Podcast: From Foster Care to VA Teacher of the Year with Anthony Swann

Photo: Anthony Swann in his classroom at Rocky Mount Elementary School.

Welcome to Teachers in America. Our special guest today is Anthony Swann, 2021 Virginia Teacher of the Year and a fifth grade teacher at Rocky Mount Elementary in Franklin County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

“Anthony Swann’s podcast will remind you why teachers are so important and why we remember our early teachers for the rest of our lives. You’ll be inspired by his authenticity, his practical tips for bettering the lives of young people and most importantly his unapologetic passion for the future that awaits them.” — Steve Pemberton, author of A Chance in the World

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Lish Mitchell: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH. I'm Lish Mitchell. Join our director of community engagement, Noelle Morris, as she speaks with educators from across the country.

Our guest today is Anthony Swann, a fifth grade teacher at Rocky Mount Elementary in Franklin County, Virginia. Having spent most of his childhood in the foster care system, he has now dedicated himself to his students. Anthony strives to create an atmosphere of hope, empathy, and love in his classroom, especially for those children undergoing trauma or lacking a support system. He also helped create the initiative Guys With Ties at his school, which teaches young boys about values like kindness and responsibility. Currently in his 14th year of teaching, he has recently been named the 2021 Virginia Teacher of the Year.

Now, here are Noelle and Anthony.

Noelle Morris: Hey, Anthony, I'm Noelle. I've been looking forward to our conversation and getting to know you more through our talk.

Anthony Swann: Absolutely. Nice to meet you.

Noelle: How are you feeling today before we even get into all of our questions and conversation? Has today been a good day for you?

Anthony: Today has been a mind-blowing day for me. Today the governor appointed me to the State Board of Education.

Noelle: What!

Anthony: Yeah.

Noelle: That's amazing. That is so amazing. So when you say your mind is blown, is it because you always knew and had aspirations for more leadership, or are you mind blown and in awe because people have recognized what you can offer to the larger education community?

Anthony: My mind is blown for those reasons. In addition to, it was never my goal in life to be where I am today. I just simply loved children and wanted to be a teacher. It was never my intentions to be called by the governor to meet with the governor. And him appointing me to make a difference in the lives for children across the State of Virginia. So it's also mind-blowing because of where I come from as a child. I had a very traumatic childhood. And if you knew me back then, it would be hard to believe where I am today. So that's why I say it's mind-blowing.

Noelle: So if you don't mind, I would love to ask who was your first call? Who's the first person who you told?

Anthony: My fiancé.

Noelle: All right. And who do you have on the list that you wish that you could call that is in your past? Or you're going to call them soon after.

Anthony: My mom. She's passed away, so I wish that I could just let her know, "Hey, your son did become something."

Noelle: Oh, congratulations. I applaud you. It's one of these times where I wish that we could be celebrating because that's not your only celebration. You were named Virginia State Teacher of the Year for 2021.

Anthony: Yes ma'am.

Along with being named the 2021 State Teacher of the Year for Virginia, Anthony was also recently appointed to the State Board of Education.

Noelle: When did you get the announcement and the call that you were the winner, you were the finalist?

Anthony: Well, so I got that announcement sometime in September. That was once again mind-blowing because we had to submit an application to the state, and they chose eight finalists. And I was one of the eight. So my superintendent announced it via Zoom to the whole school. And I was totally oblivious until he walked in my classroom and I saw the Secretary of Education on the Zoom. And that was in September. And then, the state interviewed the eight finalists the same exact day. We have 25-minute interviews. And from there, on October the eighth, we were all called back on a Zoom for Dr. Lane to announce the state winner. And I had honestly told myself that I wasn't going to win because of just different factors that I felt counted against me. But he announced that I had won on October the eighth.

Noelle: What factors do you think weren't in your favor?

Anthony: I had only been teaching in my school district. This is my fourth year for one. For two, the Virginia State Teacher of the Year for 2020 was from region six. So I was also region six. So I was telling myself, surely they're not going to choose region six again. Number three, I was the only male finalist. And number four, I was the only minority. So, I felt all of those things counted against me, but I see now truly it didn't.

