Baltimore County teacher is finalist for national Teacher of the Year

Sean McComb was sitting Wednesday morning on one of the worn wooden benches at Baltimore's Penn Station reading a book on how to improve teaching when his phone began to buzz wildly with text messages and email notifications.

The word was out: McComb had been named one of four finalists for 2014 National Teacher of the Year, and everyone wanted to text, tweet and email him about it.

McComb, 30, who teaches at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Dundalk, would normally have been teaching that morning, but instead he was on his way to Washington at the invitation of first lady Michelle Obama to take part in a discussion about how to improve access to higher education for the types of disadvantaged students he teaches.

"This is a strange confluence of events," he said from the train station. But he believes that his students would approve of his mission to Washington, "speaking to people in power about how they can get access to college."

McComb had first been told that he was a finalist about a week ago, when he had been pulled out of a faculty meeting at his school to take a phone call. State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery was on the other end of the line, telling him about the honor and swearing him to secrecy. He returned to the meeting and said not a peep.

McComb has taught English and a national program called Advancement Via Individual Determination that takes middle-of-the-road students and teaches them study skills that enable them to take Advanced Placement and other upper-level classes in high school to prepare them for college. This year he has also been coordinating staff development and nurturing new teachers at his school.

"I feel incredibly honored and excited about the possibilities," McComb said. "It is wild."

While some young educators wish to move into administration, McComb said he hopes to end a 30-year career in education right where he started — in the classroom.

"I think that is truly my calling," he said. The relationships with his students, he said, "is what gives me energy for my work and what gets me going in the morning."

Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance described McComb as a charismatic person, gifted at developing close relationships with students and colleagues that help improve a school. "He always thinks with the view of a teacher leader," Dance said, adding that he has been a good voice for teachers in the county.

"It is phenomenal news," Dance said of McComb's honor. "We hope he will go on to win this."

Patapsco has been at the center of McComb's life ever since he began teaching there eight years ago.

It is there that he met his wife, Sarah, who is also an AVID teacher. Their engagement was made public during the school's morning announcements, and the birth of their first child expected later this year may be, too.

McComb has also served as a curriculum writer for the school system and is an adjunct teacher at Towson University.

McComb was named Baltimore County's latest Teacher of the Year and then Maryland Teacher of the Year. The national award is made every April by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the association for the school superintendents in each state, including Lowery.

Maryland has had three other finalists for National Teacher of the Year in recent years: Montgomery County kindergarten teacher Kimberly Oliver Burnim in 2006, Frederick County chemistry teacher Michelle Shearer in 2011, and Cecil County English teacher Rhonda Holmes-Blankenship last year. Burnim and Shearer were later named National Teacher of the Year.

The other national finalists this year are from Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania.

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