Awake in the middle of the night, Sean McComb couldn't wait to write one of the most important thank-you notes of his career: "Today is a really cool day," it began. "It's cool because you all became the National Students of the Year!"
The letter was written to McComb's students at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Baltimore County, where for seven years the English teacher has guided students through a program that has given them the push they need to become college- and career-ready.
For this accomplishment and for what officials call his admirable ability to build powerful relationships with young people, McComb will be presented to the world Thursday by President Barack Obama as the top educator in the United States.
But McComb, 30, who competed for the national title after winning both Baltimore County and Maryland Teacher of the Year, said the honor, announced Wednesday, is not his own.
"I feel incredibly honored, but I take it understanding that there are so many educators who … do this every day, so tirelessly," he said in an interview from Washington, D.C.. He's attending a series of events in the capital this week, including a gala and ceremony at the White House, where he will give a speech Thursday.
McComb said winning the title — which requires him to travel the world representing the U.S. — is far from the reward he sought when he became a teacher.
McComb, a native of King of Prussia, Pa., who comes from a family of educators and is married to a fellow Patapsco teacher, described himself as a "lost" high-schooler who didn't realize his potential until teachers intervened. He went on to obtain bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, and a certificate in school improvement leadership from Goucher College.
"I just wanted to do for students what teachers did for me," McComb said. "That's all I ever wanted to do in a classroom, and everything else is an extra blessing on top."
McComb began working in Baltimore County schools in 2006 and took over Patapsco's Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, a mentor-based, college-preparatory program, the next year.
Among the program's successes is having 98 percent of the students in the last two graduating classes admitted to four-year colleges.
Patapsco Principal Craig Reed said that he remembers his first week at the school about five years ago when he sat in on a meeting McComb was running about the AVID program. He took notice right away how the young teacher's passion commanded the room.
"It was very clear that he worked hard and was prepared. I thought, 'I'm supposed to be his boss, and this guy has it together,'" he said.
Reed added that McComb says his best qualities can be attributed to what he has learned from his students and colleagues.
"There is no secret to his success," Reed said. "It's long hours, late nights, and his will to not give up on one student. This isn't by accident. He is a professional, and he works every day on getting better."
McComb was chosen by the Council of Chief State School Officers for the national title, and beat out three other finalists from Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania. He's the third Maryland educator to be named National Teacher of the Year since 2006.
Chris Minnich, executive director of the council, said in a statement that McComb stood out because he "inspires, challenges, and supports his students. and he just really embodies what it is to be a great teacher."
Minnich added, "The relationship he builds with his students is a big reason for his success in the classroom."
McComb's students said Wednesday that his ability to relate to them made him deserving of the award. They recalled him helping them pick colleges and answering questions about the college application process via text message.
Austin Brauer, a senior at Patapsco, said he believes McComb and the AVID program are the reasons he was accepted into every college he applied to this year.
"I'll never forget how helpful he was," he said. "This award just shows how seriously he takes his job, and how much he goes above and beyond for other people."
In McComb's thank-you letter, written to his AVID students in the hours before the news of the national title was announced, he told his students about the honor, explaining how his life was about to change — as was the role they played in it.
He asked them to watch him on Thursday, gave them a preview of his speech, and left instructions to finish the quarter strong — including their final paper.
"I don't always reach every student in the way that I would hope, but I really do try to give it my best," he wrote to them. "I hope that each of you agree, and if you don't, I hope you are courageous enough to talk to me about it because I'd like to do better by you."
The letter continued, "If there's one lesson I've learned in the last decade it is that win or lose, success or not, nothing is more satisfying than giving your absolute best effort toward something you care about. That is fulfillment. Today's news just reflects that inner feeling more publicly."