The following is a speech made by the 2014 National Teacher of the Year, Sean McComb. This speech was delivered at the National Education Association (NEA) conference in Denver, July 2014.
“Teachers: The Decisive Element”
Good afternoon. Thank you. So proud to be here. So thankful for your work across this country. As a career-long member of my Teacher’s Association your work gives me the peace of mind of knowing that you always have my back, that someone is defending my rights as a teacher, which so many have fought for, for so long. Thank you for that.
A couple of weeks ago I was flying home to Baltimore, and I sat with a couple of children who were returning home from visiting their grandparents. Naturally, I asked about school. I asked them about their favorite part of the past year. The 6th grader told me about her trip to Mt. Vernon, how she had learned all about George Washington, how he was such a great leader, and how she had tried to convince to guard to open the tomb, but he was “being stubborn.” The 3rd grader told me about how each student in class adopted a caterpillar. That she kept hers in a cup on her desk, and she fed it, and eventually they all turned into beautiful butterflies.
And I asked them about their favorite teachers, and the elder told me about Mr. Hyde who had come to all of her theatre performances and encouraged her, and the younger about Ms. Esser, from when she was in first grade, who was so much fun and gave them dance breaks when their brains hurt from all their learning. And throughout the flight I saw just how important these teachers had been for these two little girls. The 6th grader spent much of the flight in her notebook, creating lists of characters and scene locations. The 3rd grader, in perhaps the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen, decided to take a dance break in the aisle for a few minutes, mid-flight.
And their thoughts on school, the light in their eyes when they talked about their teachers…it reminded me of a truth that I see proven before my very eyes every day at Patapsco High School: 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.
And it’s not just true for our younger students. Our secondary teachers combine a passion for learning content with a talent for teenagers. I think of some graduates from our school…
Like Kiran, whose fondness for science flourished under her AP Bio teacher and propelled her on a path to medical school.
Like Sarah, whose fascination with history became an insatiable curiosity when she was in high school, a curiosity she now imparts to her own students.
Like Travis, whose dedication to solve problems was encouraged by his math teacher, and he is now putting that to work for the National Security Administration. (You hear that Travis! Good job!)
And it was true for me too. Mr. Schurtz showed me how great stories provided a window into the human condition. How we could experience other lives, question motives, play out scenarios through literature. And he did that for me when what I wanted most was a life other than the one I had. And he convinced me, when I didn’t otherwise have much of a reason at all to believe it, that I truly had something to give to others. That I had a voice to offer, and that it mattered that I share it.
These teachers were up to 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.
I’m proud to be a teacher, a hope developer. Ever since I was a teenager I’ve had that beautiful line from Shawshank Redemption on my heart: hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.
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.
Across this country children look to their teachers to hold out hope. To give students a belief in themselves. To give them the skills to have agency to make it reality. It is that exact effort that called me, like so many other teachers, into this field, to be that decisive element in the classroom.
In order to thrive in that work, we need to establish another arena, in addition to the classroom, in which teachers should be the decisive element—school culture. I think one of the most pressing questions for any educator in this country is: “What are you doing to create a supportive, collaborative culture among teachers in your building?” (And maybe, what are you doing to prevent it that should change). When I get a new group of students I tell them that: “We’re a team now. I’m on your team. I’m YOUR teammate. I am “team Thomas” and “team Qiana” and I’m going to do everything in my power to support you and help you to improve. And, we’re all going to do that for each other, here.”
Isn’t this what we should hear from our administrators and colleagues as well–a culture of support, improvement and collaboration? We know how learning can blossom, skills improve, and achievement grow in the rich soil of a supportive, collaborative culture.
Like you, I’ve worked hard throughout my career in an effort to make my classroom student-centered–to allow students to collaborate, to observe each other’s work as models and learn from each other’s perspectives. Let’s all work to make this the norm in our professional learning as well. Let’s all work to create systems that encourage collaboration, opening classroom doors to colleagues, and allotting the time and support to learn from one another. Because the expert to help us grow our practice doesn’t need to be the consultant from across the country—it might just be the colleague one classroom over.
And let’s have teachers take a decisive role in school leadership. That doesn’t mean a teacher gets to do the annoying paperwork instead of an administrator, or a teacher gets to handle discipline issues during their planning period. 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.
With teachers leading a supportive culture focused on improvement, with time to collaborate and opportunities to be catalysts for change, our schools can go from good to great. Teachers can better move the hearts and minds of children, and, I’m sure, the almighty data point will follow.
But there’s still a larger arena, beyond our classrooms and our school cultures, where our profession can be the decisive element.
We are facing some massive challenges as a nation:
How do we give everyone a fair shot to make it in America? How will we sustain this planet? How do we balance a safety net and self-reliance? How can we clean some of the toxic elements from our culture? The list goes on…
These are some big, complex, challenging questions. But I’ll tell you where we can find the answer to all of these questions. They’re right in front of our faces in our classrooms every morning. The answer is our students. The answer is in how we will prepare them to be our next leaders, in what conditions their education to meet this challenge will take place, and in who we prepare and develop as the teachers entrusted to do this work.
A few weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times about some of the student who we will need to be part of that answer. Two professors of economics claimed that our nation’s identity as the “land of opportunity” is a myth……..
Now, maybe I’m a romantic. Maybe I’m just filled with the hope that comes from working with students, or maybe it’s because of my personal experience. But I know there is still land in this country that holds the hope of opportunity. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve spent my career working in that land. It’s even marked out with signs. They’re yellow, and they say “school zone” in big black letters.
Our schools are the land of opportunity in this country. They must be. Our children depend on them and they deserve for them to be….
This article didn’t stop there…it went on to claim that “for many children at the bottom […] opportunity is not just out of reach. It is inconceivable.”
Inconceivable. It sounds like more than ever, children at the bottom need incredible schools and incredible teachers. Like many of you I’ve spent my career changing what students can “conceive of” for themselves. 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.
I’ll tell you what I can conceive of…
I can conceive that here, too, here in the heart of this massive challenge, at the very core of who we are as a country—as the land of opportunity–education and teachers, can be the decisive element.
Now we can’t do it alone—we need this nation to truly invest in its children. We need to build up the profession, not break it down. We need our culture to value education more than it ever has before…
So, 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. 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?
While others deliberate and debate, we teachers have chosen to act. We have chosen to dedicate our lives to nurturing our next visionary leaders, caring neighbors, brilliant researchers, and conscious consumers.
We are proud to be a part of that solution, a part of that investment. We are proud to be a profession that takes up this call. We are proud to call on the conscience of our country to give kids the education, and opportunity that has always been America’s promise.
Thank you all for your work. Thank you for being the decisive element. Thank you for being teachers.