Noelle: Well, I'm glad that there was recognition, and I've done some research to get ready for our conversation today. You knew you wanted to be a teacher, but the accolades and the achievements you didn't necessarily see because of some of the trauma in your childhood. I've read, Anthony, that you grew up in the foster care system. When you think about growing up in foster care, how do you share getting past the trauma then seeing and knowing all the other potential you had? Do you have a moment in time? Do you have a person who influenced you?

Anthony: Good question. Most definitely. So when I was taken to foster care, I was taken abruptly in the middle of the school day, and I was sitting in my fourth-grade classroom, and I distinctly remember social services knocking on the door and telling my teacher that they needed me to come with them. And this was in front of all of my friends. And so I felt embarrassed, and I felt devastated. And so my teacher, I'm sorry, I'm trying not to cry.

Noelle: That's okay.

Anthony: My teacher came out in the hallway, and she grabbed me, and she hugged me, and she whispered in my ear, and social services didn't even hear it. But she whispered in my ear. She said, "Anthony, everything is going to be all right." And that same teacher, years down the road, she found me when I was 14 years old, and she began to pour into me.

And she began to just say, "I don't want you to grow up to be like your parents. I don't want you to get caught up into the system. I don't want you to go to jail. I want you to make something of yourself." And so by that time, I had started playing school because I had taken all of my trauma and just put it into my academics. So I was just started playing school, and I told her I wanted to be a teacher. And she said, "If that's what you want to become, I'm going to support you in any way that I can." And so, once, I was going to school and going to college and putting my own self through college. My senior year, I did not have a car to get to my student teaching placement. And she picked me up every single morning to take me to school before she had to be at school herself.

And to this day, she still calls me, and she still reminds me that everything is going to be all right. And she still tells me, "Do you remember that I told you that. Now look at you." And so that was one of the persons who geared me because I was going down the deep end because I didn't understand my life. I hated my life. I wish that I was dead. But she took that extra mile because she saw something in me so that I would not become part of the system. And she pushed me to be great.

Noelle: Oh, the love of a teacher. And for her to recognize, and Anthony, I didn't want to cry either. But the ability for that teacher to recognize and to know, and to see your face and to take that moment to run out and whisper that in your ear. That's everything, right. That is just a moment—

Anthony: It is.

Noelle: …that probably is why you did not just play school. You did school. You earned those achievements and wanted to become a teacher. Do you mind sharing her name? I would love for her to hear you give a shout out.

Anthony: Her name is Mrs. Gerretta Wilson, and she's still alive today. And she's a retired educator from Danville Public Schools, and she's just…Yeah, that's her name.

Anthony believes in providing a consistent role model for his students. He makes sure to dress semi-formal every day, even on Fridays.

Noelle: Well, Ms. Wilson, we give you lots of hearts and love because that's a skillset and an intuition that we all want to possess and hope that we can be that teacher for that student and any student. When you think about yourself now, Anthony, and even before becoming teacher of the year, do you see that you have that ability that other teachers see, "There's something that he possesses that would benefit me." Have you had any encounters with other teachers where they want and are seeking out your advice?

Anthony: Yes, I have. Are you saying before I became Virginia State Teacher of the Year or…

Noelle: Or even maybe it's happened since. Your name's been out there, and your story is out there. But there may be teachers, and I think I read this in one of the articles where a teacher heard your story, heard your work with students. And is like, "How is he breaking barriers with students? And how can he help me?"

Anthony: Yes. So I was contacted by a teacher. Retired teacher. She was a mentor to a young male student. And after her reading my story, she contacted me, and she said, "I just really have this student. I feel that you can reach him because there are certain areas I can't reach him. And your story is so similar to his story." And so, with the permission of the guardian, I traveled to meet with him one-on-one, and I share with him my story. And he shared with me his story. And at the end of that conversation, before I left, we have similar stories. But before I left, he looked at me, and he said, "Mr. Swann, you know what, anything is possible." And that statement right there made all the difference because that is my platform as Virginia Teacher of The Year is to give hope to those students who find themselves in traumatic situations and emotionally disturbing homes to let them know that no matter the pieces that you may have been dealt if they're broken, take those broken pieces and build a bridge to a better life.

