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Art teacher's diligence pays off

THE BALTIMORE SUN

National board certification is yet another bright color on the canvas that is Aberdeen Middle School art teacher Edith Smith's life.

Smith recently found out that after three years of hard work, she had met the criteria required to be certified through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She has been teaching art for 27 years, 26 at Aberdeen.

"I know every stone in this place," Smith said, laughing.

For pupils to be successful in her art class, "they just have to be willing to put the time in," Smith said. And she has followed her own advice.

When she first submitted her portfolio of materials to the national board, Smith didn't earn the required score of 2.75 out of 4. Rather than give up, she decided to redo two of the six sections of her portfolio, a commitment that took many hours.

There are six required parts of the portfolio: learning to make art; assessing pupils' work; learning to study, interpret and evaluate art; a portrait of teaching over time; collaboration in the professional community; and outreach to families and the community.

Smith's highest score was on a portrait of teaching over time, a section that evaluates pupils' skill development while they are in the class. In Smith's case, it is a nine-week period.

The other component of national board certification is an extensive test on the topic.

"I'm proudest of the fact that I stuck to it," Smith said.

Smith estimates that she spent 12 hours each week working on her portfolio, which in addition to a self-evaluation of her professional merits, required two video segments documenting her teaching methods.

"I am under the understanding that it takes about 400 hours of extra work," said Donald R. Morrison, spokesman for Harford County public schools.

"The redo itself took a huge amount of time," Smith said. "I don't think I could even guess how many hours."

She first submitted her portfolio in June 2001, receiving her results the following November. She decided to resubmit "Learning to Make Art," a section focusing on teaching methods dealing with art creation, in April 2002. Last April she resubmitted "Assessing Student Work," a section that focused on her grading methods. She was notified in November that she had received certification.

Smith attributes much of her success to her colleagues.

"I couldn't have done it without the staff's support," Smith said. "I got help with editing and writing," she said, "and the administration were my best cheerleaders. Everyone was very encouraging."

Part of Smith's motivation to earn certification stemmed from her feelings that the arts are not always given the same weight in education as other academic subjects.

"I really wanted to validate our art program. I think the arts have taken a back seat," Smith said, "I really wanted to bring art to the floor." Smith says art is an intergral part of a balanced education.

"If you didn't have art, it would be like having an exercise program with only half of your body," Smith said. "I think art is an integral part of the learning day." Smith felt that she could help validate art by showing that there are accomplished art teachers.

She wanted to show that "there's an art teacher who demonstrates excellence," she said.

Smith's pupils were supportive of her endeavor.

"They wanted to direct" the video, Smith said. "They were very helpful, very into it."

Few teachers pursue national board certification.

Five other teachers in the Harford school system are board certified: Kim Adkins, Jann Barber, Joel Leff, Jennifer Palmer and Francine Plotycia.

Smith is a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, with a bachelor's degree in studio art and psychology. She also holds a master's degree in liberal arts from the Johns Hopkins University.

"When I was in high school, there were only four things girls could do: become a homemaker, a secretary, a nurse or a teacher," Smith said.

Smith's teaching aspirations were waylaid during her college years.

"I got bullied into being a 'real artist,' " Smith said. After her time at College Park, Smith decided that there were more job opportunities in education. The next year, Smith enrolled at Salisbury University to get her teaching certificate. After a year of teaching on the Eastern Shore, Smith transferred to Aberdeen.

"I expected, when I started here, to move on to high school," Smith said. Now, she is thrilled with the experience of teaching pupils at the middle school level.

"I love the enthusiasm of middle-schoolers; it can be a real battle to get high school students to try new things," Smith said. "In middle school, you can still open their eyes a little more easily."

Two classes in digital imaging have helped Smith bring more to her pupils, keeping them up-to-date with technology.

"They have given me a lot of tools to demonstrate visual elements to kids," Smith said. "The computer makes it seem so easy, but you still have to know art basics."

She also has an advanced certificate in administration and supervision from Loyola College.

Smith holds one success above all her other accomplishments.

"One of my students nominated me to be teacher of the year at the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club," Smith said. She attributes her nomination to the fact that she was able to show her pupil of what he was capable.

"My philosophy is basically that you can do it. I'll show you the steps; I'll get you through so you can see what you've accomplished," Smith said. "It's about learning how to learn."

The positive feedback that she gives her pupils is similar to the encouragement that she got from her one of her teachers.

"My high school art teacher had an enormous influence because he was so positive and encouraging - he made all of us believe that we could make great art," she said.

In the summer, Smith has more time to focus on practicing her own art. A watercolor painter, she has been influenced by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent.

Smith does portrait and landscape commission work in her free time and participates in the annual Harford County faculty art show.

The state offers a one-time bonus of $1,000 for teachers who become board certified, and Harford County public schools matches the figure.

There is a $2,300 fee for certification that is also paid by the public school system. The Harford County system has a partnership with HarCo Credit Union, and to support the school system, HarCo pays its share.

Smith, 58, is looking at retirement within five years, but nothing is definite. "I still really love teaching middle school art," she said. "I'm not ready to retire."

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