As a child, Deborah Clark was always active. She spent most of her time outside playing games, hanging from tree branches, roller-skating or cycling.
Although she had no great aspirations to be a physical education teacher, a one-year stint in a teaching lab at Longwood University, in Farmville, Va., changed her mind.
This year she is marking 30 years as a teacher - including 21 in Harford County - and she has been named the Maryland State Elementary School Physical Education Teacher of the Year by a state association.
"I am still shocked that I'm receiving this honor," Clark said. "I love what I do, because the kids love it. It's so wonderful to be rewarded for doing something you love."
Presented by the Maryland Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, the award is given to teachers at the elementary, secondary and high school levels. It is the only one for physical education teachers offered by a statewide organization, said Forest Wiest, supervisor of high school physical education and athletics for Harford schools.
"Receiving this award is the equivalent to someone on the Baltimore Orioles being named to the All-star team," Wiest said. "It's recognition by one's peers for someone who does their job at a high level. Each year it's awarded to someone regarded as a teacher to look up to."
Clark has had her share of experiences. She began teaching in 1973 at the Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson. She enjoyed the all-girl school because it was devoid of the male-female conflicts prevalent in a co-ed environment.
"When you are a new teacher just starting out, you aren't much older than your students," said Clark. "It's very difficult for girls and boys at that age, and I enjoyed just dealing with the female side of adolescence."
Clark moved on to Harford schools after taking time off to care for her children. She taught students at nearly every grade level before discovering her niche at the elementary level, which she now teaches at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary.
"The kids are always happy in my class," said Clark. "What more could a teacher ask for than to have students who all love to come to class? They don't look at PE as an education in motor skills; they look at it as fun."
John Hostetter, a part-time physical education teacher who works with Clark at Homestead, said he has learned a lot from her.
"She does a great job with the kids and really cares about them," said Hostetter. "It's been a great help for me to work with her. She does some pretty unique things with the kids, and they love it. I plan on stealing everything I can from her teaching techniques when I get my own school."
Clark said many schools have removed some equipment because of liability issues, limiting what teachers can offer students. Clark tries to minimize risk, keep her pupils focused and offer activities that she thinks her students will enjoy.
One of the most popular activities Clark offers is gymnastics, which includes rope-swinging and climbing.
"Most of these kids have never hung from a tree branch and swung like I did as a child," said Clark. "I want to give them the feeling of exhilaration you get from swinging, and they love it. Some schools might think a child will get hurt doing this activity, but I think the risk is minimal and do everything I can to ensure the safety of the kids in my classes."
Another feature that she said makes her classes enjoyable is that games are never-ending, so no one ever loses. She also lauded the state ban on elimination games such as dodgeball from physical education programs.
"When you play this type of game, the same kids are always caught or eliminated first, and they are the ones who end up on school boards and suggest cutting PE because they had a bad experience as a child," said Clark.
At the end of each class, Clark lines up her pupils at the door, and they grade their performance: four for outstanding, three for excellent, two for good and one for needs improvement.
"I let the kids grade self-grade because they're harder on themselves than I could ever be," said Clark. "Often they come to the line and say they are a three, for example, and I say, `Are you sure? I think you were a four.' Oftentimes they stick with the lower assessment. And I give them the four in the book. But this makes them look at how they did each day, and I think that helps them get more out of it."
Fourth-grader Jenna Sinha said self-grading is one of many things she enjoys about Clark's class.
"Mrs. Clark should be Teacher of the Year; she deserves it," said Jenna. "When we come to her class she pushes us like she should. When we have trouble stretching or something, she helps us to do it the right way so we don't get hurt."
When things get tough, Jenna said, her teacher is fair.
"If someone is caught cheating or skipping a step, she doesn't make that person feel bad; she just has them do it again," the 9-year-old Bel Air resident said. "And at the end of the class, she lets us tell her how we think we did, and she listens to what we say."