Noelle: Wow. And part of your platform, you have, what I believe is part of your cooperative culture initiative of Guys with Ties.

Anthony: Yes, ma'am.

Noelle: How did you create Guys with Ties? And can you share with our listeners what the program is?

Anthony: Yes. So one day, my principal just came to me, and she had this idea. She was just like, "I see how you dress up every day. I think it'll be a good program if you just have the fifth-grade boys to dress up in ties and you meet with them." So she just really just threw something out there. So I kind of picked it up like a fumble, and I ran with it. And from there, I've developed a curriculum that teaches on respect, and integrity, and cleanliness. And it's okay to be organized as a male. It's okay to help. And then, also, in the group, we have those hard conversations because a lot of the males do not have a father figure in the home. And so we talk about how you can overcome rejection. And I share with them my story. We do service projects.

When we're talking about the cleanliness and the organization, we take time out. When we are meeting, we have a day where we go around, and we help the custodians in the school to pick up trash and to vacuum the rugs in the school. We also have done a service project where we give all of the girls a carnation in a bag of chocolate to let the boys know how to treat a lady. So, we just recently did one where the guys designed their own tie, and I'm going to have someone…someone actually reached out to me, and they are going to create that tie. So just letting them know that it's okay to be a guy and be sophisticated, but at the same time, teaching them those life skills. Teaching them about what would your legacy be? If you were to die today, what would people say about you?

And I got that particular lesson when Kobe Bryant passed away over a year ago, out of the blue. But so many people had so many good things to say about him. And so, I instill that in the guys as well. What legacy are you leaving? How will people remember you if you were to pass away? And that was a very powerful lesson as well. The group is a safe haven. The guys have cried before, especially the guys who feel neglected by male figures. So I've had the other students who had their fathers in the home to console those students and let them know, "It's okay, you're going to be fine. You're going to make something of yourself." So those are the types of things that we do in the program.

Anthony is grateful to be able to see some of his students in person this year.

Noelle: I was curious, Anthony, do you always have a tie and dress shoes on for school? Is that something that is part of your organization and the way you present yourself every day to kids?

Anthony: It is actually. Even days where the principal say we can wear jeans. I don't wear jeans. And that's not to say that my colleagues are wrong or that I don't want to participate. But I know that I didn't have a positive role model that was consistent in my life. So I want the children to be able to say, "At least I have Mr. Swann. He showed me how to carry myself as a young man gentleman."

Noelle: Hey listeners, if you need another podcast to keep you up to date on the world of education, check out, Shaping the FutureTM. My friend and colleague Matthew Mugo Fields sits down with industry experts to discuss how education and innovation can change the world. Subscribe to Shaping the Future on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Now, let's get back to the episode.

Noelle: When you think about consistency, the importance of consistency, what other social emotional learning, activities, or routines have you put into your school day that you know have helped you and your students get through and continue to get through this pandemic?

Anthony: So, one thing that I have put in place is words of affirmation. And before I begin my school day, I always greet my children and say, "Good morning." And I tell them, "Thank you for coming to school." And the reason why I say that is because we know that children can play hooky and stay home. So I tell them, "Thank you." I always tell them, "Thank you for coming to school." If they miss school, the next day, I make it a big deal that they're back. And I say, "We're just so glad to have such and such back. And we really missed you." I also extracted our words of affirmation from the movie, The Help, but I just changed a couple of words. And so, I have the students to repeat after me, "I am smart. I am kind. I am important." And after then they repeat, "I am smart."

I tell them that they may encounter things that are challenging throughout the day. But just to remember that they're smart enough to make it through those things. And then, after we say, "I am kind," I remind them how kindness goes a long way, and we should treat others the way that we want to be treated. And then when I tell them, after we say that I am important, I also tell them that I love them because there are some students who do not receive a consistent, positive role model to let them know, "I love you." And I remember having this one particular student a couple of years ago, after I would say, "I love you." He would say, "No, you don't. Nobody does." But then, after he said that, he would start smiling at me because he knew that I did care for him, even outside of the classroom.

