Pitt’s Sean McComb: National Teacher of the Year

Issue Date: 
January 26, 2015

Brandy Batty’s chances of going to college were receding like a fast-moving tide.

She was 16. She was the mother of a 6-month-old daughter. She had been kicked out of the house by her mother. Now she was crashing at her older brother’s place, desperately worried about how she was going to feed herself and her baby. 

As much as the high school junior wanted to go to college, she didn’t know how she could possibly hang on to even graduate from Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts near Baltimore, Md. One winter day in 2013, midway through the school year, she told teacher Sean McComb that she would have to drop out.

“I understand,” McComb told her. 

How could you possibly understand? she thought. Here was this well-groomed professional man who taught and guided her in the college preparatory program. What could he possibly know of her chaotic home life?

But then McComb told her that he, too, had grown up in a tumultuous and painful family environment. Though he came from an upper-middle-class suburb outside Philadelphia, his parents were divorced, and he lived with his mother, who suffered from alcoholism. He knew about worrying whether there would be enough money to pay the bills and go to college. He knew all about turmoil at home and redemption at school.

“No matter where you come from, no matter what happens to you, you can succeed,” he told Batty. “You can be whatever you want to be as long as you work at it.”

Batty stayed to finish her senior year at Patapsco. Last spring, she was accepted by Coppin State University in Baltimore. She is the first female in her family to go to college. 

Sean McComb (center) at a White House ceremony honoring him for his Teacher of the Year Award.

As for McComb, the 31-year-old is on his own historic journey as the 2014 National Teacher of the Year. Last  May, the honor took him to the White House, where President Obama gave him a crystal apple and held his 8-month-old son, Silas, in a baby photo for the ages.  McComb will be out of the classroom through this summer and traveling as a national ambassador to teachers everywhere.

Batty’s turnaround is an outstanding example, but those who know McComb say it’s not unusual. He continues to uplift his students’ lives in many positive ways. 

“I have seen him transform so many kids’ lives that it’s just crazy,” says Scott Taylor, a former student of McComb’s who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a major in English last spring. “He was able to motivate so many kids when no one else could. Myself included. No one deserves it more than he does.”

McComb does it by walking a fine line between empathizing with his students and pushing them to be better versions of themselves.

“There are some teachers who like all their kids, and all their kids like them, but they don’t challenge them. That is an easy trap for new teachers to fall into,” says Patapsco principal Craig Reed. “Sean is kind to them, but he is not their friend. He has high expectations—tough love. Most great teachers have it.”

With his closely cropped brown hair, blue eyes and exuberant manner, McComb looks boyish and not much older than the students he teaches. He has spent his entire eight-year teaching career at Patapsco, located just outside Baltimore in the working-class neighborhood of Dundalk. About half of the students at the school qualify for subsidized lunches.

In the classroom, McComb is animated as he strolls the aisles, leaning down by a student’s desk to make eye contact as he interacts. He also nudges students when they feel stuck. When a young woman is unsure on her thesis for a literature paper, he draws her out. As she talks out her ideas tentatively, McComb nods his head and motions for her to start jotting down her thoughts.  

“Let’s not get stuck trying to be perfect,” he says. “A first draft. Let’s run with a good idea. That is a good idea.”

When a young man announces he has received an acceptance letter from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, McComb says, “I could not be prouder of you.” Then he high-fives the student, who beams as the rest of the class bursts out into loud applause.

McComb, a literature teacher, played a key role in establishing Patapsco as an AVID site. The program, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a national mentor-based college readiness program for students in the academic middle. Many are striving to become first-generation college students.

As an AVID mentor, McComb worked with the same group of students for four years, developing their study skills, tutoring and mentoring them, and walking them through the college application and financial aid processes. It works. In the past two years, 98 percent of AVID participants have been accepted into college.  

McComb relishes working with students over their entire high school career. “You get this really cool opportunity to say to them, ‘I am your teammate. I am going to walk with you. You are going to stumble, and I am going to pick you up. You’re going to want to stop, and I am going to prod you to keep going.’”

After all, that’s exactly what his teachers did for him.

At Upper Merion Area High School in King of Prussia, a suburb of Philadelphia known for its gigantic mall, McComb was a B student. He had a sarcastic wit, the protective shell of a kid who never invited friends home.  

He found sanctuary at school. He loved sports, but wasn’t a star athlete. One day he tried announcing a hockey game for the school’s cable TV channel. He was hooked, and began working at the station until 8 or 9 p.m. to produce a weekly sports show. Brian Reagan, the cable television coordinator, nurtured that talent and believed in him. “He modeled how to be a joyous, caring, fun-loving teacher,” McComb says.

McComb’s world also expanded during an advanced-placement English class taught by Tom Schurtz, who demanded that students push themselves. Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s masterpiece about a boy fleeing an alcoholic home and going on a journey, resonated with McComb. Schurtz wouldn’t let his students coast. “He stalked the central aisle with the intensity of a spurred bull, unwilling to let students settle for mediocre analysis,” McComb wrote in a tribute to him. 

Schurtz also gave McComb the strength to write the eulogy when his estranged mother died at the end of his senior year. The task allowed him to remember his mom’s goodness, such as how she’d helped developmentally delayed preschoolers in the poorest sections of Philadelphia when he was young. 

