(Courtesy photo) Janet Swarhout, who has taught for Caro Community Schools for 37 years, was named Region 5 Teacher of the Year. She is one of 10 finalists for the Michigan Teacher of the Year Award.

The Michigan Department of Education earlier this month announced its Michigan Teacher of the Year finalists – one from each of the state’s 10 regions.

And a Caro Community Schools instructor is among them.

Janet Swarthout, who teaches drama and speech for the school district, is the Region 5 Teacher of the Year and is in the running for the MDE’s Teacher of the Year award. Region 5 encapsulates Tuscola, Sanilac, Huron, Lapeer, St. Clair and Genesee counties.

In October, she found out she was a finalist for the Teacher of the Year award. She also discovered that to pursue the honor, it would take a lot of work on top of her already filled workload.

“There were several steps. They wanted to hear about past experiences, what you’ve done educationally during your career, I had to ask three people to write letters of recommendation for me and then I had to answer four essay questions,” Swarthout said. “And remember, we were teaching remotely at the time (due to COVID-19 orders).”

Although she was honored, Swarthout had decided to not pursue the award. A former student changed her mind. Caro High School graduate Travis Gere, a U.S. Army lieutenant who now lives in Kansas, told her to practice what she preached.

“He said, ‘well you’re going to go for it aren’t you’ and I said, ‘No, I’m too busy.’ And he says ‘Do you remember what you taught me? You taught me that when times get tough, you just have to suck it up and go for it. And I’m going to tell you right now you better be doing what you’ve been preaching to me,’” Swarthout said.

Gere wrote one of the letters of recommendation, and it convinced Swarthout to pursue the honor.

“After reading it, I literally sat down on the floor and cried,” Swarthout said. “I get emotional just talking about it. It was an amazing letter, and I realized I had to do it for him.”

Swarthout teaches speech, drama and debate at Caro High School. The Union City native has been with the school district for 37 years, part of her 42 years in education. She graduated from Western Michigan University and also serves as an adjunct communications professor at Saginaw Valley State University.

She said she didn’t know who nominated her for Teacher of the Year.

This year, the MDE received more than 275 nominations for teacher of the year from students, staff, and community members across the state. Those nominees were invited to participate in a multi-part, competitive application process through which the 10 regional teachers of the year were selected. The 2021-22 honorees were chosen for their dedication to the teaching profession, as evidenced by their commitment to their students and track record of service in the teaching profession.

“The regional teachers of the year play key roles in their schools and communities, and also in our statewide effort to improve our schools,” said State Superintendent Dr. Michael F. Rice. “They offer insights about the needs of our 1.5 million school children and more than 90,000 educators. We are grateful for their leadership and dedication to the teaching profession and look forward to working with them during the next school year.” 

After completing the first phase of the Teacher of the Year program, Swarthout advanced to the next phase, which included another three essays. On Thursday, she was tasked with giving a 15-minute personal development presentation to a panel consisting of personnel from the MDE, Meemic Insurance – who partners with the MDE – the Michigan Education Association and former Michigan teachers of the year.

The MDE organizes the Teacher of the Year program to honor and elevate teacher voice, the MDE stated in a press release. Honorees are able to share their experiences and knowledge as they work with stakeholders to strengthen Michigan’s public schools for students and educators. 

The 10 instructors comprise the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council (MTLAC). The mission of the MTLAC is to bring teacher voice to a wider audience, including direct work with MDE to provide input on proposed policies and initiatives, and help to share valuable information and resources with their colleagues in their respective regions. 

The next step in the teacher of the year process is for each regional winner to interview with a panel of statewide education stakeholders, who select one of the candidates as the 2021-22 Michigan Teacher of the Year. The MTOY will have a spot on the State Board of Education table as a non-voting member; attend several national conferences with fellow state teachers of the year from other states and territories; represent the experiences of Michigan’s teachers and students; and will be Michigan’s candidate for National Teacher of the Year. 

In the meantime, Swarthout is busy with the Caro Drama Club’s next production, which, because of COVID, will be presented outdoors. It’s called “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot,” and will be performed May 15 and 16 in the Caro High School parking lot.

“My students need that outlet, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun to do it outside,” Swarthout said.