Spotlights
Experienced firsthand: BCPS educator follows his exploratory interest to China
07/16/2015

Spotlight

As an English teacher and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) coordinator at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts, Sean McComb admits that he didn’t know much about China three years ago.

“I was aware of China through studies in K-12 schooling and a couple of history courses at [my alma mater,] the University of Pittsburgh,” he says. “[And] I had a few interactions with the students from [Xi’an Tieyi High School] who came to school at Patapsco... [but, overall,] I had little familiarity.”

While a lack of familiarity might have kept others back, it didn’t stop McComb: in 2012, he volunteered to chaperone the Baltimore County Public Schools China Cultural Exchange Program’s annual trip abroad.

“I was amazed that our school system would offer the opportunity [to travel abroad] and was excited for an adventure,” he says about his offer to join 23 other BCPS staff and students on their tour of China.

Back in his days at the University of Pittsburgh, McComb studied abroad in London, England during his senior year. His experience there, he explains, added to his strong senses of curiosity and wanderlust, driving his decision to hop aboard a plane headed to Asia.

“[I] had a bit of the ‘travel bug,’” he says. “So I wanted to scratch the itch to live in and experience another culture again.”
“Scratch the itch” – and so much more! – he did: after a “long journey” to arrive in China, McComb recalls exploring Xi’an and its Terracotta Warriors; interacting with students at Tieyi High; learning calligraphy, drum-dancing and tai chi; traveling through rural China; and visiting world landmarks, such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven, in Beijing. And, apart from the experiences that he shares with his tour group, McComb mentions that some of his “warmest memories” include those that formed in his host family’s home.

“[E]ating new food, playing games, celebrating birthdays, watching China’s first space shuttle launch and walking in the park after dinner,” he says, naming some of the activities that he remembers most fondly. “Like any endeavor, the people make [the memories] priceless.”

After his two-month stay in China ended, McComb returned to the United States, unsure when – or if – he would travel across the globe again. But, when a call went out to BCPS principals to round up the school system’s most outstanding teachers, his nomination set off a series of incredibly fortunate – albeit mostly unexpected – events. The first event came on a chilly Monday evening in May when McComb accepted the school system’s Teacher of the Year title; the second followed five months later when he earned the distinction on the state level. In April 2014, McComb’s selection as the National Teacher of the Year marked a third event, leading him to attend conferences hosted in countries worldwide – including, most recently, in China.

“I returned [to China] at the invitation of an education organization to speak to groups of Chinese educators,” he says. “These teachers were hungry for ways to improve their practice [to] give their students what they need [in order to have] a better chance at successful, happy lives.”

The emphasis on altruism and compassion that McComb describes runs as a common thread through his memories of his two tours of China, not only relating his experiences to one another but, more importantly, teaching him a valuable lesson about humanity.

“We humans aren’t so different from one another,” he says. “People are giving, kind and hospitable, no matter what the nightly news might want to lead us to believe... Even half a world away, without a common language in many cases, a smile and [an] open heart go a very long way.”

While the fame – and the conference invitations, guest appearances and speaker requests that come along with it – that he has garnered from his stint as the National Teacher of the Year means it’ll be some time before he has the chance to travel again with the BCPS China Cultural Exchange Program, McComb is quick to encourage other teachers to volunteer as chaperones in his stead.

“Know that it’s an incredible opportunity, a once-in-many-careers opportunity,” he says about what he’d like educators who are interested in the program to know. “Like anything worth doing, it has its challenges... [but] it’s a chance to step outside of what we consider normal and see another world, and I think that experience makes us all the more thoughtful, critical and appreciative upon return.”

Hoping that there’s truth to McComb’s words, Annie Seaman, another past participant in the program, recently returned to the United States after finishing her first year at New York University (NYU) Shanghai.

For other participants’ stories, visit http://www.bcps.org/news/spotlight_archives/.

Story by Blake Lubinski, Department of Communications and Community Outreach. Photos from Sean McComb, English teacher and AVID coordinator, Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts.
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