Teacher Mary Koback asks her second grade students in Ellicott City, Md., to think before they wave their hands to answer questions. She tells them to reflect for at least seven seconds, discuss their answer with a partner, and then raise their hands.

The "think/pair/share" teaching technique is not new. But Koback's use of it -- she wears a picture wheel around her neck with cartoon characters thinking, pairing and sharing -- was one of the reasons she won first place for early childhood and elementary education in the 1985-86 National Student Teacher Contest, sponsored by the National Education Association and the Atlantic Richfield Corp.

"With this technique, children don't get discouraged because the teacher didn't call on them," said Koback, 23, who teaches at Centennial Lane Elementary School. "They at least they get to share their answer with somebody. And teachers get a more elaborate and thought-out answer."

Koback graduated cum laude last December from the University of Maryland with a degree in early childhood education.

Koback and winners in the intermediate and high school categories were selected for the awards from 250 entries nationwide, an NEA spokeswoman said. Each winner received $2,500.

The contestants were judged on their instruction skills, which were videotaped during their student teaching assignments, and in judged finals.

A native of Silver Spring and a graduate of Springbrook High School, Koback said she was inspired by her fourth grade teacher at Jackson Road Elementary School, Sally Riley, a woman she described as "dynamic and outgoing."

As a college student getting her first teaching experience at Cannon Road Elementary School in Silver Spring, "I felt natural at it, like it was what I was supposed to do," Koback said.

She also decided that she "wanted to change the public's attitude about teaching. When there is one bad teacher in a school, the public comes down on teachers as a whole. When I went into early childhood education, I thought, 'I'm going to prove everybody wrong.' "

She hoped to teach in Montgomery County, but there were no positions open when she graduated. Howard County, where she had done some student teaching, offered her a temporary position.

She has contract offers from Howard and Montgomery for the fall and is deciding between them.

Koback said she is wary of a proposal before the University of Maryland's College of Education to abolish undergraduate education degrees. It would require students to major in another academic discipline and then receive teacher training at the graduate level.

"I am happy with the education I came out with," Koback said. "I feel confident speaking on a lot of subjects in the classroom. I think I'd rather be well-rounded than an expert in one area."

She plans to continue her education and hopes to get a doctorate so that she can someday teach education at the college level. But for now, she said, she is happy in the second grade.

"Teaching is the most important job you can have," Koback said.