Senior substitute teacher still in classroom after 59 years


In Ray Swee's first year as a teacher, his students listened to the music of Bing Crosby and watched Abbott and Costello films.

When he enters a classroom today, the kids at the desks could be the grandchildren of those first students.

Swee, 81, started teaching in 1949. He retired as a teacher from Bend High School in 1989 but continues to substitute teach in schools around Central Oregon. He's the oldest substitute on the High Desert Education Service District's list of substitutes, but that doesn't stop him from getting requests from teachers around the area, spending time in every type of classroom.

"He has done everything from PE to special education, to English and science," said Becca Scott, who handles substitutes for the High Desert Education Service District.

"He's all over the place. He's great. He'll go anywhere."

When a student asks Swee how old he is, he turns it into a math problem.

"I give them my birthday, then I tell them to calculate how old I am in years, months and days," he said. "Usually, someone pops up in the middle of class with the answer."

After graduating from Mankato State Teachers College in 1949 with money from the GI Bill, he started teaching at a small high school in Waldorf, Minn.

That year, he taught six subjects and coached three sports, and he was compensated with a $2,750 salary.

After teaching in Minnesota for more than 20 years, he and his wife Stephanie, moved to Bend. Swee signed up to be a substitute teacher in Bend-La Pine Schools and soon was offered a job substituting for the rest of the year as Bend High's automotive teacher.

"I could barely change oil," he said, laughing. "I ran film strips and bluffed my way through it, basically."

That spring, he was asked to teach social studies at the high school, a position he accepted. He taught there for 17 years, and also served as an assistant track coach.

Bill Smith, a former Bend High teacher and school board member, worked with Swee in the 1970s. He's not surprised that Swee is still in the classroom.

"He's always been 20 years younger than he really is," Smith said. "I'm guessing the reason he's still doing it at 81 is his demeanor. He's always had this laid-back demeanor. I've never seen anything bother him."

Even if nothing's bothered him, Swee's sure seen a lot. He was at Bend High when it was so overcrowded, before the opening of Mountain View High School, that the school held classes in two shifts. He said he has seen an increase in class sizes, a fear of upsetting or boring students, and sometimes a failure to challenge kids.

But one thing has stayed the same.

"I don't see a change in the kids," he said. "They need to be more challenged. Kids react to a challenge."

When Swee retired, he wasn't ready to give up on teaching and students. He immediately started substituting &

from Bend to Redmond to Culver.

In the 19 years that he has been substituting, two classes stick out as the worst he's ever taught. One was a kindergarten physical education class in Madras, which he had a hard time controlling. The other was an advanced calculus class in Redmond, and the math proved a bit too difficult.

"They're two extremes," he said. "But I'll teach anything in between."

He's certified to be a substitute teacher for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

The biggest challenge for Swee isn't that, at 81, he runs out of energy. Instead, it's the uncertainty.

"You have to be so flexible," he said. "You have to be able to expect anything."

His wife said he has another challenge: He forgets names.

"He's known so many kids that he's always mixing up the names," Stephanie Swee said. "But they don't seem to mind."

Stephanie Swee said she gave up long ago trying to talk him out of working.

"We used to say, 'When you're 75, how about quitting?' And every time his certification comes up, he says he's going to renew it one more time," she said. "He likes to do it. He's almost driven by it some of the time. We have to be home at 5 p.m. and he has to be up at 5 a.m. so he doesn't miss any sub calls."

About twice a week, Stephanie said, she's awakened by the 5 a.m. calls. The rest, thankfully, come in the evenings.

"I think he likes interacting with the kids. Most of the time, he really enjoys his assignments," she said. "I think it's because he is the kind of person who does not want to ever be in a position where he doesn't have much to do."

Stephanie said that when Swee retired in 1989, he made a single request.

"He said, 'Don't ever buy me a recliner,'" she said. "I told him, 'You don't have to sit in it,' but he said, 'Don't buy one.' He wants to be on the go all the time."

Three years ago, Swee had a heart attack and bypass surgery. But he still hasn't quit substituting.

"As long as he can go to class, he'll do it," his wife said.

Swee doesn't have a clear reason for his continued teaching.

"Maybe I'm not very smart," he said, laughing. "Every teacher I know, when it's their last year, they say, 'See ya.' But most kids like me, so it's easier to say yes."

"If they call me, I figure they must need me," he said. "I never turn down a job."

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