Sean Pang helped keep a student in school who was on the verge of dropping out. He found ways to connect with scores of other teenagers too — sponsoring extracurricular clubs at Rockville High School, tutoring after school, coaching varsity volleyball, dancing in a cafeteria flash mob.
“I think what makes me successful is my availability,” Pang says. “I tell kids I practically live in the school.”
In his sixth year as an educator, the 29-year-old teacher has packed so much determination and heart into his still-rising career in the Montgomery County school system that he was named this month as The Washington Post Teacher of the Year, chosen from 21 finalists across the region.
“It just seems unreal because there are just so many teachers I aspire to be like,” he said after learning of the award. “I am ecstatic.”
Described as passionate and tireless, Pang arrived in the United States from Hong Kong at age 6. He knew little English, learning the language as he attended a Silver Spring elementary school. By 23, he had come full circle, returning to work in the Montgomery system with a master’s degree in teaching English language arts.
It did not take long for him to become a standout at Rockville High.
Since 2011, he has taught ninth-grade English, creative writing, TV production and an academic intervention course for at-risk students. But forging relationships with students also means spending a lot of time beyond the classroom, he said.
Pang sponsors five clubs, advises the school literary magazine and organized a school production called “Rockville’s Got Talent,” based on the NBC series “America’s Got Talent.” He previously coached boys and girls volleyball.
His classroom is always abuzz with students — at lunch, before school, after hours. Some gather for club meetings or come for help with schoolwork. Others just hang out or update Pang on their lives.
“He’s kind, he listens,” Principal Billie-Jean Bensen said. “He stays connected with students far beyond the time they are in his classroom.”
William Ramsey, a former head of counseling, recalled that Pang has never shied from helping students through their troubles. He alerted counselors to a girl who needed mental health care. In another case, Pang mentored a boy about to drop out, helping the student believe in himself. For months, “he would come to school for Mr. Pang,” he said.
Praised for a collaborative style with other educators, Pang is a leader of the English department’s ninth-grade team. He also advises four departments on grading policies and was an early adopter of using technology in the classroom.
In his English classroom, Pang also looks to infuse his instruction with humor with personal stories — in the spirit of a favorite teacher, Jim Thomas, from Pang’s days at University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he earned his degrees. He credits Thomas and another UMBC educator, Sally Shivnan, as inspirations.
At Rockville High, students gravitate to Pang because they sense his genuine interest in who they are and what they are going through, fellow teacher David Baker said. “Kids know if you’re faking it,” he said. “They know he’s not.”
Martin McCarrick, head of the school’s English department, said that Pang sees his work as a vocation and is reflective about his teaching practices. Last year, Pang was selected by his 100 colleagues at Rockville High as the school’s teacher of the year.
“He tries to be at his best at all times,” McCarrick said.
One day in class, his students in Honors English 9 critique one another’s work, as part of a study of author Sandra Cisneros’s “The House on Mango Street.” Several students talked about what they like about Pang.
One said the teacher jokes around a lot but knows his subject well. Another said she nearly falls asleep in other classes, but not in Pang’s. “He’s probably one of the most interactive teachers in the school,” another classmate said.
Pang said he believes research and experimentation are critical aspects of teaching, and he is always assessing what works. “Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail,” he said. “When something clicks, oh my gosh, it’s like opening Christmas presents.”
A 2005 graduate of Wootton High School, Pang played on the men’s volleyball team in high school and college and during graduate school. He left for college undecided about his career and discovered his interest in teaching when he volunteered as a tutor there.
If he had not become a teacher, Pang said, he might have been a psychologist or a counselor.
“I always knew I wanted to help people,” he said. “I’ve always felt I was more fortunate than some other people, so I really wanted to give back, and what better way is there than teaching?”