As a teenager in high school, Sean McComb met the English teacher who would change his life when he needed it most. McComb was a directionless, middling student whose mother was in a losing battle with alcoholism.
Now an English teacher himself in Baltimore, McComb credits his mentor with providing him academic guidance as a youth, giving him strength at his mother’s funeral as he delivered her eulogy and inspiring him to help teens find success in the classroom.
In a White House ceremony Thursday, President Obama will honor McComb as the 64th National Teacher of the Year. McComb, who has taught for the past eight years at Baltimore’s Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts, will be joined by another finalist from the Washington area, Fairfax County’s Melissa Porfirio, a first-grade teacher at Crestwood Elementary in Springfield. Porfirio was the Virginia Teacher of the Year.
The other two finalists were Dorina Sackman of Westridge Middle School in Orlando and Ryan Devlin of Brockway Area Junior/Senior High School in Brockway, Pa.
As National Teacher of the Year, McComb, 30, will take leave from Patapsco to travel around the country next year to advocate on behalf of teachers.
The 2014 awards, organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers, aim to highlight the teaching profession. But they come as polls show morale among classroom educators at its lowest point in decades; in surveys, teachers have said they are leaving their jobs to escape reforms and policy changes that promote evaluation systems they consider to be unfair.
McComb, who helps struggling teens become college-ready through a program called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), said in an interview that educators across the country are challenged every day to “address the whole child.”
Often, McComb said, teachers are blamed when children fail in school, even when the students come to class from unstable families and face stressful issues such as poverty, homelessness or hunger.
“I think our work is incredibly complex and incredibly taxing and incredibly important,” McComb said. “I think that if we allow ourselves to scapegoat teachers, then we are letting a lot of factors off the hook and we avoid a conversation that we need to have about what we want in this country.”
McComb said it is educators such as his high school teacher who can transform students who come from rocky backgrounds and propel them to succeed.
In 2006, 27 percent of Patapsco’s students qualified for free and reduced-price meals, a federal measure of poverty. Today, Patapsco said, more than half of its students qualify for subsidized meals.
Yet in the past two years, nearly 98 percent of all students under McComb’s leadership in the AVID program have graduated from high school and gained admission to college.
In an essay for the award, McComb wrote that his former English teacher “invested in me and inspired my efforts to find more in myself than I knew was there. I have worked to engage my students and push them to achieve the excellence within them. Every child deserves nothing less, and my calling is to champion that effort.”
The same principles of service have guided Porfirio, who has taught at Crestwood since 2005. A former social worker, she is best known for dedicating time outside the classroom for her students.
“I want them to know that I care about them as people,” said Porfirio, 39. “They are not just a test score.”
Porfirio, a native of Kingston, Pa., grew up in a home of modest means.
Her father worked in a meatpacking plant, and her mother had a job in a sewing factory. Porfirio did social work in North Carolina helping families on welfare and at the Lisner home in the District for indigent senior citizens.
“I definitely grew up without tons of stuff, so I have a soft spot for kids growing up like that,” Porfirio said. She gave up social work after the job became overwhelming. “I was a sponge and took it all in. I burned out after I got wrapped up in their life stories.”
She decided to turn to teaching after a stint in South Korea working at an English-language school, joining Fairfax County in 2006.
One recent morning, Porfirio began the day by having her students analyze milk cartons to determine which would have a greater volume.
She asked the class of mostly 6-year-olds to “please explain your thinking.”
When the students appeared to reach consensus, she asked them, “Do you agree with that strategy?”
Throughout the day, she interspersed her lessons with mini math quizzes, engaging the entire class to help individual students answer questions.
When referring to her class, Porfirio calls them her “first-grade friends.”
“I knew I never would be the teacher that makes them feel inferior,” Porfirio said. “It shows that we’re on the same page. That we’re all in this together.”