David Underwood-Sweet has had a teaching career almost as long as his last name.
The 58-year-old — known to many as Mr. U-S — started teaching in 1975 in Dayton, Ohio, and spent his last 22 years as a special-education teacher in the Jessamine County school district teaching kids of all ages. He is retiring at the end of this year
“People always say, ‘Oh, you’re a teacher; what grade do you teach?’” Underwood-Sweet said. “I say, ‘K-12.’ My youngest is 3; my oldest is 18.”
Hearing-impaired students are the main focus of his job, although he also works to try to help high-schoolers who have dropped out get back in the system.
After teaching for three years in Ohio in the 1970s, Underwood-Sweet thought he would be moving west but ended up in Kentucky.
“I thought I had a job in Missouri, moved out there and there wasn’t one,” he said. “I kind of had a lost year, but that was the year my daughter was born, so that was OK; it worked out.”
He found Jessamine County in 1988 after five years at the Kentucky School for the Deaf and four years with Head Start in Lexington.
“The job I had with Head Start was partly administrative, and it’s like, ‘God bless the principals,’ because I don’t want their jobs,” Underwood-Sweet said with a laugh. “I didn’t like it because I just didn’t have enough contact with kids.”
Underwood-Sweet said he was one of the first special-education teachers to go into the classroom to work with students instead of pulling them out of the classroom. He said legislation for students with disabilities — now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act but first called the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975 — has helped even the playing field.
“The original idea of that law was that the kids with handicapping conditions be included to the greatest extent possible,” he said. “Now, it’s taken us 35 years to get to that point, and I think this system has done an excellent job of doing that.”
Underwood-Sweet said he found a good home in Jessamine County Schools.
“I think this system has been an excellent system. I could have left; I could have gone other places through the time I’ve been here,” he said. “But I’ve been some not-so-good places, and I recognize good when I see it, so I’m staying here.”
After retirement, Underwood-Sweet still plans to work part time — he’ll still need his “kid fix” — but he will have more time for hobbies like stained glass and photography.
“Looking back, I can say I was a lucky man, because I knew in high school I wanted to be a teacher, and here I am,” he said. “I’ve managed to spend my whole life doing what I wanted to do. It hasn’t all been happiness and roses, but I’m lucky enough to do what I wanted to do all my life; not a lot of people can say that.”
Asked what the most important lesson he taught students was, the 58-year-old paused for a minute and contemplated the many different subjects, age levels and children he had interacted with.
“I’ve always felt like I was able to deal with each person as an individual and take them at face value and move on with that,” he said. “I suppose life-lesson-wise, that it’s to treat each person as an individual with respect — and it really, to some extent, doesn’t matter how dumb or smart you are; each of us has something to contribute ... each of us has some value, no matter who we are.”