Love is the Most Powerful 4-Letter Word, Nat'l Teacher of the Year Says

May 6, 2014
Sean McComb Avid.jpg

By Sean McComb, English and AVID Teacher, Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts (Baltimore, MD)

This post first appeared on Jan. 31, 2014, in the blog of AVID: Adventures in College & Career Readiness. President Obama presented Mr. McComb the National Teacher of the Year Award on May 1. AVID, one of NCAN's largest member organizations, assists students in grades K-12 who benefit from targeted support to become college-goers. Mr. McComb's last two graduating classes have had a 98% college acceptance rate.

The AVID program forever changed the trajectory of my teaching career with two words: voluntary participation.

I traditionally teach students English, by certification and assignment. Those courses begin with an understanding that the students have to be there and they have to pass in order to graduate. I was asked to take over a fledgling AVID site as both the program and I were completing our first year at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts. With AVID, I had to operate under a new paradigm. I would have to create an academic environment so supportive and appealing that students would choose to return to it for four consecutive years.

As I have doggedly pursued that ideal over the last seven school years, I have learned incredible lessons in forgiveness, empathy, and humility. I've also learned that at the end of the day, teaching, whether it be AVID or any other content, is all about relationships. The relationships I have had the opportunity to forge through AVID have helped me learn to cultivate all student-teacher relationships. I have also learned to carry a few aphorisms close to my heart in order to remind me to support students:

Earn the right to be heard.

Experience has taught me that there will be a time when I may need to speak a difficult truth to a student. That may be about their academic effort, it may be about their behavior, it may be about their inability to act selflessly and courageously when the opportunity was presented. While I cannot know exactly what that moment will be, I do know that I can spend every interaction with that student leading up to that moment earning the right to be heard. When the moment comes when I most need that student to hear me, they have the choice to listen and dismiss, or to listen and absorb. It's my belief that their choice in that moment will be influenced by the groundwork I lay in establishing our rapport, my support of them, and my care for them in the weeks, months, or years prior. That puts a sense of urgency on every day to earn that right from the student.

Use the right bucket for the right fire.

All teachers know the feeling of seeing a student in a classroom and realizing there are smoldering embers on that child's heart. The result of relentless poverty, a home struggle, or common teenage angst, those coals may lead to bitterness or despondence. They might also lead to an incredible wave of motivation. It's my belief that I bring two metaphorical buckets with me to communicate with that child. I might pour water on the fire and quell the fears, uncertainty, and doubt that rest in their soul. I might pour gasoline on that fire and ignite a fervent effort to control their life and pursue their dreams with passion. The challenge in these situations educators face almost daily is in the choice, in knowing when to ignite and when to wash away.

“Love is the most powerful four letter word.” –John Wooden

If the hallways of your high school are anything like ours, four letter words are flying everywhere. The one we need to have a lot more of is "love."  Many students in all high schools, and those in AVID, suffer from a deficit of love being shown and known to them. A commitment that I make to our AVID students is that they will be loved. They can't earn it and it's unconditional. The classroom will be a safe harbor of love and support. My students should feel like "a million bucks" when they're there. Sure, they might have been bills crumpled up and left in clothes that were run through the washer, they might have seen better days, and they might need to be reminded of what they're looking like at the time—but they still have enduring value, they can be straightened out and apply their inherent worth.

While providing me with a special opportunity to develop a classroom of care, AVID strategies have also enhanced my instruction in the English classroom. Philosophical Chairs has added a flexible strategy that can be implemented to encourage students’ passionate debate of issues in a text using evidence. The three-part source integration has given my burgeoning writers a template to rely on to begin assimilating multiple sources into their own compositions. And the cyclical tutorial process has supported meaningful discourse in critical reader groups for whole class texts and literary circles alike.

The AVID program's grounding in best practices has provided a strong foundation for my classroom and career. It is the underlying tenets of a student-centered philosophy that recognizes academic and emotional supports working in concert with one another that speaks to my heart.

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