Of all the new students in French teacher Vernon Williams' first-year classes last year, ninth grader Nichole Tobias stood out as one of the best. Williams, pleased with Nichole's enthusiasm and aptitude for the language, went out of his way to praise her. After a few weeks, however, he realized that the attention was causing resentment among the other students.

The issue blew up one day last fall when Williams reprimanded a girl for not being prepared. Nichole and another of Williams' favorites, ninth grader Barbara Grant, giggled, leading to a confrontation the next day among the three girls. When Williams heard about it, he felt guilty.

He made a pact with Nichole and Barbara. He told them that he planned to "jump on them" more if they made a mistake in class to make them blend in with the rest of the students. "I had given {them} so much praise that I was alienating them from their peers," he explained.

This is teaching according to Vernon Williams: Be flexible, be creative, be conscious of your own mistakes. Aware that students usually find foreign languages difficult or irrelevant, he is endlessly searching for ways to hold their attention. Last year, he decided to take advantage of the proliferation of Walkmans among today's teen-agers and sent his students home with an unusual homework assignment: French language drills on tape cassettes. It was a popular move.

He walks the line between being a friend and being a mentor. He seems almost like a student himself: Slender and youthful-looking, he frequently wears sweaters without a tie. A D.C. native, he is a 1962 graduate of Roosevelt High School and has taught at McKinley for eight years. "Vernon can find a way to motivate every kid in his class," said Principal Bettye W. Topps.

At lunchtime, it is common to see students hanging out in Williams' classroom, asking his advice or telling him about a family problem. Even students who have never taken one of his courses come by. He takes extra steps to praise his students -- after the honor roll is announced, he puts up signs congratulating those who make it -- but he is just as quick to show his disappointment.

One day last December, only four of 20 students in his fifth-period class -- the one that included Nichole and Barbara -- arrived with their homework completed.

"This period is in bad trouble," Williams said. "You think you can come in here two days a week and smile at me and not do my work but still pass. That's not going to happen here. Somebody at home is supposed to tell you that education is important. I hold your parents responsible."

He then went on with his lesson. At the end of the class, he still was not satisfied. "We haven't done our work for today," he said. "Be here {after school} to do our work." He excused the four students who had done the homework and kept the others after school for an hour.

During the next several weeks, he struggled to motivate the class, but nothing seemed to work. Most of the students still came unprepared. Finally, he came up with a way to get them more involved: Let each student teach the class for 10 minutes a day.

The idea seemed to work. The student who was designated to teach was usually well-prepared. The rest of the class, unwilling to look bad at the hands of a peer, seemed better prepared, too.

On March 17, it was Nichole's turn to teach. She called on one of the girls who had been angry with her earlier in the year when Williams was praising her. Nichole pronounced a phrase and the girl wrote it on the blackboard. Williams beamed at the way the two of them got along.

After class, he said his pact with Nichole had worked. "Now Nichole is no longer a threat to them," he said.