Putting Kids Before Content

Putting Kids Before Content


“I don’t teach English. I teach students.”

For Sean McComb, a 30-year old English teacher in his eighth year at Baltimore County’s Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts, students come first--before content, before technology, before testing scores. And that, in a nutshell, captures why he was a natural choice for the National Teacher of the Year, announced by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) on April 30.

It’s McComb’s students, however, who deliver the most telling recommendation: They say he sees something in them that they don’t always see themselves. McComb doesn’t just pay lip service to “making sure each of his students is cared for.”

McComb is the third Maryland educator to be named the National Teacher of the Year since 2006. In addition to teaching AVID and English classes, McComb began serving as a staff development teacher this year through Baltimore County’s new S.T.A.T. program. He has also taught pre-service teachers at Towson University as well as led student service projects. In June, McComb will begin a year-long sabbatical, during which he will advocate for educators across the US and internationally and speak at more than 150 events.

Want to see McComb in his classroom? Check out these Teaching Channel clips.

Every year the CCSSO chooses the educator that they feel demonstrates the qualities of the best of the teaching profession from the already select pool of teachers chosen as their state’s “teacher of the year.” Each applicant submits a written application that includes eight essays, professional background and letters of endorsement. A committee of fifteen representatives from educational organizations interviews the final four candidates. McComb is the youngest to receive the honor.

“I can see my own story in many of my students,” shares McComb. “I grew up not knowing when the money was going to run out and I grew up asking why my mother was more attentive to a vodka bottle than her son.” McComb’s students may respond so strongly to him because they sense that he truly understands their situation, doesn’t judge their lives and holds them to high expectations. “Mr. McComb knows about my life, my mom, my child, everything. I don’t think he knows how much impact he’s had on me,” shares Brandy, one of McComb’s 12th grade AVID students. “When I had a chance to make bad decisions, I thought of him and I made better choices.” 

“When I had a chance to make bad decisions, I thought of him and I made better choices.”          ----Brandy, 12th grade student

McComb’s students are clearly stepping up to meet his expectations. Out of all the students who participated in his AVID college readiness program and who have graduated or are graduating in the past two years, 98% have been accepted to a four-year college. AVID is a college readiness program designed to close the achievement gap and increase participation in higher ed for underrepresented students.

McComb was on paternity leave the morning when he learned that he would be named national teacher of the year. (His son Silas was eight-days old.) Even so, one of McComb’s first moves was to pen a letter to his students the night before he headed to the White House: “Today is a really cool day,” he wrote to them. “It’s cool because you all just became National Students of the Year!” He then thanked them for all they had done and encouraged them to have a strong finish for the quarter. He had to sit on the announcement and the letter for another six weeks before sharing.

Directly after the White House announcement and broadcast, McComb was whisked off with his family for a photo opp with the President. Along with posing for a portrait with the family, Obama scooped up baby Silas. “Anyone around here will tell you I’m the baby whisperer,” Obama said, holding up Silas as cameras whirred. “Who’s going to be able to top that baby photo in Silas’ senior yearbook?” McComb asks, in awed disbelief.

McComb is still making his actions live up to his reputation: When he received a $10,000 prize as part of being named Maryland Teacher of the Year, McComb promptly donated $8,000 of the prize to the Patapsco High School Robotics program.

“I had a 10th grade student in my class who I couldn’t reach no matter how much attention I gave him or how much I called home,” recounts McComb. “Then one day I saw him at an afterschool app club fully engaged. He was apparently a gifted coder who never missed a meeting.” McComb continues, “I also saw him draw in other students who weren’t being reached by our art programs or even AVID, students who needed more hands-on activities. I realized that the main barrier to reaching more of these students was money for equipment and now I had a bucket of money to give.”

Edtech Engages Students

Beyond encouraging these kinds of maker activities, McComb sees other forms of edtech as part of his toolkit for engaging students: “Students crave true, deep experiential learning, not just bells and whistles, not entertainment. They are coming to us from a connected world where they can share their passions beyond the walls of their communities. Students should be able to produce real products they can share with an authentic audience.”

“Sean has always been an educator who is willing to experiment and take risks in the classroom,” says Ryan Imbriale, McComb’s former principal and current executive director of Digital Learning at Baltimore County Public Schools. “He was one of the first teachers at Patapsco who actively embraced the use of social media to help flip learning.”

McComb found that more of his English students engaged in backchannel discussions about The Kite Runner on Twitter than they did in the classroom. Similarly, they threw themselves into creating Twitter profiles and interacting as if they were characters they were studying in class.

Instead of only having students write essays in his English classes, McComb asked his students to blog about current events and then comment on one another’s writing. “My students experienced strong peer models for the first time,” observed McComb, “which was an eye-opener for some of them. They gained more urgency in wanting to improve their writing.”

Even so, McComb acknowledges that he sometimes felt conflicted about giving the online assignments because some of his students lacked Internet access at home. “I was essentially forcing them to stay after school to access the technology they needed. The benefits were worth it though.”

McComb’s AVID students also dove into interactive media, creating documentaries on issues of their choice such as teen smoking and pregnancy. After students produced a digital magazine on the process of applying to college, they created an issue on financial literacy that tackled questions such as the high costs of college and socioeconomic class issues connected to credit scores. Check out the original work of McComb’s students in this digital magazine.

McComb’s passion and humility make him well suited to be the ambassador for the teaching profession this year--and in the years to come.

Editor’s note: Katrina Stevens worked with Sean McComb in the Baltimore County Public Schools when she was a supervisor in the ELA central office.

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