National Teacher of the Year: We Are the ‘Decisive Elements’ in Student Lives

Educators are the “decisive element” in the lives of millions of students who face daunting challenges every day, said Sean McComb, the 2014 National Teacher of the Year, in his speech to the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly on Saturday.

“More than ever, children at the bottom need incredible schools and incredible teachers. Our schools are the land of opportunity in this country,” McComb told the 9000 delegates packed into the Denver Convention Center.

McComb, an English teacher at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Baltimore County, was awarded the prestigious title in April by the Council of Chief State School Officers. At Patapsco, McComb focuses on creating critical readers, strong writers, and judicious thinkers.  As coordinator of Patapsco’s Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, he takes a leadership role in honing student work habits and academic skills. This program helped Patapsco, for the first time in its 50-year history, receive recognition as a top high school from The Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report.

“i know Sean will make a wonderful ambassador,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “He has profound insights about our profession and the power of the teacher-student relationship.”

McComb was selected to be Teacher of the Year not only for his tireless work in creating new learning opportunities for his students but also by inspiring them, a role he underscored in his speech.

“I’m proud to be a teacher, a hope developer. Across this country, children look to their teachers… to give students a belief in themselves; to give them the skills to have agency to make it reality.,” McComb said. “That is what called me, like so many teachers, into this field, to be that decisive element in the classroom.”

McComb cautioned that teachers can only fulfill this role if the school culture fosters an environment that offers educators collaborative and leadership opportunities.

“Let’s all work to create systems that encourage collaboration, opening classroom doors to colleagues, and allotting the time and support to learn from one another.  The expert who helps us grow our practice doesn’t need to be the consultant from across the country—it might just be the colleague one classroom over,” McComb said.

Teacher leadership, McComb pointed out, isn’t about educators immersing themselves in the weeds of every administrative decision. It’s about “teams of teachers analyzing school needs, researching and proposing solutions and leading the faculty and staff through the change process.”

If schools actually follow through and build professional learning communities among their educators, teachers can better engage, motivate and challenge students.

After that, McComb predicted, “the almighty data point will follow.”

Despite the obstacles thrown before them, McComb pointed out that educators have never wavered in their commitment to create real and long-lasting opportunities for their students.

“We have chosen to act…We are proud to be part of that solution, part of that investment,” McComb told the delegates. “We are proud to be a profession that takes up that call. Thank you for being the decisive element.”

He closed by asking if the nation has the will to truly invest in public education, reject attempts to scapegoat the teaching profession, and to rethink how much they value education. It is, McComb said, the “biggest question facing our nation today.”