With Hope and Gratitude for the Future, Math Teacher Mr. Larry Swanson Begins His Retirement Journey

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Fia Cooper

“I’ve learned that it’s more important to develop relationships first and then teach from that relationship,” math teacher Mr. Larry Swanson said.

Lucy MacNeela, Assistant Editor

After 43 years of doing something every day, many people would fall into a pattern, a yearly routine — and some might argue this is particularly true when teaching a subject like math. 

But for math teacher Mr. Larry Swanson, “It’s never the math, it’s always the kids,” he said.

However, Mr. Swanson did not always know that he was going to be a teacher. Growing up, his dream job was to play second base for the St. Louis Cardinals. Then, when he got a little bit older, he wanted to be a statistician for the Cardinals. After a while, he realized that he enjoyed math and science, so he majored in engineering. 

But in 1977, while Mr. Swanson and his wife Tracy were going through premarital counseling, their pastor gave them personality quizzes, since Mr. Swanson was unsure of what he wanted to do with his degree. After looking at the results, it was clear to the pastor that Mr. Swanson had all of the qualities of a teacher. “God got me into the job, because it wasn’t something I thought about at all,” Mr. Swanson said.

Since that day, Mr. Swanson has committed himself to teaching, finding his calling in education. “[Faith] is something that, for me, is always evolving, always changing,” Mr. Swanson said. “And this has been one thing that I’ve been very consistent about. I’m convinced that I’m doing what God wants me to do, and I’m teaching, and that’s been super rewarding.” 

Although Mr. Swanson has loved his time at La Salle and found his calling in education, he will be retiring this year. 

In his many years in the classroom, Mr. Swanson has taught at various public schools, and for the last eight years, he has found his home at La Salle. Although he loves to get people excited about math and change their perspective on it, he appreciates the variety of classes that La Salle offers, as he recognizes not all people are math people.

“You just don’t know until you try stuff, which is kind of the beauty of a liberal arts education,” Mr. Swanson said. “You really get a chance to look at stuff and think, ‘Oh, yes, I really love this.’” 

Mr. Swanson teaches a variety of upper-level math courses, but he said he cannot pick a favorite because of the connections he has made in all of his classes. “At first, I really thought it was all about just lessons and teaching,” Mr. Swanson said. But then, he realized that “It’s the relationship that you build… and the trust that you have between the students and the teacher that makes the education possible.”

Although he originally started teaching in elementary and middle schools, Mr. Swanson has appreciated teaching at the high school level. He has been able to watch people really grow up in their four years in high school. “High school is such a funny time of life, because you’re still crying sometimes in the morning when you can’t figure out what to wear, but at the same time, you have such adult thoughts and actions,” Mr. Swanson said. “It is such a funny combination of being so righteous and personal and just so dirty, so teaching is just a blast.”

Even though he loves imparting his knowledge and advice to others through teaching, Mr. Swanson believes that the connections made between him and his students and colleagues is the most important and special part of his job. “I just think for me, it’s all about the relationships that you build with people. It’s in the mutual interaction where I learned so much from kids and they listen to me, which is weird,” Mr. Swanson said. 

Compassion is a trait Mr. Swanson said he always tries to lead with. “You can look at people’s faces and just know ‘You’re hurting inside,’” Mr. Swanson said. “That compassion is a strong quality.”

“I have compassion for this suffering that people go through in high school,” Mr. Swanson said. “I was not a happy student. I was a good student, but I hated being told what to do. And I hated repeating stuff that I already knew how to do.”

Based on his past experiences in his own schooling, Mr. Swanson strives to “teach warm” in his classes. “It’s much more important to just know the kids and love the kids than it is to try to teach cold,” Mr. Swanson said.

Mr. Swanson said he feels like he understands the mental and emotional hardships that students have faced, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was just a horrible time of life,” Mr. Swanson said. In many ways, he related to his students’ feelings of depression, isolation, and hopelessness. He missed seeing his students’ faces and the La Salle community. 

Mr. Swanson’s deep understanding of other people’s feelings has influenced how he teaches. Because of his own experiences in school, Mr. Swanson never forces someone to raise their hand and refuses to call on people who aren’t willing to respond. His style of teaching is like a “conversation,” he said, in that he tries to create a collaborative learning environment.

“By asking a question, that puts the responsibility on the kids and the kids are very responsible,” Mr. Swanson said.

In addition, Mr. Swanson puts his classes into small groups, or “math families,” at the beginning of the year in an effort to simulate the real world. “So much of what we do in life, you just can’t do it by yourself… It is unlikely that when you get a job or when you are doing something that you’re passionate about that you’re going to do it all by yourself,” Mr. Swanson said. “That idea of working together is really important.”

Throughout his years teaching, Mr. Swanson said he has also been learning.

“I am much more humble than I was,” Mr. Swanson said. “I was a kid in school who got everything right. I just didn’t work very hard, but I was the kid that didn’t do his homework but always got A’s — and then you start teaching, and you realize that your brains are really not the important thing. I should have been humbled by the fact that I fail, that I’ve done badly. I consistently have to go back and apologize to kids.”

Throughout his 43 years of teaching, some of his favorite memories involve changing a student’s attitude toward math. He loves to help students grow in their confidence in themselves and in their work.

These deep connections to La Salle and the students here kept him teaching here at the school, even when he and his wife moved to the Seattle, Washington area recently. He was commuting to La Salle on either Sunday night or Monday morning to teach, living in the Griffin Center next door to La Salle, then driving home on Friday night, and doing it all over again each week.

After a while, this commuting began taking a toll on Mr. Swanson, causing some health concerns for him. Despite this, “I don’t regret it,” Mr. Swanson said. “I’m very happy I did it.” Mr. Swanson had continued commuting from Seattle because “I didn’t feel like I was done,” he said. 

Then, something clicked. “I just felt done,” Mr. Swanson said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was weird. At Christmas time this year I told Tracy, I said, ‘I think I’m done.’ I felt like my heart had changed. I used to be just afraid, literally fearful of retiring. I thought ‘What will I do? I can’t imagine.’ And then, I felt like I just released my fear, because now I’m taking a gap year and I’m going to take a year off and try not to put pressure on myself.”

Although Mr. Swanson is unsure of what his future holds for him, he is not feeling any pressure to make decisions as of now, and is enjoying doing things he loves, like cooking, kayaking, camping, and traveling. “I’m not saying no to teaching, I’m just saying yes to whatever is next,” Mr. Swanson said. 

Even despite his recent change in perspective, this has been a heavy decision for Mr. Swanson. “Cleaning out all of my stuff I think will be hard, emotionally hard,” Mr. Swanson said. 

Although Mr. Swanson won’t be around the halls anymore, he said he will always remember La Salle and his students. “You carry students around in your heart all the time,” Mr. Swanson said. “It has been such a blessing to be there. I’ve gotten to know people that I will be friends with forever, in contact with forever.”

Mr. Swanson recognized his wife as an important person throughout his life. “My wife, Tracy, she’s so grounded in what’s true, and what’s important that when I kind of go crazy, she’ll bring me down and she has great confidence in me,” Mr. Swanson said. “I self analyze way too much and she’s been very supportive.”

For so many people, La Salle will not be the same without Mr. Swanson. He has given countless pieces of advice to students, but his parting words to the La Salle community are to “be kind, be generous, and be patient,” he said. “But above all those things, put on love,” Mr. Swanson said.