Retired educator looks back on a legacy of literacy
Each page in Louise Sweat’s scrapbooks documenting her 30 years as an educator sparks new memories.
One photo brings to mind a young woman who recently said she still had the star Sweat gave her for the first time she read a book on her own.
This is followed by the memory of a three-page letter from a former student about the things she remembered from the teacher’s first-grade class.
Another picture elicits the recollection of a high school graduate who mentioned her in his valedictory address.
Looking back over the collection of photos and classroom memorabilia, Sweat observed, “I’m so glad I got to be a teacher.”
Since retiring in 2000, she has enjoyed being able to still see her former pupils around the community and watch them grow up and have kids of their own.
“The best thing now is seeing my children that I taught all over town. My friends think I know everyone in town ... If I was in Atlanta, I wouldn’t get to see these kids,” she said, adding several of her former students were among the guests at her 80th birthday party held earlier this year.
‘Right away I loved it’
Sweat originally did not set out to become a teacher.
After serving on the staff of her high school newspaper, she majored in advertising and journalism at The University of Georgia. While there, she became the first woman business manager of The Red and Black, the college’s student-run newspaper. Following school, Sweat went to work for an advertising agency on Peachtree Street in Atlanta.
After learning about a shortage of teachers, she then found a job in a sixth-grade classroom at Atlanta’s John B. Gordon Elementary in January 1960. She had no training in teaching and faced challenges regarding discipline and learning how to individualize lessons for students.
Even so, she greatly enjoyed her new role.
“Right away I loved it,” Sweat recalled. “I realized that’s where I should have been all along.”
When asked what advice she had for others entering the education profession, she said, “The main thing is don’t go into teaching unless you really love it ... I hate to see a teacher teaching who doesn’t want to be there ... Do the best you can on all the paperwork and focus on the kids.”
Following her time at John B. Gordon, Sweat taught preschool at First Baptist Church of Decatur where a co-worker taught her “to be as calm as you can in the classroom.” She also served as a teacher in Clayton County.
Then – “Oh, happy day” – her family moved to Gilmer County in 1969.
She taught in the local community for 28 years, serving at Ellijay Elementary School, Ellijay Primary School and Oakland Elementary School.
During the latter part of her career, Sweat particularly enjoyed being a part of the Special Instructional Assistance (SIA) program, which was “all hands-on learning.”
Along with four other local teachers, Sweat helped lead a variety of interactive projects including square dances, tea parties and trips to local apple barns and Amicalola Falls. After many of the activities, kids were asked to write about their experiences.
“It was geared toward trying to get kids interested in learning,” she explained. “We tried to make things useful so (students) could see this is important and build curiosity.”
Fostering a love of reading
Most of her 30 years in the classroom were spent in first grade.
“The very best things were teaching reading ... (and) getting them to love books and use their imaginations,” Sweat said.
Each year, she started her class by reading Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could, and Sweat recalled one of the best compliments she ever received from a fellow educator was, “Your children sure do love books.”
An avid reader herself, she saves quotes that strike a chord in her heart in a notebook labeled “Memories and Accumulated Knowledge” and enjoys corresponding via letters with published authors.
“I think writers are the most interesting people in the world,” said Sweat.
Her hope is that her former students also nurture a lifelong love of reading.
“I want them to be curious and love learning ... and increase their knowledge,” said the educator. “I really tried to teach kids to love literature ... Kids that haven’t been read to, they don’t do as well in school ... It’s the foundation.”
Referring to her volunteer work with a local early childhood literacy nonprofit that provides free books to preschool kids each month, she added, “That’s why I’m in Kids Ferst ... It’s the best volunteer work I’ve ever done and the most important.”
Sweat’s hope is that she has left a legacy of reading in the lives of the students who came through her classroom.
She urges parents to set the same goal.
“Read to your children,” she encourages, “because it can make a difference in their lives. If they come to school with confidence ... it makes their school life so much better.”