Teresa Swaim didn’t exactly take the traditional route to become a teacher. But if you talk with her for five minutes, you can tell she’s found her calling.
The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning apparently thought so as well. Swaim, a Pre-K teacher at West Jackson Elementary School, was just named one of six finalists for the 2021-22 Georgia Pre-K Program Teachers of the Year.
BACK TO SCHOOL AT 42
Swaim married her high school sweetheart when she was 17 years old. She raised her three children before deciding at 42 to go back to school.
“I did life a little differently,” said Swaim. “I raised my kids first. I went back to school at 42.”
At that time, her daughter was attending fifth grade at South Jackson Elementary School, and she was filling in as a substitute teacher.
“They asked me why I wasn’t teaching,” she said. “And I said, because I didn’t have a degree. So I went back at 42, spent four years in college and got my bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.”
She worked as a Pre-K paraprofessional during that time and graduated from Ashford University in Iowa in 2012.
“I actually graduated college with my middle son. I graduated before him with a higher GPA,” Swaim teased.
Swaim had planned to get the college to mail her diploma, but her dad insisted they attend in-person.
“We got on an airplane and flew to Iowa and he watched me walk across the stage,” she said.
Swaim’s dad was 80 years old at the time.
“He always encouraged me,” she reflected. “He was just the most wonderful man on earth.”
Swaim’s dad passed away in March 2020, but she’s convinced he’s still looking out for her.
“My dad passed away March 26 (2020). I turned in the TOTY application on March 12 (2021) and I prayed over the application,” Swaim said. “…So I hit send and on March 26 (2021) I ordered Chinese food and I read the fortune cookie and it said ‘you will be bestowed a great honor.’”
TEACHING IN JACKSON COUNTY
Swaim began teaching at West Jackson Elementary School in December 2012, when the school added a new Pre-K class.
“And I’ve been here ever since in Pre-K,” said Swaim.
She said she loves seeing the tremendous progress younger students make within the span of one school year.
“You can really see how they grow and develop from the time they come into the classroom to the time they leave my classroom,” she said. “…You can see so much growth in 180 days.”
Swaim said she continues learning, too, and said the pandemic and remote learning allowed teachers to broaden their horizons.
“It allowed us to sharpen our skills,” she said. “It taught us new things.”
ABOUT TOTY PROGRAM
To be considered for the 2021-22 Georgia Pre-K Program Teachers of the Year, applicants are sent a number of questions and their responses to those questions are scored. Applicants also send in lesson plans and other information to let the judges know about them and how they teach.
Swaim had applied twice before and wasn’t sure she wanted to apply again, especially since it had been a complicated school year due to COVID.
“I thought, I don’t know if I even have enough energy to do it, but OK, I’ll apply one last time,” she said.
Swaim said she was shocked when she learned she was a finalist.
“It was so unreal,” she said. “There’s three finalists from public schools in Georgia and three from private schools. All across Georgia, and I’m one of those three… It’s mind boggling.”
In the fall, the six finalists will do an interview with the judges, receive a classroom observation and submit a small group video. In September, DECAL will select a winner from a local public school system and a winner from a private child care center.