Mark Stewart still remembers his nightmare a few weeks ago about the first day of school.

In his dream, he walks into a classroom at Long Reach High School in Columbia to begin his new job as an environmental and earth sciences teacher. But he is unsure that the students staring back at him are really his. So he runs down the hall to another classroom, only to find a teacher already there. By the time he returns to the first room, the children are gone and have left him a message: "If you want us to respect you, you're going to have to respect us."

In reality, Stewart probably has little to worry about. He has already planned his first week of lessons, including games to help him assess students' learning styles. This week, he joins 260 other new teachers hired in Howard County this year for an orientation at Wilde Lake High School, which runs through tomorrow.

"Let me start with the nitty-gritty of what you're going to face," Secondary Science Coordinator John Quinn told a classroom full of new science teachers Monday.

Quinn and other Science Department staff members discussed teacher evaluations, test scores and the battery of forms and paperwork teachers must fill out. About one-third of the hires this year are fresh out of college or graduate school with no teaching experience, said Mamie Perkins, the county school system's director of human resources.

This year's new teachers hail from Florida to Alaska. More than half have been teachers elsewhere. There are also former lawyers, accountants, chemical engineers and military personnel. Among the new teachers are graduates of all the county's high schools except Reservoir, whose first senior class will graduate next year. Stewart graduated from Oakland Mills in 1998.

Jessica Matthews, who will teach biology at Reservoir High, also went to Oakland Mills, which historically has had the largest number of alumni to return as teachers in the county. She has gotten a peek at her classroom and plans to buy posters and decorations today.

"I'm probably more excited than nervous," she said.

Perkins said the school system plans to fill all its vacancies by hiring 40 to 60 more teachers by the time classes begin Aug. 30. Most of the open positions were in special education, she said.

Still, the number of new teachers is significantly lower than in the past, when about 500 teachers were hired annually. Perkins said the need declined this year because elementary school enrollment decreased.

Stewart said teachers are considered "rookies" for their first five years. During that time, he said, teachers learn the curriculum and how to manage the classroom.

"I know it'll be a long road, and it'll be a struggle," he said. "But it will be rewarding."

New science teachers Lindsay Devault, left, and Sarah Payne measure a paper tower. Observing at center right is Shabana Ahned, also a science teacher. Mark Stewart, first-year environmental and earth sciences teacher at Long Reach High School, speaks during the orientation. Classes start Aug. 30