Education Trends

Teacher of Year Sean McComb Makes the Case for Optimism

December 22, 2014
Photo credit: Charlie Herndon of Baltimore County Public Schools Communications
Sean talks with student Juliette German at Patasco High School.

National Teacher of the Year Sean McComb is at the halfway point of his whirlwind journey, which has taken him all across the country to meet with fellow educators, policy makers, and even President Obama.

Along the way, he has been sharing insights gained from eight years in the classroom at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Baltimore, Maryland. He teaches in a program called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) which addresses the needs of students who are much like a younger version of himself. We caught up just before the holidays, when he was looking forward to some down time with his baby son before hitting the road again. Why did you decide to become a teacher?

Sean McComb: My journey to teaching starts with my experience as a student. I had home life challenges that made school difficult. There was substance abuse in the home. That led to poverty, and that led to compounding stress. Stress is debilitating in many ways. I got to the point where I was apathetic about school, about my own future. But then I had the experience of two incredible teachers coming into my life. They believed in me and helped me imagine a compelling future for myself. I got myself turned around, and I felt called to go and do that for other students. That's why I became a teacher.

That personal relationship to caring adults -- what a profound difference it can make. Beyond that, was there anything else in your high school years that helped you take those next, bold steps toward college and career?

I went to Upper Merion Area High School outside Philadelphia. It's a great school. There was project-based learning that worked through my passions. My literature teacher helped me experience stories and lives of possibilities. Extracurricular activities gave me a safe space to be after school.

After studying literature and education at the University of Pittsburgh, you found your way to Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts. Tell us about the school and your AVID classroom.

The community [Baltimore] has gone through some challenging times. When I started, the school's free-and-reduced lunch population was 27 percent; this year, it's 58 percent. I started as an English teacher, and then was given the opportunity to move into the AVID classroom my second year. AVID targets students in the academic middle -- the ones who don't usually have special programs to help them reach their potential.

It's an elective credit, and I loop with my students. So by the time they graduate, I've been with most students for three or four years. We all know the benefits that come with deep relationships and mentoring.

AVID focuses in part on academic skills -- writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization, and reading, or what we call WICOR. Some are cognitive, but some are personality skills. It's the hidden curriculum of school. Then there's additional tutoring for other classes. If an AVID student's struggling in physics, we might bring in a college tutor to work with. The third pillar is college readiness. That's about looking to the future, doing career research, bringing in admissions counselors and scholarship information. Almost all my students are going to be first-generation college. We want to make sure they know the process.

As an AVID teacher, are you an unusual choice for National Teacher of the Year? In this era of the Common Core, after all, you're not teaching what some would consider to be a core subject.

You don't get to hear why you were chosen [for Teacher of the Year] -- I guess that's my challenge to figure out! What I find interesting is that preparing all students to be college ready is a new calling for our school system. We're not going to just test our way to college readiness. We have to work in the hearts and minds of students and engage them in meaningful learning. We have to tap into the potential of students who have not been the typical college "track." We need to help them change their expectations for themselves. They need the optimism and energy to be excited about their future, and the skills to allow them to get there. We have to pay attention to both.

In your talks with teachers, you often emphasize research from the field of positive psychology. How do you apply that in the classroom?

It's about creating a joyful, positive learning environment. That opens up the brain for learning and makes students more creative, more productive. This is an exciting area of psychological research, and I'll be happy when more studies come out and get more focus from policy circles. Meanwhile, I've searched for ways to build positivity and have latched onto some great ideas.

One example: I'm a sports fan and have read about a study that shows a correlation between the frequency of high-fives and fist bumps and winning team records. It may not be causal, but the teams that celebrate with those physical gestures tend to win more. So I've started deliberately doing that more with my kids. It's hard not to be happy when you're giving or receiving a high-five.

I also write notes to students -- short thank-yous or compliments on Post-its. I'll pass these out at the start of class. It's a way to let kids know that you care about them. Parents will tell me later that these little notes wind up on the bedroom mirror at home, or I'll see them taped in the backs of books or binders. When you affirm kids, you get that back threefold.

You also practice something called the high-grade compliment. What's that about?

This is an idea I read about on another teacher's blog [by Zac Chase, formerly with Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia]. At the start of class, with everyone watching, you pick one student. You come into proximity, look them in the eyes, and tell them all the positives you think about them. You describe the wonderful future you see ahead for them. You celebrate who they are and who you think they can be. I try to get to every student eventually, which makes me look more closely at kids who might not get so much attention.

I'll be honest: It took me years to get up the courage to do this after I'd read about. But it's such a powerful moment. And now, my students have started delivering high-grade compliments to each other.

During your National Teacher of the Year experience, have you found more good ideas to borrow?

I met an art teacher in Kansas whose students use peer review to encourage one another. She calls this "affirming circles." I met a former teacher of the year from Oklahoma who, at 85, is still developing music education for elementary students. I've met teachers who stand up in policy forums with their governors and legislators, and speak the truth of their classrooms. There are teachers thirsting to make changes in their practice, whether that's project-based learning, maker movement, paperless classroom, deeper learning, or utilizing technology in meaningful ways.

What stands out the most is that there are passionate, creative teachers all over this country. And how rarely their stories get told. There is so much to celebrate in our profession. Teachers are an incredible force for positive change, and that's not a narrative that's in the media very often.

(Learn more about the National Teacher of the Year Program.)

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