As the school year winds down, it’s an apt time to reflect on those teachers who go above and beyond the call of duty. You know who they are. They’re the teachers who are willing to come in before school, and stay after the final bell rings, to work with kids who didn’t quite grasp a concept during class. They’re the teachers who are champions for their students as much as they are purveyors of information. They’re the teachers who wake up something latent in students that translates into a lasting impact. They’re teachers like Sean McComb.
Looking more like a scrubbed high school student than a veteran teacher, 30-year-old McComb was named the 2014 National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). From all the incredibly passionate and dedicated teachers across the nation, McComb stood out among them. An English teacher at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Dundalk, McComb has been teaching for just eight years. But already, he’s mastered those qualities that leave students, and their parents, with a lump in their throat come the last day of school.
Before McComb turns in his students’ final academic grades for the 2013-2014 school year and prepares to travel around the country advocating for his profession for a year (courtesy of CCSSO), we caught up with him to find out what the most lauded teacher in the country had to say about why he became a teacher, what the profession means to him, and how he is inspired by the students he teaches.
You teach high school students, some of whom carry some pretty heavy baggage around with them. Can you relate to that?
In high school, I had a difficult home life. My mother was an alcoholic. She started to lose the battle with the addiction in my high school years, and began a downward spiral. My personal self-esteem came down with that. I was incredibly low, kind of just floating by, doing enough that it wouldn’t raise any alarms.
You’ve obviously come a long way from those dark days. Any teachers in high school who made an impact?
I had a few teachers who were incredibly important in my life. Mr. Schurtz, my 11th grade teacher, had an incredible and infectious passion for literature and stories. He made me want to read books as he did, with his mind lit up. Another mentor figure was Mr. Reagan. I was fortunate to go to a public school (Upper Merion Area High School, outside of Philadelphia) with a television production program. Mr. Reagan was the coordinator. He interacted with teenagers with deep laughter and humor. These guys, in their late twenties at the time, were the kind of guys I wanted to be like as an adult: They liked being around kids, they enjoyed the energy that comes with youth. They showed me, while I was paying attention, how to reach kids, especially those who were kind of disengaged.
You describe yourself as having been a disengaged youth in high school who became connected with the support of a few teachers. Is that something you’ve tried to emulate as a teacher—reaching kids who are somewhat disengaged?
I intentionally have spent my career around kids who are in the middle. I never asked to teach the high-flyer kids. Good kids want to do well—deep down I think every kid is that kid—but sometimes they need someone to bring them along a little bit.
On that note, I understand that you and your wife, also a teacher at Patapsco, started a program at Patapsco that supports students in the ‘academic middle’ so that they can succeed in college. Tell me about that.
Advanced Via Individual Determination, or AVID, is a national college prep program. It came to Patapsco, and I took over it in my second year. We’re still building it from the ground up. The idea is to identify 30 or so 8th graders whose teachers say: These kids can take AP classes, and go to a four-year school, if they have some support. We identify them for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the kids are first generation. Sometimes they’re motivated but they need academic support.
Getting these kids to get ready to attend a four-year college and possibly take AP courses in high school sounds like a tall order. How does AVID make this happen?
At Patapsco, students take the AVID class as part of their scheduled curriculum. The first pillar of the program is college readiness skill work. Reading and writing, organization, time management, and the skills to think with an inquiring mind—habits that will allow them to be more successful at college. The second pillar is academic tutoring. Twice a week, students can come in and ask questions about the subject matter of their choice. We’re trying to delve at a high level into the material. They get grouped with other students plus a tutor. Sometimes it’s a college student, a teacher, or a student who takes AP classes. The third pillar is college knowledge. We bring in guest speakers, take trips to college campuses. Later, we work on SAT prep. In their senior year, we focus on financial aid awareness.
It sounds like great preparation for the students. What do you get out of it?
