Last lap is toughest for phys-ed teacher

Retiring: Oralee Smith has seen many changes in her 32 years in the classroom. She doesn't much care for the most recent ones.

June 06, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

When she walks out of West Middle School for the last time this week, Oralee Smith will be singing a bittersweet song.

The decision to end a 32-year career as a physical education teacher never haunted Smith, 56. Instead, it came about naturally -- and after a frustrating final lap in her chosen field of education.

Life as a teacher was gratifying, she said -- the times when former pupils returned to say thank you, watching West Middle's athletes move on to greatness in high school competition and helping to link children to athletics and, eventually, to scholarships.

"I have loved teaching; it's been a good life," she said last week as classes wound down. "I knew I wanted to be a teacher when I was in high school, and I got involved in sports. I thought this is something people should know."

But after 27 years at West Middle, this coach and teacher in tennis shoes has turned philosophical.

"Kids used to work very hard at what they did," Smith said. "Now, you have large numbers of them who are not interested or responsible -- and some have very violent personalities. That comes from society, and it takes time away from teachers."

Smith was inspired to teach at Suitland High School in Prince George's County by a gym teacher who was also named Miss Smith. "The lesson from her was to always be prepared," she said. "Miss Smith told me, `You've got so much talent, go out there and use it, don't hide it. Be the best person you can become.' And that's what I've tried to relay to my kids, too."

`Look forward to it'

Her current pupils said last week that they have loved her class and her enthusiasm for sports.

"She really gets into what she does," said Jen Berkow, a 14-year-old headed for Westminster High School next year. "She taught me all about field hockey -- and how to do it correctly. We have gym every other day, and I look forward to it. It's better than sitting in a classroom."

Ashley Joy, 14, agreed. "She always took the time to go over basic skills. She was a good teacher."

One highlight of Smith's career was helping a shy and withdrawn pupil six years ago.

"She just didn't believe in herself -- had no self-confidence," Smith said. "I told her that she was capable. Through work, she came to love it -- and she went on to high school and became a good long-distance runner on the track and field team."

West Middle Principal Michael Bell, a 22-year veteran of public education in Carroll County, lauded Smith's high standards.

"She has always been a dedicated professional who wants to see kids succeed and make positive choices for themselves. She subscribes to the philosophy that you are responsible and that life is a series of consequences."

Born on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, Smith's unusual name was made up by her mother. She is also known as "Ku-u lei Aloha" -- sweet flower of love, a Hawaiian name bestowed by her grandmother at birth.

The family moved East when she was a child, and Smith lived in South Carolina, Maine and Connecticut before moving to Maryland. Married to a retired teacher, Smith, the mother of two, lives in Frizzellburg and is awaiting the birth of her first grandchild this summer.

Smith once considered becoming a flight attendant, but made her decision when she was accepted into the teaching program at then-Frostburg State College.

Smith's disillusionment has been gradual, she said, beginning in the 1970s when adherence to most rules seemed to grow lax. Then there was the popularity of television -- and sitcoms that portrayed adults as floundering and weak.

Over the years, Smith said, those changes have affected the classroom.

"You have things accepted at a level that is not a good level of performance" to avoid harming the pupil's self-image, she said. "It's all made it so difficult -- I know we're hurting the kids from time to time because we never hold them responsible."

Her restlessness is shared by others in education.

Last month, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said middle schools have for too long "indulged in a philosophy" where adolescents -- ages 10 through 14 -- were made to feel good about themselves while academics were de-emphasized.

After eighthgrade test scores dropped for several years, state officials formed a middle school task force to address the problem. A final report from the task force is due next month, with proposals that may include dividing middle schools into smaller units and assigning students to stay with the same teacher for two or more years.

`Strong dissatisfaction'

Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, agreed that changes need to be made. Pence said he has heard many stories that mirror Smith's discouragement.

"That kind of feeling is commonly felt by a lot of teachers -- many who have served less than 32 years," he said. "They leave early in their careers, in the first four or five years, because of a strong dissatisfaction that they are not in a business of success for themselves or the students."

Smith said that when she started teaching in 1967, physical education was a way for students to learn responsibility, sportsmanship and rules.

"You'd learn how to work things out -- and that carried with you through your entire life," she said. "Then there was a lack of discipline by the kids and by their parents. Some kids were already set up to fail before they got here."

`Be there for the child'

Next year, Smith said, she hopes to use her teaching strengths at the Junior Olympic Volleyball Club, a nonprofit youth sports group Smith helped to start in Carroll County three years ago.

As coach of the Carroll Viper Volleyball Club, she also hopes to steer some of her students toward college scholarships.

When asked what advice she would offer to a new teacher, Smith smiled and said: "Have patience -- and the backbone to stand up for what you believe in. When you expect very little from students, that's what you'll get. Be there for the child."

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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