The Q&A: Alumnus Sean McComb Named National Teacher of the Year

by John Conroy

Out of more than three million teachers in the United States, Sean McComb was named as National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO) on Wednesday, April 30. A 2007 alumnus of the School of Education, McComb, 30 years old, currently works as a high school English and AVID teacher at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Baltimore. He was already honored as Maryland’s Teacher of the Year and Baltimore County’s Teacher of the Year last year. McComb is in Washington, D.C., this week and will be honored at a ceremony with President Obama on Thursday, May 1. After finding out, he tweeted, "An immense ‘thank you’ to family, friends, students and colleagues who have contributed to my life. This is an incredible blessing."

A few weeks before the announcement, McComb was back in Pittsburgh to be honored at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education 2014 Alumni Awards, and we met him the morning after at Pamela’s Diner in Oakland. He wore a classic blue-and-yellow PITT hooded sweatshirt and we talked over breakfast about why he chose to teach in Baltimore, his childhood, the School of Education, his “filling a cup” style of teaching, and meeting Michelle Obama. He spoke in long, thoughtful bursts, barely stopping to take a breath or a bite. Even at 9:30 in the morning he was energetic, and one could see how his smile, intelligence, and enthusiasm would win over students. After breakfast, he was going to PNC Park with some college friends to take in a Pirates game before returning to Maryland to his wife, Sarah, and their son, Silas, born in early March of this year.

What was it about teaching that drew you toward it? Was it something you were interested in before you were an undergraduate or afterward?
Teaching was the plan leaving high school, because my high school experience was really challenging. My parents were divorced, my mother was an alcoholic, and I was living with her. That can have a really tough effect on a kid. When I was a junior, both of my parents were out of work and there was a lot of anxiety about my future. So in my high school experience there were times when I was definitely not seeing a very bright future for myself, but I had teachers who saw potential and showed me that I could expect more of myself. Without that attention, I could be living a very different life right now.

What was it that those teachers saw in you? Was it some desire to better yourself or get out of those tough circumstances?
They told me later they always saw “potential for more.” I see that now as a teacher, too. There are some students where you make a special investment because you see a certain need but there’s also just the general investment you make. Then this past year, I’ve had kids Facebook message me or come back and say, “You were such an amazing teacher; made such a difference in my life.”  You really forget that your everyday interactions, just the way you carry yourself in the classroom, can really make a difference. So for me, teaching became the way for me to pay that forward to more kids. I first hand saw how teachers can transform lives through first-hand experience, so it became about recognizing what they did for me and saying, “How can I not serve others in the same way?”

You wanted to teach English at the high school level?
Yes, one of the teachers who really got through to me was a high school English teacher and for him it was about a passion he brought to looking at stories as a way of examining the human condition; examining who we are as people, our motivators, why we make certain choices. It’s about personal connections. How do you see yourself through these stories? What can you learn about the world? It was a way into English I hadn’t experienced before. It’s also a way to bring kids into any subject area, by finding a way they can see it in the real world.

After completing your undergrad, did you immediately enter the School of Education?
I flirted with the idea of Teach for America, but I wanted the confidence that would come with going through an education program. I wanted a philosophical educational background to bring to the classroom. I wanted techniques. I wanted the opportunity to have the student teaching experience with university advisors and under the tutelage of a mentor teacher for a full semester, and I had all of those opportunities through the School of Education.

Social Foundations of Education was one of my favorite courses, as it really just set the scene for education as a social institution within our country and as an opportunity to make a difference. We watched a PBS documentary that showed some of the differences in schools. Here’s a school in suburban New York with rich parents and a rich community. It looks like a college campus. And here’s this school in rural Mississippi, where the roof is leaking. Seeing all of these inequalities was really part of why I went to Baltimore County for an interview toward the end of my time at the School of Education. I told them, “I want to go to one of your schools where kids really need a teacher who will impact their lives,” and that was because of the eye-opening experiences I had here. I wanted to go to a school where I could make a difference and that came out of the [Social Foundations] course directly.   

How has the School of Education prepared you for your teaching career?
I actually still keep some of my class materials for reference, particularly with regard to instructing with literature, interpretive questioning, holding a classroom discussion, building good open-ended questions, and managing discussions. Having English courses and being a major in the subject area helped as I learned these things during my time as an undergraduate, and then coming to the School of Education to focus solely on ways of instruction and teaching.