The coolest part for me is that as a teacher I do the loop with the students. I get to look them in the eye when they start the program and say: I want to be on your team, to help you reach your goals. That means I’m going to be your cheerleader, every step of the way. I have seniors I have been with for four years. That’s such a rewarding experience. They’ve all been unique. I’m still close to so many of them.
How important is it that, for four years straight, these kids get a dedicated faculty member to help them succeed?
I don’t think that can be discounted. At the high school level, a consistent adult presence is sometimes missing. Especially if that’s missing at home—not having someone they feel accountable to, and to trust when they’re doubting themselves—it can be a real deficit for the student.
I’m sure there are lots of immeasurable benefits that students get out of AVID. Can you share some measurable statistics for those who complete the program?
For the last two years, 98 percent have been admitted to four-year colleges. They can’t all go, for financial reasons. About 50 percent enroll immediately. Also, the last two graduating classes of AVID students have earned more total scholarship money offers than the rest of the graduating class combined. There were 26 AVID graduates last year, 21 this year.
Do you think that being a good teacher is something innate, learned, or a combination?
I definitely think it’s a combination. It doesn’t have to be innate. You have to be willing to fully embrace yourself. When I think about the teachers I admire, they’re not from the same mold. The similarity is that they’re totally comfortable being their full selves. For example, I have a teacher friend who is a hipster. He owns that. I also work with a mom who just totally is into her kids, tells funny stories about them to the students. The idea is that as a teacher, who you are—your humanity—you bring that into the classroom.
I also think that as a teacher, you have to be committed to learning: Learning your students’ strengths and weaknesses, learning from teachers around you. In the end, it’s all about loving kids and wanting them to do really well. I want them to be successful when they leave.
I’m sure you are aware that some people say: Oh, teachers have it easy. They’re off all summer, they’re out of school by 3 or 4pm. What is your response to these sorts of remarks?
Some people will say: I’ve been in a classroom. I know what teachers should be doing. To that I say: I’ve been in a dentist chair, but no one wants me with a drill in their mouth. It takes an incredible amount of work to teach. No teacher I know works bell to bell. I’m an English teacher. I spend hours and hours grading essays to move students forward, I re-read novels, spend time on the phone with parents, write them emails. So much happens behind the scenes to make learning happen.
A friend of mine is considering a mid-life career switch to teaching, but she is concerned that she wouldn’t be able to afford the drop in income. What are your thoughts on compensation for teachers?
My wife and I are teachers. We live a middle-class, comfortable life in Baltimore County. We got into this knowing we weren’t going to get rich; we went into it to make a difference in children’s lives. We are comfortable living lives of purpose. That’s been our choice, and we wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s so fulfilling, and exhausting. But we feel really good about it.
What do you see in the kids you teach that gives you hope in our future generations?
I see incredible resilience. The kids I teach have a lot of grit. They have the ability to persevere and overcome in the face of challenge. In recent years, I’ve made a concerted effort to put conflicting information and perspectives in front of them, and have them parse the differences, to seek clarity out of that information. I think because they’re bombarded with so much information as part of this day and age, they’re able to become adept at doing this quickly. We have access to a ton of information. The real skill for the future, what we need from students, is to have them sort through that information and help us move forward.
You have an infant son. Do you think that being a teacher will give you an advantage compared to other parents, in terms of knowing how to advocate for him and his education?
I’m a first-time father. I think being a teacher will help me to trust his teachers. Being a teacher, working with teachers, I understand that the choices teachers make are thought out. There’s a reason behind their plan. It also will help me to try to forge partnerships, to work as a team toward his growth and ability to fulfill his potential.
As a teacher, I tell parents to see me as a partner. I am approachable; I want to talk about their children. I think that’s at the heart of most teachers; they do seek that parent partnership. The teacher is one of most powerful factors in achievement. But parents are the most important.
If you had just one piece of advice to share with your students, what would it be?
I think that piece of advice is: Live for others, for something greater than yourself.
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