This is how a student of Arnita Meekins at D.C.’s Harriet Tubman Elementary described her gift as an educator: “My teacher thought I was smarter than I was. So I was.”

Meekins, who works in special education, was among this year’s 21 recipients of the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Awards, sponsored by The Washington Post Educational Foundation to recognize teachers throughout the region for their initiative, creativity and professionalism. A group of area principals also received Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards. A full list is here.

The presentation ceremony for teachers at the Post Tuesday evening was filled with stories from students and colleagues of long hours, meticulous preparation and devotion. Nicholas Martino enlisted the school nurse and security guard to help transform Mountain View High in Stafford, Va. into Ellis Island so that his social studies class could gain a vivid understanding of the immigrant experience. Julian Hipkins III brings subjects like Hiroshima alive for his eleventh graders at Capital City Public Charter School in D.C.with first hand testimony from survivors.

Lydia Stewart found it unacceptable when a profoundly disabled student at Osbourn Park High School in Prince William County didn’t think he could attend his graduation ceremony. She worked with him to make sure he crossed the stage to receive his diploma — and thunderous applause from classmates who had never seen him walk before. At R.C. Haydon Elementary in Manassas, Va. third grade teacher Francie Vandivere made reading so popular that kids stayed for detention on the days she ran it so they could get more time with her.

Then there was “The Schleg,” as Andrea Schlegel is known to students at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Va. Not only did she inscribe pens with special good luck messages for her students taking tests, she had them blessed with holy water to cover any gaps in instruction she may have left in her social studies classes.

Like many of her honored colleagues, Tubman’s Meekins, a 26-year DCPS veteran, does a lot more than teach. She has been a resident mentor for new teachers, a coach with Washington, D.C. Special Olympics, and — with students in her classroom ranging in age from 5 to 8 — a presenter at workshops on differentiated instruction. Twice she has been rated Highly Effective under the IMPACT evaluation system. She was also winner of DCPS’ Rubenstein Award for Highly Effective Teaching in 2010-2011.

Speaking for this year’s honorees, Rockville High School’s Carrie Vieira said that teaching, rather than a career they chose, was a calling that found them.

“We can’t help ourselves but teach,” she said.