I thought the student teaching experience was a really rich one, especially the discussion with faculty after returning from our placements in schools. I was at Rogers CAPA Middle School in Garfield [now named Discover PPS: Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12]. I was fortunate that my writing instructor looked at revision in a way than I had before. Previously, it had been write a draft, go back and revise, and then write your final draft, but she looked at more of a constant process. She opened me up to thinking about different audiences and developing student voice within writing.

What was the most important thing you learned from the School of Education? Something a faculty member taught you, learned from a fellow student, or as part of your student teaching experience in the classroom?
A foundational belief in student-centered instruction: it’s about the students, their voice, them learning to own the discussion, recognizing the contributions they bring to a classroom rather than an authoritarian, teacher-centered approach. Between the choices of “filling a cup, or lighting a fire,” Pitt definitely promotes the “lighting a fire” mentality.

It’s taken a lot of refining and finding my style over the past seven years, but it’s important to honor the student and not just look at them as something to be filled with knowledge. Studies of the brain show that when children are at their most creative, their brains think in ways ours no longer can, allowing them to conduct more creative problem solving. We need to value that more.

Do you see struggles at home with parents and their children in regard to education?
Having parents see education as an investment can be really challenging. A lot of the challenges you see with our first-generation students are parents who are scraping together to make ends meet, and the idea of taking on $20,000 worth of debt seems like the worst decision you could possibly make. There are parents who are getting by, so they say, “I did it this way, why is it not good enough for my kids?” and then it becomes a very difficult conversation to have.  Some parents say, “I’ve made it on my own, my kid’s going to make it on their own.” It’s not always the case, but those are some of the challenges we’ve faced. 

Then there are some parents who are reluctant because they know they can’t do it for their kids; they wish they could, and go through some self-blame and a really difficult emotional process. Before I was a parent it was difficult to talk to them from that perspective and that angle. We frequently bring the parents in and make them partners in the discussion.

You met Michelle Obama [as part of your teacher of the year nomination]? What was that like?
She has amazing personal stories and a heart for education. She’s a product of public schools and went on to do amazing things. They [the Obamas] really have a heart for what we do in public education. Sometimes the policies from the Department of Education may not align with that, but the particular initiative that I was there for is called North Star, and it is really about getting more first-generation students into college who might not go otherwise.

The First Lady has this quote to college graduates, “You walk through the door of opportunity, now you need to reach back and pull somebody else through behind you.” I also think the question that should face most high schools is, “What practices do you have in place to intentionally create relationships between your staff and your students?” Not to hope that they happen by chance, but what programs and deliberate opportunities are you creating to pair them? So maybe once a week you have a 20-minute block of time where you have a mini character lesson; something to talk about that’s not academic. It’s just about building a relationship and then staying with that person for four years. I think those kinds of programs can be a difference maker to reach students who are disengaged from school.

It seems like sociological aspects, people’s experiences, and the larger picture are important to you. If you had received an offer with a more affluent school would you have taken it, or were you drawn by the challenge of being able to make a difference in the lives of students with less opportunities?
We know that socioeconomics has the greatest correlation to academic achievement. I could tell you the SAT scores from a school by looking at socioeconomic data and never stepping foot in it. I had graduated from Upper Merion when I was a teenager, which has all kinds of opportunities and is a fantastic high school. But my eyes were open to the fact that it was not the experience of the average American student. Based on my friends’ experiences and what I had seen there, I knew a lot of those kids were going to make it just by the power of their family lives. And every day I learn how that is not the case where I teach, and how much they need the support and stability of the school.

One thing I didn’t appreciate at first was the idea of going to a school of education in an urban center that has a focus on equity, addresses all the diversity in learners and socioeconomics and race that come with being in a diverse location that might not be addressed in the same authentic way from a school that’s located somewhere else. Everybody spoke the “language of school” when they walked in the building when I was in middle and high school. Not everyone does that where I teach now. It is more about what they say than how they say it. I try to explain to them the time and place and why they might want to learn this other way of speaking and the doors it can open for them, so that was also a great part of the experience for me.