I never yell at my children. And because I don't yell at them, they feel safe. I'm big on communication. And so, if something is bothering me, I'm transparent with my children, and I'll let them know, "Hey guys, Mr. Swann is having a rough morning. I woke up this morning, and I was thinking about my mom and how I miss her." And because I am transparent with them, when they have things going on, they come to me, and they talk to me, and they let me know things that are bothering them so that I'll know how to serve them that particular day. I tell them that because I need to know. And as a result, it has caused them to feel like they're safe and they can share anything with me. If they're hungry, they know that they can come to me personally and not say anything out loud.

I also tell my children that they are allowed to eat snacks during class because I have a few students who do not get anything at home. And so, when they come to school, they're extra hungry even after eating breakfast and lunch. And so, I just made it a blanket that everybody is allowed to eat so that one particular student will not feel singled out. And you can't learn on an empty stomach. So, those are some of the things that I have in place for my child.

Noelle: I started teaching in the early nineties, and people didn't necessarily talk about trauma, or you didn't get professional learning around trauma. I knew that many of our students were part of the system and court-ordered and so forth because I taught at an alternative school.

Anthony: Mm-hmm.

Noelle: And I remember I came from a home with a single mom. I knew some days that where we were on the last bag of chips. But I remember going into a home and seeing locks on doors, like bedroom doors or even cabinets. And my student was just like, "Ms. Morris. That's how I protect what's mine. Or what's mine, that's just for my baby." And I was taken so back by that, Anthony, I changed my whole perspective.

Anthony: Right.

Noelle: Because I didn't know what I didn't know.

Anthony: Right.

Noelle: I'm hearing you say, "My children." That has to be something that's just natural to you. It's every student, every class. Though you just take it as, "These are my children?"

Anthony: Yes, ma'am, I do. I personalize my relationships with each one of them, even having those connections with their parents. I want to be that teacher that when they become 30 and 40 years old, they're talking about me around their kitchen table saying, "I had this one teacher. He really cared about us." I want to be that conversation starter when they're talking about school. And so I don't have children of my own as of right now. And so, I put all of my energy, my time, even my money outside of school supplies. Every year, I get my children to write a list of five things that they want. And I buy them one thing off of that list.

And I wrap it up, and we open Christmas gifts. I personalize it for them to let them know that I just don't care for you in the classroom. I care for you outside of the classroom. Even one year, there was this one particular student who the parent just came to me and said, "Mr. Swann, I cannot do Christmas." And I bought the child along with my fiancé. We bought the children because she taught the son, and I taught the daughter. We bought their whole Christmas and delivered it on Christmas Eve while they were asleep. So, I personalize that very much because I want them to know that if they do not have anyone, they have me.

Noelle: Do you have data and results that shows both your efforts from your routines, and what sticks, and what you're consistent about? Would you be able to say, "Yes, we're seeing fewer disciplines, and we're seeing more attention and more attendance in school, which can lead to stronger results?"

Anthony: Absolutely. As a result of doing the Guys with Ties and just making those personal connections with the children. At my school, we were seeing an all-time high disciplinary rate and disciplinary referrals for African-American boys. It was at 69%. And after I started the Guys with Ties program, it dropped to 29%. As well as the discipline report for across the school. It was at 22%. It dropped to 9%. And so those particular things in place have made a difference with the children and knowing that "Hey, I have to be on my best behavior because if not, Mr. Swann is going to get me, or he's going to be disappointed, and I don't want to disappoint him." So, things like that has made a tremendous difference.

Also, a part of our cooperative culture initiative, where our school wrote this particular curriculum. And I was on that committee, just hitting different things like life skills, such as making goals and making plans, and trust, and just different topics that we hit on. And so, we do that school-wide so that we can all use the same terminology and that the children will know that we're on the same boat. And so, I have seen a difference in the data.

