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A teacher's first day

New Mayfield Elementary fourth-grade teacher Mallory Parks writes in her lesson plan book after her first day of school on Wednesday.

SHELLEY BYRNE/The Mayfield Messenger

BY SHELLEY BYRNE sbyrne@mayfield-messenger.com

Mallory Parks spent hours decorating her classroom and rearranging the desks.

"I'll bet we moved them eight times in probably 20 minutes," said Parks, a brand new fourth grade teacher at Mayfield Elementary.

After searching on Google and Pinterest, she decided on a "Happy Camper" theme that included a paper camper decoration on her classroom door, trees on a wall and even lanterns carefully placed across a row of cabinets.

"I wanted them to be blown away by the room, and I wanted them to feel warm and welcomed and invited," said Parks, 25, of Melber. "I wanted them to know I was just like them. This was their first day of fourth grade, and it was mine, too."

The first day of school -- which was Wednesday for Mayfield students and Thursday for those in Graves County Schools -- can be exciting and maybe a little nervous. Parks showed it can be that way for new teachers, too.

Parks graduated in 2010 from Graves County High School. She attended Murray State University and earned her degree in elementary education in May. Last year she went through a two-semester professional development program at Heath Elementary, where her supervising teacher gave her a wooden, polka-dotted apple that reads "Miss Parks" for her very first classroom. Parks kept it wrapped up for months because "It's not official until you have a teaching job," she said.

About a month ago, Parks got the call that she got the job.

"I couldn't form words because I was in shock," she said.

She hadn't told anyone except her brother that she even had the interview because she was so nervous.

Nerves hit again before she met her students and their families for the first time Monday at Back to School Night.

Her "Miss Parks" apple was carefully hung on the front of her desk. Her stomach was in knots. But when she greeted the kids -- HER kids -- that she had been waiting on for so long, she realized, "I worried for literally nothing."

On Wednesday morning, Park's eyes popped open at 5:37 a.m. She changed clothes twice before deciding on the perfect outfit for the first day of school.

"It sort of didn't feel real until today," Parks said after school Wednesday. "It got real when the students came in this morning."

She greeted each one of them at the classroom door. Most of the day, Parks went over expectations for her students. She prefers the word expectations to rules. Top of the list is "Do your best."

She told them that as the oldest grade at the school, fourth-graders need to be role models for the younger students. They should also show respect, she said, for others, for the classroom and its materials, and also for themselves.

"I'll bet I told them six or seven times that my No. 1 priority for them is their safety at school," she said.

Yellow sticky notes on the desks helped students find their seats, and also helped Parks remember all those 24 names. Another activity, in which students filled out and presented an "All About Me" sheet that included their favorite book and personal heroes and drew pictures of themselves, took a little longer to complete than she expected, but it gave her a chance to get to know them each a little better. When lunch time came, Parks didn't take her own lunch break, as scheduled. Instead, she went with her students to the cafeteria.

"I went with them and made sure they knew if they dropped something they knew not to wait for someone to come behind them to pick it up," she said. Instead, they should take responsibility themselves.

She finally had a few moments to herself when her students went to a computer class at 2:05 p.m. That's when she finally allowed herself to eat the turkey sandwich she brought from home.

Throughout the day, Parks got satisfaction from putting check marks in her brand new lesson plan book as she accomplished each task. She felt comfortable, she said, and the faculty and staff couldn't be more supportive and welcoming.

Life as a teacher might seem odd to people who knew Parks in her younger years. It turns out she didn't like school while growing up. "I was just that student who didn't want to be there," she said.

Now, she said, that is part of her drive.

"I want to be a reason why they want to go to school," Parks said.

She designed her classroom and her lessons to keep kids up and moving whenever possible. She doesn't want them sitting still for too long and "zoning out."

"It's hard to pull them back in whenever they hit that point," she said.

Parks already has plans to teach story structure, longitude and latitude and the plant life cycle in the coming weeks, but she is also teaching her students something else along the way.

"I want them to know I love them," she said. "I want them to know they can come to me if they need anything."

In her classroom, she said, she wants them to feel kindness, support, strength, encouragement and, through it all, love. "I told them this morning if they had a problem with me giving them a hug, then they needed to tell me because I'll give them one every day," she said.

When class dismissed at 3:02 p.m., after a last check to make sure all her students got to either an after-school care program or on the right bus and telling each one goodbye, Parks sank down at her desk for just a moment. She immediately began straightening stacks of paperwork.

"Today was hectic," she said, but she still had a grin on her face. And, she said, she was just as excited for the second day of school.