NORMAN — Norman North High School English teacher Claudia Swisher has been at the front of a classroom on the first day of school 39 times, and each of those days has consistently been followed by a night of little sleep.
“The night before every single first day of school I haven’t slept a wink,” Swisher said. “I just can’t — I’m excited, I’m nervous, I worry about being prepared and on time, it has never gotten old.”
First-day excitement and anxiety has been an unchanging part of Swisher’s nearly four decades as a teacher, but it’s perhaps one of the only attributes she shares with the teacher she was on her first day of class in 1974.
“I was overdressed and underprepared,” Swisher said of her first day, laughing. “I mispronounced ‘centrifugal’ and one of my students had to correct me. That year I fell in love with kids but I didn’t know how to be their teacher.”
Calling her first year a “horror story,” Swisher’s tenure teaching self-contained sixth grade in a rural public school exposed her to much more than the common challenges and crises faced by new teachers.
“I was prepared to teach English and literature, and as a self-contained sixth grade teacher I was also teaching everything else. By the second semester I was only on page 40 of the math book, and when I brought our social studies text to an older teacher to say it was out of date, she said ‘do your own lessons,’” Swisher said. “The students and I struggled together and I don’t think I did any lasting damage.”
In spite of their daunting nature, the challenges of Swisher’s first year afforded some triumphs she can still be proud of today.
“One of the lessons I taught was rat lab, in which I made a great, huge deal about how I was the only one who could hold the rat — I was trained — the children could pet the rat but I was the one to handle it. This led the children to believe I was trained to handle any live animal, and later in the year a little boy brought a live snake in a jar,” Swisher said. “Snakes are my thing, they scare the life out of me, but I was able to very calmly say ‘interesting snake, now go take him outside.’ The kids had no idea how badly I was shaking,” Swisher said, laughing.
One master’s degree, three states, seven schools and 39 years later, Swisher can confidently say the classroom is right where she belonged.
“I used to tell my father — a middle school principal — that there was no way anyone would trap me in a room with 30 howling children. But after my first two years teaching and my master’s degree, I knew there was nothing else in the world I could be. From the bottom of my soul, I’m a teacher,” Swisher said.
Though her days of teaching English and literature may be drawing to a close, Swisher’s experiences in the classroom continue to form her understanding of herself and fuel her deepest convictions and commitments.
Following her retirement later this month, Swisher plans to volunteer with students at Bridges and also work with parents on “framing their story” to legislators concerning recent education reforms.
“I teach reading for pleasure, it’s an elective for ninth- to 12-graders so I have kids with every kind of learning disability to high-achieving AP students,” Swisher said. “I watch how adults try to marginalize teens, and I really don’t like the way many adults look at kids. I feel strongly that kids are brilliant and are compartmentalized or boiled down to a number on a test. It’s my mission to show kids and the rest of the world how brilliant they are by motivating them to make the right choices.”