"The first thing you have to have is a love and understanding of children," says Shaw Junior High School social studies teacher Kathleen Ferguson.

For the past 16 years, Ferguson has prodded, argued and cajoled eighth and ninth graders with plenty else on their minds into finding something interesting about history and government. Her students' award-winning history projects are testimony that her educational philosophy brings results.

There was further testimony for Ferguson and three other junior high school teachers over the weekend as Ward 2 students, parents and teachers got together to honor those teachers in their ward they think are doing the most outstanding job.

Ward 2 school board member R. David Hall said parents in that ward, which includes Shaw, Dupont Circle, downtown and Southwest, just wanted to "do something for the teachers." Members of the Parent-Teacher Associations, student governments and faculties of the four junior high schools in Ward 2 rated teachers on how well they promote academic excellence, go beyond their classroom duties, show an enthusiasm for teaching and promote school spirit.

Only junior high school teachers were honored this time because they are the ones, said Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie, whom other teachers "like to pity." It is in junior high, she said, when students are in a high-strung period of development. It is also when test scores slide and discipline problems grow.

At times the ceremony Saturday at Francis Junior High, 24th and N streets NW, was like a general celebration of the teaching profession. City Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) told the group that teaching is "the most unappreciated occupation in America." Council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At large) praised teachers for giving youngsters "roots and wings."

Ardesial E. Harris, the honoree from Terrell Junior High, First and Pierce streets NW, said she tries to foster "social, academic and spiritual development" in her math and Spanish students. She said she starts every class with a meditation period in which she usually reads "something inspirational" and lets the students sit quietly for a few moments. "I find that calms them down."

Harris, an 18-year teaching veteran, said she doesn't like "a lot of the gimmicks and games" on the market today to help children learn. "My basic philosophy is that education is not play. It's hard work, but it can be interesting work," said Harris, a small, tidy, soft-spoken woman.

Geraine M. Armstrong of Jefferson Junior High, 8th and H streets SW, said she believes she is a popular English teacher because she tries to make grammar rules come alive by relating them to the students' everyday experiences.

"Say, for example, we're talking about restrictive clauses and nonrestrictive clauses. We will talk first about what restrictive means. I might ask the student what it means when their parents put them on restriction," said Armstrong, a stylish woman who looks no older than some of her students.

Courtney L. Fletcher of Francis Junior High, 24th and N streets NW, said teachers must "want to be there" in the classroom. Fletcher, who teaches math and distributive education, a course to teach students who plan not to go to college how to launch a career, said he tries to "take whatever I teach and relate it to a real-life situation."

Both his math and distributive education students get hands-on training with a computer. He brings professionals to class to talk to students about careers. "I'll do anything that will make these children see all the things they need to do to survive," said the husky, bearded Fletcher, who towers over most of the other teachers at Francis.

Ferguson said she thinks good teachers must be tough graders, but without making students feel that they are failures. "I as a teacher must help each child reach some measure of success," said Ferguson. Although she said she is tough, she said she often hugs her students.

All four teachers said they come to work before the required 8:45 arrival time, stay after school for activities and often tutor their students through lunch.

Ferguson is the school's Red Cross sponsor and helped raise the funds for the Shaw band to march in last year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Harris directs the school choir and honor society. Armstrong manages two honor societies and the school's Writing and Hospitality clubs. Fletcher is student government sponsor, building representative for the Washington Teachers Union, and a member of the Francis PTA executive board and Neighborhood School Council.

Despite their enthusiasm, the teachers are not oblivious to the problems in the public schools. Ferguson said she has noticed that students don't work as hard as they used to, and it has become harder to get needed classroom supplies. Harris said she has noticed that students are "more disrespectful and belligerent" nowadays. Fletcher, a nine-year veteran, said teachers have lost respect over the years.

But Armstrong disagreed, showing the kind of optimism that few associate with public education these days: Her students, she said, are "more disciplined, more eager to be a part of everything."