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CEAP alumna rises to pandemic challenge as first-year teacher, wins county award

By Melanie Threlkeld McConnell

Salem Parris

Salem Parris

She collects vinyl records, absolutely loves middle school students and quotes the Beatles when waxing poetic about the challenges of being a first-year teacher – let alone entering the education profession during a pandemic.

For Salem Parris, a 2019 alumna of Western Carolina University’s College of Education and Allied Professions, the 2019-2020 school year was certainly a trial by fire. But by all measures, she passed with flying colors and then some. Parris, who this year teaches eighth grade social studies and science online at Waynesville Middle School, was selected as Haywood County’s 2020 Beginning Teacher of the Year.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Parris said of the honor, “because I feel like this past year, my first year, with the pandemic, I had no idea what I was doing. I remember my first day when the students walked in, I was like, ‘I’m their teacher. They’re looking at me to tell them what to do.’”

That was in August 2019 when Parris was finding her footing as a brand new eighth grade teacher in her own newly decorated classroom. Seven months later, she and other teachers had to scramble practically overnight to transition their lesson plans from in-class to online learning after COVID-19 shuttered schools and other establishments across the globe and forced students to finish the remainder of the school year at home learning online. “March 13, 2020, was our last day in school,” Parris said. “It was Friday the 13th.”

The transition was difficult for Parris, she said, because the world suddenly felt unstable and scary, and it made her anxious. “I’m also a creature of habit. I had my routine built up and it shattered. So, on top of that, I had to learn how to take my engagements and conversations in the classroom to a computer. It was very challenging,” she said.

But she did it, staying focused on her students’ mental health, first and foremost. “Just as it was stressful for me, personally, it was stressful for them. So, it was less about whether they hit this standard and this standard and more about asking, ‘Are you OK today? How’s everything going?’ and being understanding because not everyone had access to fast internet,” she said.

This school year, Parris is teaching science and social studies to eighth graders solely online, a decision she made to help her school accommodate the needs and preferences of its students and their families because of the pandemic. “Since I teach both subjects, it was easiest to put me online, so I just stepped up,” she said.

That Parris was honored by the Haywood County Schools system was no surprise to Stacie Ball, a seventh grade social studies teacher at Waynesville Middle School under whom Parris served as a student teacher. As Parris’ mentor, Ball witnessed firsthand Parris’ evolution from student to teacher.

“She was great, an absolute natural with the students,” said Ball, who has been teaching middle school students for 21 years, three of those at WMS. “She really took the time to build relationships with my kids, and that really was the key, because that group of kids was a challenge that year. It was her management of them. When you have the management down, you can teach the content.”

Parris, who grew up in Franklinville near Asheboro, credits Kim Winter, dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions, and other faculty and advisers with guiding her to the middle grades education program and then preparing her to become the award-winning teacher she is. “The middle school program at Western is phenomenal,” Parris said. “They truly are awesome. I could not have gotten luckier in that program. It’s such a small program, they know me.”

Parris said she chose middle grades because she likes the quirkiness of the age group and because she sees her middle-school self in many of her students. Her advice to future middle school teachers?  “Be the teacher you need.”

“Middle school for me was very hard,” said Parris, whose father, Tim Parris, a 1989 WCU alumnus and member of Delta Sigma Phi fraternity, died in a car wreck when she was in sixth grade. “Middle school is such a hard time, but it’s such an important time. The students are still so moldable and they’re so fun and they’re curious and they’re weird, and it’s hilarious.”

Parris said she chose teaching as a profession because of the impact teachers have on their students. “Looking back, no matter who you are, you can always say some of the people who made the biggest difference in your life were teachers,” she said. “And I think that’s just so powerful for a job, the impact you can have on people.”

To help manage the turbulence of a pandemic-stricken school year, Parris finds joy in her vinyl records collection, some of which belonged to her late father. Her collection includes records by John Cougar (before he became John Cougar Mellencamp and then John Mellencamp), Elvis, Johnny Cash, Bryan Adams and the Beatles, whose lyrics to one song Parris adopted as her motto for surviving such unpredictable times.  

“Hey, tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun,” she said.

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