Award-winner says teachers are ‘the decisive element’ in schools

Sean McComb, recently named 2014 National Teacher of the Year, has given one of the best speeches I’ve ever read about what teachers can and often do accomplish.

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

As he told thousands of other educators gathered at the National Education Association conference: “When those children come through the school doors, teachers are the decisive element. You know it’s true, you know that we wield that power every day – to push passions, to help healing, to hand out hope, to empower inspiration.”

According to information supplied by the National Education Association, McComb is an English teacher at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Maryland. But as he points out, teachers who make a difference are doing “something more than teaching cell replication, European history or trig identities.”

“They were helping us believe in ourselves. They were creating an optimism for our future while giving us skills to trust that we could make it come to be. They were giving us hope,” he said. “I’m proud to be a teacher, a hope developer.”

Teachers who are “the decisive element” help young people discover that they can do far more than they think when they initially entered class.

“Like many of you I’ve spent my career changing what students can ‘conceive of’ for themselves,” he explained. “Read that entire book? Inconceivable. Write how many pages? Inconceivable. Enjoy learning? For some … inconceivable. … But then it happens. The book gets read (and enjoyed), the paper gets written (and revised), the discussion becomes delightful, the collaboration contagious, learning becomes loved.”

That’s what my finest teachers did. Yes, they helped me improve my writing, or helped me learn fascinating things about American history, or deepened my enjoyment of music. But equally important, they helped me believe I could accomplish more than I thought possible.

McComb recognizes the enormous importance of optimism. He continued: “Hope is such a good thing, in fact, that research from Gallup has found that students who are hopeful, who believe they have a bright future, that someone believes in them and that they have the skills to get there — this element of hope — is worth about a letter grade of higher achievement than students who are not hopeful. That it can even combine with other factors of well-being to predict college success better than SAT, ACT or GPA. Hope matters.”

McComb wisely urges more opportunities for teacher leadership.

“Let’s talk about teams of teachers analyzing school needs, researching and proposing solutions and leading the faculty and staff through the change process. Let’s have collaborative leadership in our schools,” he suggested.

In a future column, I’ll describe the growing interest in “teacher led” schools. Those can be an important option for educators, families and students.

McComb also talked money in his speech.

“The biggest question facing our nation today, the one that can lead to the answers for all the other questions, is whether we have the guts to invest in our children,” he said. “Do we have the will to give them the care, education and opportunity necessary so that each can contribute their unique gifts to our society — no matter where they start? Will we invest in schools where they can all become problem-solvers and innovators; become excellent communicators and collaborators in order to work together to mature our collective capacity to grapple with these issues?”

We’re posting the entire three-page speech on our website, It’s one of the most eloquent explanations I’ve ever read about what great teachers do.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]

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