Maryland educator named 2014 National Teacher of the Year

President Barack Obama awards 2014 National Teacher of the Year Sean McComb, an English teacher in Baltimore County, with an apple trophy during a White House ceremony. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). (AP)

The 2014 National Teacher of the Year is 30-year-old Sean McComb of Maryland, an accomplished English teacher who started a program at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Baltimore County Public Schools to help students in the “academic middle” stretch themselves so they can succeed in college.

In an all-East Coast finish, McComb became the 62nd National Teacher of the Year, beating out three other finalists,  one of whom was Melissa Ann Porfirio of Crestwood Elementary School in Fairfax County, VA. The other finalists were  Dorina M. Sackman from Florida;  and Ryan Devlin of Pennsylvania.

The program, run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, involves an annual process in which each state, the District and U.S. territories select their own teachers of the year through different processes, and then a  national winner is chosen from the group of winners by a committee representing 15 education organizations. All of the winners are in Washington D.C., this week for a celebration and will go to the White House on Thursday for a ceremony with President Obama where McComb will be honored.

As National Teacher of the Year, McComb will take a leave from teaching next year and travel around the country advocating for and representing his colleagues in the teaching profession.

McComb said he learned recently that he was the National Teacher of the Year while he was out on paternity leave, holding his then 11-day-year-old son, Silas, while talking on the phone about the teacher selection process in Baltimore County. Seeing a call come in that he thought he should answer, he got his wife’s cell phone and called back, juggling both conversations, until he found out he had won.

“I was completely blown away,” he said.

McComb has been teaching at Patapsco for eight years and plays a number of different roles at the high school as well as at Towson University, where he trains teachers as an adjunct instructor in education and writing. At the high school, he and his wife, Sarah, started and directed a program called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, which helps students who have the potential to succeed in rigorous courses in high school and go to college with directed assistance. Now there are 10 teachers involved with AVID at the school. McComb said AVID teachers stay with students from ninth grade all the way through 12th grade.

“Rich relationships grow between student and teacher,” he said. “It has really been a wonderful program that supports some really great kids.”

Two AVID alumni will be at the White House when McComb is honored.

McComb is also a staff development teacher at Patapsco, where 51 percent of the students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of low family income. He said that when started teaching there, 27 percent of the student body was considered low-income, but hard economic times have affected the area and there are more young people coming to school with challenged backgrounds.

McComb, who has a masters degree in English literature from the University of Pittsburgh, has won a number of awards for his work, including one from Baltimore County for his work with the AVID program. He belongs to organizations that include the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the Association of School Business Officers, and the Maryland State Education Association.

McComb said he met his wife Sarah at Patapsco, but in a rather unusual way. He said it happened in 2006-07, during his first year of teaching, when he heard a knock on the door of his classroom on Alumni Day, when school graduates are welcomed back to talk to seniors about college. Another new teacher named Buddy was standing there with a young woman and said: “Sean, this is Sarah. Sarah this is Sean. You are welcome.” Then Buddy walked away.

The reason for the introduction: Both played Ultimate Frisbee. “I am thinking, ‘This is a cute girl but she could have been a student here last year.’ ” He jotted down his school e-mail address on a hall pass, and she left, thinking he was trying to get rid of her. She threw the e-mail address in the back seat of her car and never got in touch. The following August, during new teacher orientation, Sarah walked in. That was that. On the morning of their wedding, he said, she gave him a framed quote about marriage set on the hall pass on which he had written his e-mail address.

While McComb is traveling around the country during the next school year, his wife will continue teaching Advanced Placement psychology as well as an interdisciplinary class of U.S. History and American Literature, and will continue working with AVID.

You can read an interview with McComb on school reform here, and, here, take a quiz that some of the 2014 winning teachers took — and collectively got a B.

 (Correction: Fixing the spelling of psychology)

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 29