“I don’t get a huge Christmas bonus, but when I get a handwritten letter from a student explaining to me how I made a difference in their lives, that’s priceless.” – Sean McComb, USA
Not everyone can be a teacher. And if you ask Sean McComb, the 2014 National Teacher of the Year, not everyone should be a teacher, either. “We want the best and the brightest,” says McComb, “but we want the best and brightest who have a heart for this work.”
McComb, who at 30 years old, is one of the youngest teachers to be awarded the National Teacher of the Year distinction. And with only eight years of teaching under his belt, he is far from the most experienced. But his personal journey to becoming a teacher – and not only remaining in the professional but excelling as a model for all teachers – is worth noting as the U.S. strives to improve its educational standing, and help address the impending shortage of educators.
As a student who had a challenging home life – and self-professed potential that wasn’t necessarily met – McComb fell into teaching, mainly because he simply needed a job. “I was staring student loan debt in the face… Baltimore county was hiring a lot of English teachers, and I jumped at that opportunity, moved to a new city, didn’t know anyone, didn’t know the system, but landed at a great school (Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts) and its been a wonderful adventure since then.”
And while he enjoys teaching English, it was his second year of teaching at Patapsco that changed not only his journey, but that of his students: McComb started a program called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). “The idea is you recruit a group of 8th graders who have been identified by their teachers as having the potential for high-level, AP-level course work and a four-year college, but they need some support in order to make that happen.”
According to McComb, many of these students may be from low-income or disadvantaged groups, or first-generation college students, and they need added support, attention and – love. “I teach students,” he says. “I don’t teach English. I teach students English, and my first task is to make sure that they feel loved and cared for and safe to take risks.” McComb’s philosophy is “kids before content and love before all.”
We talk a lot here at Daily Edventures about raising expectations for students, and what they are going to achieve. AVID is a concrete example of what that looks like. “The first step is to say to the students, ‘you’re not doing this alone,'” he notes. But McComb adds that it’s also essential for his students to start to think about their future as early as possible. “We spend a lot of time really encouraging students,” he says. “Putting their boots on the ground on college campuses and letting them soak that in and say, ‘This is a place where I want to be, this is a place where I see a future for myself.’ And we see that once they see that future, suddenly they are so motivated to make that happen for themselves.”
And now that McComb has been recognized as the best educator in the country, and a role model for educators everywhere, how does he believe we can elevate the profession of teaching in the U.S.? “We need to raise the bar for qualifications to make it a more prestigious profession,” he says, “but we also need to highlight that this is purposeful work to be a part of. I don’t get a huge Christmas bonus, but when I get a handwritten letter from a student explaining to me how I made a difference in their lives, that’s priceless. The rewards are rich. They might not make you rich, but they are very rich personally. It’s a certain kind of person who wants to work for that purpose and that reward. And there are plenty of people who are very bright and who want to work for that purpose. We need to get them into education.”
I am proud to share my conversation with the 2014 National Teacher of the Year, Sean McComb, for today’s Daily Edventure.