Noelle: That's amazing. Congratulations. I think that just is what allows you to continue to expand your platform and get funding and get people's attention.

Anthony: Right.

Noelle: I want to go back to the personal side of your story, Anthony, with growing up in foster care, which I know it started at that age of nine when you were in Ms. Wilson's class to when you were 21. When you think about foster care, what awareness and what information do other teachers need to have and understand so that they can connect and relate and support a student who may be having that same experience that's in their classroom this year?

Anthony: It's a very good question. So, some information I feel as though that they need to understand is that students who are going through traumatic experiences, such as being in foster care, is not that they hate you as a teacher, but that is their way of coping. It's being disrespectful because they feel like, "Nobody really loves me anyway. You don't really care." Rather than assigning consequences, have a conversation with that child and ask them, "What's going on? What's wrong with you?" Not in front of everyone. But one-on-one just to let that specific child know that "Okay, I'm going to give you grace. And I understand where you're at today, and I'm not going to bother you. I'm going to let you have your moment." So understanding that some of the children that are in foster care is not that they're greedy. That it's just that sometimes even being in foster care, that food is limited.

Noelle: Mm-hmm.

Anthony: Because you may have a foster parent who lock up the food. I'm an example. We were locked in the basement in foster care. And we could not come upstairs. And so, understanding that when you get to school, this is the only place I really feel safe at. And so, if it means me lashing out or acting out or misbehaving just so no one will notice my situation, then that's what I'll do. So, I think a teacher should really be empathetic and sympathetic and put themselves in the shoes of those students who are experiencing trauma. I'll share this story. Just last week, I had a student who was working on a writing prompt, and he started writing about a specific place that if he could go to, he would go to. And he started writing about he would go to North Carolina. And all of a sudden, he stopped writing, and he wasn't writing anymore. And he was just sitting at his desk, and he had his head down.

And because I've experienced trauma, I did not immediately start screaming at him. I called him to my desk, and I spoke with him one-on-one, and I encouraged him. And I began to ask him, "How come you stopped writing?" And he shared with me some of his trauma. He shared with me how, and when he thinks about North Carolina, he thinks about his father, whom he never sees. And so, I could relate to that because, at his age, I never saw my father. So instead of making him finish the assignment, I told him to have his moment, and we will finish it at another time. But had I not had background knowledge and experience, I probably would have been upset because I felt like, "Why are you just sitting here? You just need to get the assignment done."

But I gave him grace, and I was empathetic and sympathetic with where he was in his particular moment. Not only did I do that, I filled out a form, and the guidance counselor was able to come and speak with him about where he was at mentally to provide him with that support right then and there as well. So I think teachers should be empathetic and sympathetic when it comes down to children.

Noelle: Wow. I don't know if you've ever heard of Steve Pemberton, who's the author of A Chance in the World. Who is a man who also grew up in foster care. He, too, talked about actually being locked, I believe it was a basement. And it was a neighbor who recognized and saw him would just leave books for him on the porch, and he became an avid reader. And he also speaks of a teacher, Ruby, who had almost like a divine intervention, just coming into his life at different times, all the way through him going to college and another teacher. And I'm hearing and recognizing very similar stories and what helps children get out of trauma.

Anthony: Right.

Noelle: And it's often a teacher. There's someone who's willing to take that extra step

I want to talk about you and your fiancé, because I'm thinking, y'all have to sit down and you actually have to budget these additional expenses of, "We know we're going to have students that we're going to give to. Do you actually budget that in? Do y'all have conversations at home?

Anthony: We complement each other so much because she's also a teacher and her mindset and my mindset are so much alike. So honestly, it's really not a strain on us as far as budget-wise because, believe it or not, we have so much support even outside of the classroom. We have parents who will actually go to Sam's Club and buy the snacks for us and give us the snacks to make sure we have for our students, or where we will order snacks in bulk. I know she'll orders snacks in bulk for her students. So it really hasn't been a strain.

