At first glance, Anthony Swann’s fifth grade classroom is no different from any other.
Students sit at their laptops on a recent December morning, completing reading assignments as the Rocky Mount Elementary teacher walks around the room answering questions. A white Christmas tree gives the room a festive feel, and books line the nearby shelf. Student-made art hangs along the back wall.
But take a closer look — and listen — and you’ll start to notice more.
Those are cards congratulating Swann for being named the 2021 Virginia Teacher of the Year. He’s the first Franklin County teacher since 1990 to win the statewide award.
Framed stories about his county and regional wins hang elsewhere in the room.
Presents sit underneath, waiting to be opened by students later that day. Every year, Swann asks his students to create a wish list. He buys them each a present “because I want them to know that even if you go home and you don’t have anything, Mr. Swann loves you enough and lets you know that you matter.”
And as he walks around the room, Swann addresses his students as “sir” and “ma’am.” He calls his students “my children.”
Swann, 36, weaves love, respect and compassion into every facet of teaching. Shaped by his childhood, the majority of which was spent in foster care, he wants his students — his children — to feel loved and supported. He wants them to know that they can trust him. He wants them to know that they matter.
So he doesn’t raise his voice. He rarely sends students to the office. He runs a program called “Guys with Ties,” which provides mentoring and life-coaching to fifth grade boys. He also helped develop the school’s Cooperative Culture initiative, which rewards students for positive behavior.
The number of discipline referrals has dropped “dramatically,” said Principal Lisa Newell.
“I have seen children actually completely turned around,” she said.
Swann plans to use his Teacher of the Year platform to let teachers know that they, too, have the power to change their students’ lives.
After all, it was his fourth grade teacher, Jerretta Wilson, who changed his.
“Had she not found me and searched for me, I just know I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Swann said.
‘Everything is going to be all right’
Swann was in Wilson’s fourth grade class at Schoolfield Elementary in Danville the day social services abruptly arrived to take him into foster care.
“Before she let them, she grabbed me and she was just like, ‘Anthony, everything is going to be all right,’” Swann recalled. “And so from that day, you know, I just held on to those words.”
Swann spent the rest of his childhood in foster care, from ages 9 to 21. He became a ward of the state because “my parents did not want me.” His father was absent and his mother experienced drug addiction and alcoholism, he said.
He struggled with the trauma of being rejected by his parents and living in foster care. He began acting out, receiving bad grades and getting suspended. There were times, he said, when he would “sit around and wish I was dead because I just hated my life.”
He also began to play school, his “safe haven.”
He moved to a different elementary school upon entering foster care. Later that year, he received an envelope full of cards from his classmates and Wilson, but he otherwise lost touch with her.
She found him about five years later.
It was only recently that Swann found out how.
“She would drive around the city to different churches, to different — she went to the school board office, she went to social services, just asking where had I been taken,” Swann recounted.
When they reunited, she told him that he didn’t have to grow up to be like his parents; that she wanted him to make something of himself.
Swann told her that he wanted to become a teacher, explaining the impact she had on him.
“It wasn’t until she found me that I was able to get a hold of my anger, get a hold of the trauma that I was dealing with, and to veer it in a different direction,” he said.
From that day forward, she was there for him. When he didn’t have a car in college to get to his student teaching, for example, Wilson picked him up and dropped him off every morning before she had to go to school, he said.
Swann graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 2007 from Averett University and later received his master’s degree in 2014 from Regent University.
When he began his teaching in 2007, he chose to return to Schoolfield Elementary because it was “such a milestone in my life.”
It also meant that he taught at the same school as Wilson.
“That really was surreal, teaching with the one teacher that made the major difference in my life,” he said.
To know that someone searched for and found him — and still to this day calls — left an indelible mark on Swann.
“Just knowing that I could be somebody’s hope, especially a student’s hope, to let them know no matter where you come from, no matter the trauma or the emotional trauma, or things you’ve gone through, you can make it,” he said. “Whatever you want to be, you can become. Just knowing that makes a difference.”
‘These are my children’
Swann has made a point to be open with students about his childhood experiences.
