During his year-long journey through the country speaking to educators, National Teacher of the Year Sean McComb has one main goal: encourage teachers to help their students be independent, critical thinkers.
Although a recent snowstorm prevented him from speaking at Kent ISD, McComb remains eager to share his teaching process. At the end of his “tour” McComb will have spoken at nearly 150 educationalorganizations around the country.
“Early in my career I noticed students coming to class with unexamined assumptions about world topics such as climate change and gun control,” said McComb, who then developed a routine to help students have independent opinions of their own instead of inheriting them from the media, family, or peers.
“It is important to give students a survey of issues they can rank importance of,” said McComb, “Then have the students form focus groups and panels where they can present reasonable evidence-based assumptions, teaching them how to synthesize information and help them become critical thinkers.”
Every year, states submit a candidate for Teacher of the Year based on nominations from schools, educators, and students. Then, a panel from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), reviews the teachers’ accomplishments and use a thorough interview process to determine the Teacher of the Year.
McComb is known for his exemplary work in the classroom at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Baltimore MD. In addition, McComb is the school’s Staff Development Teacher, has served as a curriculum writer, is an adjunct instructor in Education and Writing at Towson University, and participates in a slew of extracurricular community building activities.
Kent ISD, among other educational organizations across the country, invited McComb to speak about fostering critical thinking in the classroom with a focus on building complexity in the English Language Arts Curriculum.
“My teaching is built on the belief that relationships and engagement can turn challenges into opportunities for excellence for all students. As we embrace that truth, we help awaken students to their full potential and the possibility to live out the American dream,” said McComb.
Breaking the Mold
McComb said there are important things that should be taught in school in addition to career preparation. “We talk about students economically, how to prepare them for work. I think it is more important to look at how they will shape society,” he said. By teaching students a diplomatic approach to examine touchy issues, students will be less likely to jump to conclusions in the future he said.
“I hope all parents want their children to be critical independent thinkers,” said McComb, who encourages parents to ask open ended questions. “When you hear an opinion on the radio, ask (your kid) what they think about it. Does it make sense? Is the opposite possible?” He explained that it helps when parents listen to the students then ask ‘Why?’ to keep the conversation going.
McComb explained that the core idea is for students to arrive at a judgment through examining multiple sides of a subject and that when parents are willing to discuss the other argument, even one they may not believe in, it will help the student form their own opinion.
A chaotic upbringing including alcohol and financial issues in the home has helped McComb be empathetic to challenges some students face. “The hours spent out of class can really affect behavior in the classroom,” said McComb, who refuses to let students lower expectations for themselves regardless of their life outside of school.
He said that struggling while growing up will seem difficult at the time, but it can be a really powerful experience to overcome these issues. He said that if students persevere through challenges, they can find strength and power from the experiences some students never had to go through.
McComb said he is always asking himself “…how can I convince (students) they can succeed?” His resolution: optimism. “Optimism is contagious. We’re more productive when around other optimistic people. As teachers, this attitude can really make a difference.”
McComb also acknowledged the impact poverty can have on students, and said it is important for educators to “…understand the chronic effects of poverty on the brain and learning.” He said there is only so much he can do for students inside his classroom, but that at least while they are there, he can influence the culture in the classroom and be sure the school environment won’t compound issues from outside of class. “I create a culture of care so students believe that they ‘can’.”
McComb said there are many ways to get through to students, make them feel welcome and encouraged, but what has worked best for him is to maintain positivity and to always encourage them to think for themselves.
To motivate his students, McComb repeats this message: “You are not (defined) by a score, your self-worth isn’t a grade. Just learn from the feedback and do better next time.”