When it came time to choose a college, McComb wanted an urban campus. His father gave him the option of commuting to Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia or enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh. McComb opted to move across the state and live in a residence hall.

On a sunny late-summer day, he walked onto the Oakland campus for the first time and was smitten. “Seeing the Cathedral of Learning against a blue sky was just awe-inspiring.”

McComb threw himself into his studies in a way he had never done in high school. He vowed to start fresh, to transform himself into the person he always wanted to be. “The time for mediocrity was over,” he says. “I lived my childhood. I decided that I did not want to ever have a family who had to worry about scarcity, to worry about being poor. I decided to work my butt off.”

He became an A student, immersing himself in the study of literature and drawing inspiration from Professor Stefan Wheelock, who was teaching at Pitt at the time. McComb devoured classics such as The Invisible Man. “It was like intellectual candy, and I had a sweet tooth for it,” he says.

McComb took two of Wheelock’s literature courses and audited the professor’s graduate seminar. Though he considered getting a doctorate and becoming an English professor, he instead earned his master’s degree in education. His heart, he knew, was in the high school classroom.

He also served as captain of the Ultimate Frisbee team for three years. The sport he loved would later help him bond with another young teacher at Patapsco, Sarah Dugan. They didn’t just love tossing a disc. They also taught in the AVID program together. When they got married in 2009, a few of their AVID students attended the ceremony and cheered when the groom kissed the bride.

McComb calls his wife, who teaches advanced-placement psychology and social studies, the best teacher in the family: “She’s phenomenal. The kids adore her.”

It’s a mutual admiration society. “He takes a lot of care to prepare lessons to make sure they meet the needs of all students, from honors students to remediation,” Sarah says. “They become better writers.”

Beyond that, he relates to them as people. “You have to earn the right to be heard. You have to come to the classroom and show you are invested in them, that you are a real person,” Sarah McComb says. “Sean does that.”

McComb holds all his students to a high standard. If one does not complete their work for Sarah’s class, they beg Mrs. McComb not to tell Mr. McComb. “He will use the D word — ‘I am disappointed,’” they tell his wife. 

At a time when many teachers complain about having to teach to standardized tests, McComb says he does the opposite. He teaches students to love literature and find their voices as writers. “I don’t let the tests dictate my teaching,” he says, adding that the skills he imparts help students to perform well on their exams. 

High school students, of course, sometimes take out the turbulence of adolescence on authority figures. They can be a tough audience. When students’ grades drop or when they act out, McComb tries to find the real cause behind the change in behavior. When a student divulges problems at home, McComb is an open book about the difficulties he overcame in his own childhood.    

“This year, I have a group of seniors who are working on college entrance essays, and they wrote about parents fighting addiction. They wrote about eviction. They wrote about the instability at home. I went through that alone. I don’t want them to feel alone,” says McComb. “It’s proven over and over that love wins. If they feel better after talking to you than they did before, they are going to keep coming back to you.”

McComb often refers students with serious problems to the guidance office. In the case of Batty, the single mother, he worked with the counselor to enroll her in a public food assistance program. He and Sarah also gave her a gift card for groceries. “He doesn’t push you to open up,” Batty says, “but he is very caring.”

For Scott Taylor, McComb’s encouragement is the reason he holds a diploma from Pitt and has a job with Teach for America in Texas. Before he met McComb, he coasted, getting B’s without much effort. No one in his family had gone to college, and he had never envisioned himself there. But as his English teacher, track coach, and AVID mentor, McComb pushed him to run faster and study harder. They had long talks after school about a whole new world of possibilities. And it wasn’t just lip service or the typical rah-rah speech about potential.

“He wasn’t just some figurehead at the school,” Taylor says. “If we had girlfriend troubles or trouble at home, he would listen. He was as much of a guidance counselor as a teacher. He told me about his mom passing and how an inspirational teacher in high school drove him to be successful. It was relatable. It humanized him to us.”

McComb also took Taylor and other AVID students on a tour of East Coast colleges during their junior year. Pitt was one of the stops. Taylor immediately liked it and followed in his mentor’s footsteps by majoring in English there. Throughout college, he called McComb to discuss classes and professors.      

“I probably wouldn’t have gotten to college without Sean,” Taylor says. “I would probably be working some menial job instead of pursuing a career I know I am going to love.”

For McComb, statements like Taylor’s are all the thanks he needs. In fact, he keeps a shoebox full of notes, cards, and photos from grateful students in his living room. His teaching-award trophies, on the other hand, live in the basement.

And though he felt incredibly honored by the surreal experience of receiving a national teaching award from President Obama, he was even more moved by the outpouring of support he received from students and parents. Every step of the way—Baltimore County Teacher of the Year, Maryland Teacher of the Year, and finally National Teacher of the Year—he received notes, letters, and visits. 

Totally deserved.

Not surprised.

Thank you for everything you did 

for me.  

For Sean McComb, the most heralded teacher in the land, those quiet thanks are the biggest rewards of all. 

(This article initially appeared in the Summer 2014 Pitt Magazine.)