Rocky Mount Elementary fifth-grade teacher Anthony Swann was left speechless when he was awarded Franklin County Public Schools Teacher of the Year during the spring semester of 2020. At the time, it was the peak of his teaching career — until he recently reached a new milestone.
On Friday, Swann mentioned that his principal, Dr. Lisa Newell, sent out an email the day before informing the entire faculty and staff that Superintendent Dr. Mark Church wanted to meet with the entire school at 1 p.m. in a Zoom meeting.
“I was thinking that it must’ve been important for him to be taking instructional time to address the entire school; my thoughts were centered toward COVID-19,” Swann said.
Who could blame him? After all, 2020 has definitely been a hectic year for public schools in the state of Virginia. With that in mind, Swann thought he was going to be getting the news that Franklin County was going to go all virtual the rest of the semester, but what really happened turned out to be the new peak of his teaching career.
In a Zoom call with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, he announced eight teachers across the state who were named region teacher of the year for their respective areas. The eight winners also are finalists for the 2021 Virginia Teacher of the Year. Before his name was called as Region 6 Teacher of the Year, it all hit Swann on what was about to happen.
“I instantly jumped out of my chair, and I was like, ‘No way, no way, no way. You have got to be kidding me,’” he said.
It was anything but a joke. As soon as Northam announced that Swann was Region 6 Teacher of the Year, he was again left speechless and in tears, as he was celebrated at his school.
“I cried tears of joy until I had a headache,” he said.
For him personally, those tears he cried that day were of joy and happiness, as they should. After all, Swann overcame a lot of trials and tribulations during his childhood days.
He recalls when he was just a toddler roaming the streets of Chicago because he was homeless. His mom would leave him and his siblings alone for weeks, and they would have to fend for themselves. That was just the beginning of his struggles, as Swann and his family moved to Danville when he was 5 years old, but things didn’t get better for him — they got worse. Swann mentioned that his father didn’t care or claim him, and he watched his mother get arrested while she was drunk in the middle of the night. It was then Swann and his siblings were put into foster care.
One day during fourth grade, someone from Social Services came to take Swann away, and he remembers that he was embarrassed, hurt, humiliated and was wanting his life to end. His fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Jerretta Wilson, grabbed and hugged him before he was taken away and told him that everything was going to be all right. It was then that Swann knew what he wanted to be in life: a teacher.
During his time in foster care, Swann found a way to cope with the trauma of not being with his parents, and that was playing school. He did this for three years until he was 14.
“I literally did this every single day, including Saturdays and Sundays,” Swann said.
He remembered how he would make his brother, Darol Swann Jr., mad because they shared a room and he would take up the entire space to use as a classroom. His sisters, Gale Ferguson and Takilla Florence, were supportive of him and allowed Swann to use their stuffed animals and baby dolls to be his students when he played school. This motivated Swann to not let his current situation dictate his future; rather, he took his destiny into his own hands. He had a little help on the way as well.
When Swann was 14, Wilson — the same teacher who comforted Swann when someone from Social Services came to take him away — found him and offered to help him. She encouraged him to make something of himself and stayed by his side the whole way. One way that Wilson helped Swann was by picking him up every single day during his time in college so he could get to his student teacher placement, as he didn’t have a car at the time.
Simply put, Swann felt the impact that a teacher can have on students, and he worked and strived every day so that he could be to his students what Wilson was to him. Once he got out of foster care at age 21, Swann entered his work field ready to impact lives. Not only has he done that for 14 years, but his teaching was finally recognized.
“Never in a million years did I ever think that I’d win an honor this high,” Swann said. “I feel as though this is the peak of my entire career thus far.”
Winning the County and Region Teacher of the Year is still a surreal feeling for Swann, but it has ignited an even greater fire to serve children in whatever capacity is needed in order to help them succeed in life.
“I simply love serving children. They are my life; they are my purpose,” Swann said. “No matter the accolade, no matter the position, as long as I can serve children, my heart is happy.”
For Swann, his fourth-grade teacher believed in him, and it was a main driving force to help him overcome all the odds that were stacked against him. Now, he wants his students to know that their fifth-grade teacher believes they can be anything they want to if they don’t give up and keep pushing forward.
“Winning this award only gives me another platform to let a child know that no matter the circumstances and no matter the situations you may find yourself in, if you just keep believing, the sky is the limit to what you can have,” he said.
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