“Once I started teaching, I just put it in my mind to tell my children where I come from because a lot of times, children feel like, ‘Oh you’re a teacher, you don’t understand,’” Swann said.
“But opening up to them and telling them where I’ve come from ...”
Swann trails off and starts telling stories.
There was the young man in foster care who started to change once he realized Swann related to his experiences. The student cried on the last day of school, worried that he would never see Swann again.
Then there’s the little boy who calls out, “Hey, Daddy” whenever he sees Swann in the hallway.
And there are the students who grew up and now have families of their own. They still stay in touch, too. One, who lives in another state, wished his son could be in Swann’s class.
“Just knowing that I can reach children makes the difference,” Swann said.
His mother passed away his senior year of college. He has been in touch with his father, but their relationship is strained.
So when Swann got engaged recently, he turned to his students.
“Emotionally, it’s been a challenge because I’m thinking, I don’t have not one parent whom I can share these moments with. But just knowing I can share them with my children helps a lot.”
He’s purposeful in calling them “my children.”
“I look at my children as my children,” he said. “I don’t look at them as just students ... these are my children, these are my babies. So just giving back to them, it really helps me to cope even times where I’m having a hard time.”
‘He doesn’t shy away’
Swann is perhaps best known in the Franklin County education community for running Guys with Ties.
The fifth grade boys dress up every month and learn about both practical matters and values like respect, honesty and integrity. It’s so popular that the younger boys also like to dress up to feel included.
Last Valentine’s Day, the young men learned how to treat women by dressing up and giving every girl in school a carnation and bag of chocolate.
“The looks on the girls’ faces were priceless,” Swann recalled.
On another occasion, the group helped the custodians clean the school. The lesson was that “it’s OK to be a boy or a male or a man and to be clean and tidy and organized,” Swann said.
“I’m teaching them about honesty; even if you feel like you’re gonna get in trouble, tell the truth,” Swann said, ticking off some of the lessons. “Teaching them how your character speaks for you before you enter the room. Just teaching them things like that and teaching them not only does ties mean the tie we wear, but it means the ties in life that you will have. The things you do today makes a difference to your future.”
The percentage of Rocky Mount Elementary students receiving discipline referrals has decreased from 22% to 9% since Guys with Ties began, Newell said.
In addition, Black students make up about 35% of the school’s population but comprised 67% of discipline referrals, according to Newell. That figure has since dropped to 24%.“The relationship we have with every child is paramount,” she said.
Swann works every day to build those relationships and is deserving of Teacher of the Year, Newell said.
“He doesn’t shy away from the real issues,” she said.
‘Virginia is for the influential’
Swann didn’t think he would be named Virginia’s top teacher. But then again, he didn’t think he’d receive the honor at the county or regional level, either.
He taught in Danville and North Carolina before coming to Franklin County in 2017, so he reasoned that was too little time to be worthy of the county title.
He had been taking care of his sister who had fallen ill when he somewhat hastily submitted his regional application materials, so he put the Region 6 award out of his mind.
“And then honestly, I didn’t think that I was going to win Virginia state Teacher of the Year because I was the only male and the only minority,” he said. “And so I just kind of just prepared myself.”
State officials announced Swann as Virginia Teacher of the Year during a virtual ceremony in October.
“It’s just very surreal, honestly,” he said, adding that it’s an honor to have the platform to serve Virginia, educators and students.
He wants teachers to know they have the power to change a student’s life.
“We often say that Virginia is for lovers, but Virginia is for the influential as well,” he said. “We have that influence to change a child’s life for the better. They could have been on the edge, but one thing you did or said would cause them to take a deep breath and keep going.”
The lessons educators impart cause ripple effects that last generations, Swann said.
“We as educators have the ability to reach generations that we will never meet because we will teach this generation, but as they grow older, they’ll meet other people, and then those people will meet other people,” he said. “We’ve never met those people. But just to know ... that they’re passing it on, and they’re saying, ‘Let me tell you what my fifth grade teacher taught me,’ or ‘You don’t have to do this because my teacher taught me this.’ “That is the type of influence we have. That’s my message.”