As the choices were presented to her in the 1960s, Jo Ellen Smallwood could have been either a teacher or a nurse. She's pleased to say she made the right choice.
A teacher in the Montgomery County schools for 22 years, and now a winner of The Washington Post's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award, Smallwood has earned the respect of her students and her colleagues. The admirers, and they are many, say she is patient and creative, that she gives her time both to the most capable students and to those who face difficulty with each assignment.
Smallwood, head of the English department of Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, said, "Teaching means the world to me. I'm excited about it after all this time. It's still fresh and I'm still learning."
Currently, Smallwood's ninth-grade students are immersed in "Romeo and Juliet." In Smallwood's class, plays are never simply read, they are performed. Her seniors just finished putting their twist on the classic tragedy "Oedipus Rex," calling it "Oedipus Tex," complete with southern drawl.
"I just loved it," Smallwood said. "One group made Oedipus a female. Why not?"
It gives her joy, Smallwood said, to watch how, year after year, the same material is reinterpreted by new students. She considers it her job to give them the chance to see literature and theater as containing themes that are relevant today. For a unit on comedy, students made their own videos. When studying Shakespeare's "As You Like It," students compared it to the 1959 movie "Some Like It Hot."
"I try to get them to think about Juliet as a girl about their age, and whether she was foolish," Smallwood said. "If I'm teaching something, and it's not working and the kids aren't paying attention, I'll just stop and try something else. I want them to feel the passion I do."
In part, it's Smallwood's versatility that amazes her colleagues. Judy Low, an English teacher at Quince Orchard who nominated Smallwood for the award, said Smallwood "can in one hour motivate a student doing remedial work and the next, turn to the kids doing really well and get them to strive for something more."
Low has worked with Smallwood for 15 years, 13 of those years at Ridgeview Junior High School in Gaithersburg. "I watched her and wanted to become a teacher like her," Low said. "She cares about every one of those kids . . . and all of them, they hate to disappoint her. They hate to let her down."
Smallwoood joined the Montgomery County school system in 1968, after brief teaching assignments in California and Pennsylvania. She taught first at the former Broome Junior High School in Rockville, served as a counselor at Farquhar Middle School in Olney, then went to Ridgeview to head the English department. She transferred to Quince Orchard when that school opened last year. She received a master's degree in counseling from what is now Shippensburg University in her native Pennsylvania and an undergraduate degree in English from Pennsylvania State University.
Aside from her duties in the classroom, Low said, Smallwood helps teachers come up with new ideas, sometimes even pitching in to help with paperwork so a teacher can spend time in more creative ways.
Smallwood said she is still "flabbergasted" about winning the award, but likes to think she represents the teachers who "work hard every day."