Dorothea H. Smith is one of 1,700 teachers in the Charles County school system. But to her students at John Hanson Middle School in Waldorf, she's one in a million.
"Most teachers just get you in the classroom and get on with it," said 15-year-old Eugene C. Howard. "She tells you about life."
Smith, who teaches reading and writing skills to 75 eighth-graders, helped Eugene improve his writing with after-hours tutoring, he said.
Her effort paid off handsomely. He passed the state-mandated writing test this year, and as a ninth-grader in another school, he still returns to her classroom. But now he tutors other students.
John Hanson Principal Ron Black said Eugene is one of many students whom Smith, 48, has helped during her 25 years as a teacher.
"The main quality she brings is an interest in her children. They feel good about themselves because she spends a lot of time with them," said Black, who has worked with Smith for 19 years -- "longer than most marriages," he said.
Smith has instituted tutoring and mentoring programs; she runs an after-school homework center. She talks to parents and attends parent-teacher conferences at other schools on behalf of former students.
"A lot of kids who come to her lack interest in school," Black said. "I see after a while that those children begin to respond to her, and it carries over into other classes. She really inspires the children. For the most part, they go on to high school and do fairly well."
Said Eugene's father, "It's more than a job with her. It's a life. I once tried to pay her for helping my son, and she nearly took my head off."
The Howards aren't alone in recognizing the magic Smith has worked in the classroom. She has been named one of the 1990 recipients of The Washington Post's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award.
"You have to know what kids like," said Smith, who recently learned the Electric Slide dance from her students and is working on another -- she couldn't quite remember the name -- for an upcoming dance. "You have to understand their dress and that they're 13 years old and people are trying to make them grow up too fast."
"When I first came into teaching, you didn't have to worry about discipline," Smith said. Now, she said, teachers must do more than teach: "You have to be mother, father, sister, brother, all rolled into one."
Take a recent week, for example. On Monday, Smith dashed between classes to a conference for a former student at another school. Tuesday, she supervised an after-school homework program, then drove an assistant home.
Wednesday, she drove to Baltimore to pick up a teaching award, returned to school by noon, "ate half a sandwich" and planned an end-of-the-year field trip for Friday. She attended a meeting of the Education Association of Charles County, where she is a representative, then dashed off to a Bible study class.
Thursday was a "normal day," she said, which started about 7:15 a.m. and ended late that evening, after she bought hot dogs, hamburgers and rolls for the field trip.
And Friday morning, Smith loaded the food into her car, bought ice and sodas and, with another teacher, herded a pack of 71 13-year-olds to a Charles County park for a day of hiking, barbecues and games. She finished the week comforting a colleague shaken by an after-school traffic accident.
"I don't know how the lady has time to do this," Black said.
Smith believes her involvement is simply part of her teaching responsibilities.
"It's not a baby-sitting experience," she said. "The kids have to learn so they can get a job and take care of themselves. If we do this, we won't have to deal with social problems later. We love to spend money treating problems instead of preventing them beforehand.
"I tell my kids, 'I don't want to see you hanging on any street corners. I want you to have a job.' "
Smith, who is married and has two grown children, said the real rewards come from the students themselves.
"Any of them who come back and tell me, 'I'm successful because I have a job. I'm working. And I'm happy.' That's what I like to hear," she said.