Noelle: You are living just an amazing life to have found someone who complements you. When you met, were you both teachers? Were you in the same school?

Anthony: Yes, ma'am. We both began teaching at the school in North Carolina the same year. She was actually hired right before I was hired. She was teaching kindergarten and I was teaching fourth grade. And so that's how we met.

Noelle: So you're both teachers. You've both been working through this pandemic. Do you mind sharing with our listeners, we all have bad days, right? Do y'all tend to have bad days at the same time, or are you lucky where one has a bad day, and the other one is there to help pick up?

Anthony: You are asking some great questions. Ah, it's so amazing. Our relationship is just so different because we literally complement each other. She could be having a bad day, and I will be of support for her and just listen to her. But then I will offer her a response and love and a solution to her problem. Or I could be having a bad day, and she will listen to me. But I don't think we've ever had a bad day at the same time. I really can't remember that we've ever had a bad day at the same time.

Noelle: All right. So now I'm going to ask because I also think we want to have some fun parts of our conversation. Do you have a new pandemic found hobby or talent? Are you cross-stitching? Have you learned to make sourdough bread?

Anthony: I am doing Zumba. Never thought that I would do it a day in my life, but I'm doing Zumba and actually enjoy it.

Noelle: Do you have go-to music or a playlist?

Anthony: I do. It's mostly Christian because that calms me when I'm flustered. So, it's mostly Christian.

Noelle: Okay. Anybody specific?

Anthony: This artist Smokie Norful.

Noelle: Okay.

Anthony: He's a great artist. He's from out of Chicago, Illinois.

Noelle: Don't you feel like anybody named Smokey belongs in music, and you can have that name, and you're just going to have a following just because—

Anthony: Right.

Noelle: …you have an awesome name.

Anthony: Yes, ma'am.

Masks or no masks, there is always a way to shake up the day to keep kids entertained. Incorporating music is Anthony's way of keeping things interesting.

Noelle: I love names like that. So as we begin to wrap up our podcast and I so wish that we didn't have to stop the conversation. Give advice that you would share with that class of children that would change the energy level in that classroom?

Anthony: Oh, that's easy. Do something relatable with the students to change the dynamics of the room. I do it all the time. If I see the dynamics of the room is boring or something, I'll incorporate singing in my lesson, or I will pull up an instrumental music track, and I'll just start singing, or I'll start dancing. And it changes their whole mindset. And it also lets them know that you are relatable and that you can get on their level. But at the same time, you're still the teacher, but you're down here with us. "Oh, it's cool to be in here. Okay, I'll perform for you." So that's the advice that I would give.

Noelle: Nice. I don't want to put you on the spot, but do you have something that you can sing us out of our conversation?

Anthony: Let's see. You put me on the spot. The only song I could think of is the song that I sing them in the morning. It's just a good morning song. So normally, I tell the students to develop a rhythm. So, I tell them to clap their hands, and then I'll sing, "Good morning, good morning/Good morning to you/Today is beginning/There's so much to do/Good morning, good morning/Good morning to you."

So, I'll sing that. And then we'll go into our words of affirmation.

Noelle: Nice. How can you not be pumped up and ready to go after that? Anthony, it has been a joy. Thank you for sharing your story with us. And I definitely look forward to when we can be out there traveling. I have a reason to come to Virginia, and it's so that we can meet in person.

Anthony: Yes, ma'am. Thank you so much for having me.

Noelle: Thank you.

Congratulations again, Anthony. You know, I'm always so proud and humbled by the conversations I'm having. But today I want to focus on the joy and kindness that I heard in Anthony's voice, and also somewhat the disbelief of still being recognized and awarded the Virginia Teacher of the Year.

How many of us have a hard time getting recognized, getting that kindness returned to us, or having gratitude shown our way? Because in our profession, as teachers, we're always looking out for others. But I say today's the day that you take someone's compliment, you pat yourself on the back, and you tell yourself "I deserve that."

And most importantly, never forget yours is truly a profession that matters. And I'm so glad to be one of you. As always, your friend, Noelle.

Lish: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Thanks again for listening.

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