The 21 sixth-graders who file quietly into Rosemarie McConnaughey's bright, colorful classroom at 9:08 a.m. greet their teacher with shy smiles and admiration. When she smiles back at them, they glow.

In McConnaughey's classroom at Columbia Park Elementary in Landover, 11- and 12-year-old students sit attentively throughout the day's lessons and wave their hands frantically for a chance to answer questions in subjects ranging from math to spelling to science.

"She encourages us to think about the future and work at our goals," said 11-year-old Iisha Tribble. "She said I had the skills to become a lawyer."

That support and encouragement extends outside the classroom as well: McConnaughey visits her students in their homes, has frequent conferences with parents and takes her class on trips to Wild World, the National Zoo, ice cream parlors and children's bookstores.

"She deals with the whole child, not just test scores," said Columbia Park Principal Patricia Green. "She reflects very well what education should be. She personifies it."

In recognition of this commitment, the state of Maryland last month named McConnaughey, 37, the 1990-91 Teacher of the Year. The award lands her a berth in the competition for the national title.

It also comes with $1,000, which McConnaughey promptly donated to Columbia Park as seed money for a scholarship fund.

"It didn't surprise me that she would choose to do that, because that's exactly the kind of person she is," Green said. "She thinks of herself last and the children first. That's one of the reasons why she is so outstanding."

McConnaughey is a 17-year teaching veteran of Columbia Park, a school charged with educating many children who live in the public housing complexes surrounding it.

Every inch of her classroom is covered with colorful, positive messages about learning. Yellow paper stars dangle from the ceiling, each one bearing a picture of a student, and a nearby poster reads: Reach for the Stars.

Outstanding spelling papers are posted on the "Towering Achievements" bulletin board, with rainbow stickers and comments such as "Awesome Job," "Good Thinking" and "Much Improved."

"She has this vision that she can make a better world, that she can give these kids an opportunity," said friend and colleague Maryann McBride, a reading teacher who has been at Columbia Park for six years.

"When you have that feeling of extreme responsibility . . . then you work like the world is dependent on you. Rosemarie does."

Columbia Park Elementary School and the surrounding neighborhoods of Landover have changed enormously since McConnaughey moved there with her parents in the early 1960s.

In those days, she recalled, children grew up in quiet neighborhoods with two-adult families, married high school sweethearts and settled down near their parents.

Today, the area is dotted with public housing complexes, and students routinely witness drug-related activity near their homes, school officials said.

Only six of McConnaughey's students live with both parents.

Many of the youngsters are responsible for younger siblings after school, because parents are working and there is no money for a sitter.

"I have seen where some of my students live, and I have tremendous respect for them in that they do chores, they are responsible for cooking, and yet they manage to maintain their skills and do their schoolwork," McConnaughey said.

In the last five years, however, the school has undergone a revitalization, with improved performances on standardized tests and increased parental involvement.

McConnaughey's efforts are not lost on her students, who marvel at the amount of time she devotes to them.

"I don't know any other teacher who {comes in after school}," Tribble said. "I mean, they keep their students after school, but she came in on Saturday last year to help us with our science projects."

McConnaughey traces her interest in teaching to 1959, when she was a student in Mary Kline's first-grade class in Manassas.

"Mrs. Kline treated me with the utmost sensitivity and compassion -- she really took me under her wing," McConnaughey said, recalling her difficulty as a German immigrant trying to master English. "Having later encountered other teachers who were not so kindhearted, it occurred to me, 'Wouldn't it be great to make other children feel good about themselves?' "

She has since become a role model for her students, one of whom, Betsy Sartain, became a second-grade teacher and wrote a letter supporting McConnaughey's nomination for Teacher of the Year.

"I enjoyed the way she taught," said Sartain, 24, a teacher in Conway, S.C. "She inspired me to reach out to children."