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Sarasota Thursday, May 23, 2019 3 weeks ago

Teaching-award finalist helps pupils find a voice

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Shane Swezey, a Sarasota educator and board-certified music therapist, uses music as more than just an instrument for fun.
by: Samantha Chaney Staff Writer

Peek around the corner into Shane Swezey’s office, and you’ll see one side of the room filled with guitars and accessories. African drums line another wall. And in the center of the room, amid a clutter of other musical instruments and inspirational quotes, his students dance, snap, and laugh together as he gently coaxes them closer to the three microphones before them.

“I’m an Oak Park Panther,” they sing, their grins spreading. “Hear me roar!”

Since 2013, Swezey has been a music teacher and therapist at Oak Park School, Sarasota County’s school for exceptional education students ranging from kindergarten to age 22. And watching him rehearse with his kids, one would never guess that he didn’t always know that his life’s calling would be to help students discover a new means of musical communication. In fact, when he entered college, he intended to go into aerospace engineering — taking an interest in music or education never crossed his mind.

“The big catalyst was, in taking my coursework, I had to do differential equations and physics,” Swezey said. “I said, ‘Well I need an easy elective to take the pressure off. I’ll find something that looks like it’s not a lot of work,’ and so I chose something called ‘Special Learners,’ which I [was interested in].”

From there, he spent an hour a week in an exceptional education classroom for kindergartners. It was there he realized how working with students was becoming the highlight of his week.

Now one of five finalists for Florida’s Teacher of the Year, it’s easy to see how the rest is history.

In December, the Education Foundation of Sarasota County honored Swezey as the Sarasota’s Teacher of the Year, qualifying him to be considered statewide.

“[He] is a remarkable instructor and provides ongoing inspiration to his students and the entire staff at Oak Park School,” Sarasota Superintendent Todd Bowden said in a statement. 

Recognized for his dedication and fun-but-professional demeanor, Swezey says he is “overwhelmed” and “humbled” that his contribution in his field has been noted as worthy.

“It’s hard to describe if you’re not there watching it in person,” said Jamie Lowicz, Oak Park’s principal. “But, one of the most powerful things about [Swezey’s] teaching — and I continue to say this — is that he provides students with a means to communicate, and he talks a lot about music therapy and incorporating that into his daily routine and how he plans his lessons.”

One student felt unsure about how she looked trying to play an air guitar, so Swezey grabbed one of his real ones to help her feel more comfortable

Watching Swezey rehearse with his choir students, it’s easy to smile as he dives headlong into the music, pulling out fake guitars to strum on, singing into the mics with them and even doing jazz hands by their side.

They will always be empowered, thanks to Swezey’s dedication to their growth and comfort.

“At Oak Park, there is no typical day,” he said. “But I think it’s very rewarding … When you really see each of these days as an opportunity to support what [the students] can do, it kind of changes [your] perspective a little bit.”

Swezey, Lowicz says, maintains a capacity for using music as a tool to help students advocate for themselves. Describing him as “the epitome” of the person who puts the kids first, she also noted his humble nature.

“I think one of the things that originally, initially brought my attention to Shane was the way that he carries himself and just how humble he is,” Lowicz said. “He doesn’t ever look for any kind of kudos or props or pats on the back — he truly comes here every day and he works within not only the confines of his classroom, but also within the whole school in his humble way.”

“I just hope I can use [the award] as a kind of spotlight on our students, on special needs students in general,” Swezey said. “A lot of times it’s a voiceless population, and I hope I can be a small voice in their stories and in their needs.”

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