t know about until I was in the classroom,” Peter said. “And when you show students who think they’re bad at something that they’re really not, that they can succeed, that translates into the rest of their life, too,” he added.
In addition to teaching at Brownsville, Peter also taught at Agnor-Hurt and Woodbrook as a math specialist and most recently has been teaching sixth-grade math at Burley.
It was at Burley where Peter combined two of his passions: teaching and soccer. He was able to teach some of the kids he coached on his team through the Soccer Organization Charlottesville Area (SOCA) program.
“I played soccer while I was growing up,” Peter said. “It helped shape me into who I am today.”
Soccer also allowed Peter to connect more deeply with students. He speaks of one, Hugo Marquez. When he found out Hugo wasn’t yet on a team, the mentor saw an opportunity.
“When Hugo came into my classroom, I could see that although he didn’t play, he was passionate about soccer. I knew that could be a way I could help Hugo find his path in life,” the teacher said. He worked with Hugo’s parents to help get him on the soccer field, and from there, his math and soccer student blossomed.
“To me, he was always more than just a coach or a teacher,” Hugo said. “He helped grow my passion for soccer, and he always kept me on my toes in school.”
“Even when I went to high school, he would still check in with me to make sure I was still playing soccer and keeping my grades up,” Hugo remembers.
Hugo continued playing soccer at Monticello High School and for the SOCA travel team. He is now part of the Penn State Greater Allegheny men’s soccer team as a freshman, where he plans to major in business.
“Soccer really helped Hugo come into himself,” Peter said. “Not only as a student, but as a person.”
“He’s like a family member to me,” Hugo said. “When I graduated high school and he told me he was proud of me, it meant a lot to me.”
“He was one of those quiet teachers,” Kelly Molina, Hugo’s mother, said, “but he made such a big impact on my son. Hugo still thinks very highly of him to this day.”
But students aren’t the only ones who felt Peter Fiddner’s presence.
At Burley, Peter stepped into the role of Math Content Lead for the school. But his influence as a leader among the staff flowed into all content areas.
“When he needs to step up to make sure that someone’s voice is heard, he steps up, no matter who they are,” his principal said.
That’s only one of the reasons she finds that Peter truly lives up to his self-proclaimed moniker, “King of the Dungeon” — in reference to the sixth grade’s location on the basement-level floor of the school.
“He’s a trifecta of a teacher,” she said.
Kasaundra went on to describe the three superpowers that make Peter such a great educator. He cares about his students, which instills a confidence that bolsters their learning; he holds high expectations for his students and treats them in a way that makes them want to reach those expectations; and is knowledgeable enough about the content to ensure he’s flexible in the way he reaches students in the way that makes the most sense to them.
These demonstrated strengths were recognized when Peter received a Golden Apple Award in 2018. The Golden Apples are ACPS’ highest teaching honor, as teachers are nominated by the community and selected by a committee of former area educators and administrators. According to his nomination, Peter “knows where students need to be and how to get them there. He understands how students think and plans his lessons with their strengths and weaknesses in mind.”
“This most recent class of sixth-graders didn’t even get to meet him in person because of virtual learning,” Kasaundra said, “but even from behind the screen he still made the same impact on them.”
And even though he might not have had the same face-to-face interaction with students over the past year, switching to virtual learning had a silver lining for Peter, who, a few months ago, received a terminal diagnosis.
“That was the hardest day, for me,” he said. “Having to tell my students that I wouldn’t be in the classroom every day. It crushed me.”
But Peter still made it to class almost every day. His wife, Nancy Fiddner, who teaches at Brownsville, said that every day he wasn’t at the doctor’s office receiving treatment, he was in his virtual class with his students.
“Virtual was nice, for me, actually, because I knew if we opened up again, I would have to stay virtual anyway, so I made the best of it. I wanted to push through, for the kids,” Peter said. “I think in a way, it was another lesson I could teach them, that no matter what happens, you have to keep moving forward. You have to keep fighting.”
And bringing his best to the classroom and putting his all into supporting his students is nothing new for Peter.
“He will never brag about himself, because that’s just the kind of person he is,” Nancy said. “But he was always the first to bring new technology into the classroom, or volunteer to try out something new.”
“He just wants the absolute best for his students,” she said.
So, Peter used his time in the classroom as a guiding light in this part of his journey.
“For me, it’s not a job where you work for the weekend,” Peter said. “I look forward to going into the classroom every day.”
And as much as he’s taught his students over the years, it’s the lessons that they’ve taught him that he holds most precious. When you help kids begin to find their place in the world, he said, you begin to find yourself, too. Once you embrace who you are, the more you can help the students.
“If you’re doing it right, the kids help you through the day,” he said. “They help you as much as you help them.”
And if there’s one last lesson he’s learned and wants to pass on to his kids, he said, it’s perseverance.
“I want my students to fight for themselves and what they believe in,” Peter said. “I tell them, ‘Fight for you and fight for what you want. You get out what you put in.’”
Update: Peter Fiddner passed surrounded by his family on Wednesday, August 25. The family will take visitors on Friday, September 3, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Hill & Wood, located at 201 1st St N in downtown Charlottesville. A memorial service is also being held at the Burley Middle School auditorium on Saturday, September 4, at 10 a.m. with a reception to follow at the school.