Charlie Swanson always wanted to be a doctor. “I was always fascinated with the idea that there’s an occupation where you get to have this breadth of knowledge, and you get to apply it directly to something that has a positive outcome for somebody else,” Mr. Swanson says. “And it’s matured into more things than that – I really like the idea in medicine where you can make people advocates for their own health, through their education.”
His passion for medicine and education has evolved in other ways, too, largely thanks to his work as a high school science teacher at 21st Century Charter School at Gary. Mr. Swanson went to University of Illinois, where he earned two Bachelor’s Degrees in Psychology and Microbiology, and has since earned a Master’s Degree in Education while teaching at 21st Century Charter. In college, he volunteered at Carl Hospital, where one notable experience inspired him to apply for Teach for America, a program that places recent college graduates in schools around the nation to teach for two years:
“I was working in the ER and hanging out with a kid whose mom was in the trauma bay. I found out he couldn’t read or write. And I thought, this is ridiculous – there’s a world-class university down the street. I can be a doctor whenever. That career isn’t going away. But I might not have this opportunity again, to give back for the great education that I got.” Mr. Swanson grew up in the rural Manhattan, IL. A medical bend runs in the family – his Mom is a registered nurse, and his sister now works as a mortician. “I was always the square, my sister was the circle – she was popular, I was the nerd,” he explains. Maybe it is that complete and unabashed acknowledgment of this identity that makes Mr. Swanson such a great teacher.
Mr. Swanson’s anatomy class, where upperclassmen were finishing up their integumentary system unit with a lab. Students used real scalpels and other surgery supplies to slice and suture skin on pigs’ feet, putting their education into practice. As we were prepping for the lab, Mr. Swanson demonstrated the proper steps for making safe and effective sutures, asking questions along the way to relate the hands-on activity to the unit on skin they had just finished. Mr. Swanson’s 30-person class and a visiting group of seventh graders preparing for their first lab in their science class peered over him, listening in rapt silence.
“It was fun to do,” Mr. Swanson remarks afterwards. “I think it helps students who might not be motivated to succeed. Hands-on stuff is what makes the learning fun.”
“I love it when kids say, ‘I hated science before your class,’” Mr. Swanson adds. “I had one student come up to me after the lab and tell me, ‘Thank you for caring. Because you caring enough to have pigs’ feet for us to dissect means a lot to us.’ And I said, ‘Thank you for learning, because you guys wanting to learn, and choosing to learn, is what makes me feel good.’”
Mr. Swanson is working every day to make education come alive for his students. But he has even further ambitions for the school. “My dream would be to have a true flipped classroom here,” he says. “I could assign kids to watch their lectures at home, we could debrief here, and then do a lab about it in class. That would be my dream job. I want to spend my time doing. They are such hands-on learners. I want them doing so many labs they can’t even sit down without doing some activity.”
And outside of academics, Mr. Swanson says, “I would like to see the school as a whole becoming a community-involved place. Gary is a really transformative area. There is so much potential for this area to shift the view of what other people think this is, to become something great again. The tides are changing. But I would love to see our school being a major player in that. My National Honor Society students are so passionate about community service. They want to see their community succeed.”
Observing Mr. Swanson in the classroom, you can’t help but be struck by how devoted he is to his students, how passionate he is about teaching. “The kids are phenomenal,” he says. “In every way, shape, and form. They’re the most dynamic and rich people I’ve ever met.”
It’s these students, and the community of 21st Century Charter that brings the place to life. “From the moment I walk in,” Mr. Swanson adds, “from Ms. Betty with lunch, to Ms. Canaday the bus driver, Mr. Haskins in the gym, and Ms. Colbertson down in the English wing – those are the people that make the school. And the kids do. The kids are our lifeblood. Without my kids, this is just a place to work. With my kids, it’s a place to grow.”