Mia Bullock will turn 23 on Aug. 24, but that doesn't concern her. After all, there is something "much more terrifying" she has to deal with that day.
Bullock will leave early in the morning from her parents' home in Silver Spring, where she is staying to save money, and drive north on Route 29 to Bryant Woods Elementary School in Columbia. She will unlock the door to her portable classroom and welcome a group of fourth-grade students. Her journey as a first-year teacher, with all eyes focused on her, will begin.
"I expect the first day of school to be exciting and overwhelming," said Bullock, one of 11 new teachers at Bryant Woods. "I am going to be so excited to finally meet my first class of students, but also scared."
Approximately 400 teachers, out of a pool of more than 7,000, have been hired for the 2015-2016 school year, according to the Howard County Public School System. The starting salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree is $47,351; a new teacher with a master's degree will earn $50,748.
Meanwhile, the school system's projected enrollment for the 2015-2016 school year for kindergarten through 12th grade is 53,430, nearly 1,000 more students than a year ago.
Teachers and staff began their school year on Aug. 17. For Bullock, that meant meeting her coworkers at a staff breakfast and spending the next three hours in the cafeteria learning about the upcoming year.
"I love it so far," she said during her lunch break. "The staff gets along so well and you can tell because everybody has been laughing. There really is a strong sense of community and I've been here for what, three hours, but I can already feel that that's a thing going on."
She walked into her portable classroom at midday Monday and started to organize the desks and chairs and put books away. She said she already had spent around $200 on children's books, material and supplies.
"I preemptively bought a lot of things," said Bullock. "I hope I use them. It's possible the school has these things, too."
Bullock, who graduated in 2014 from St. Mary's College of Maryland with a bachelor's degree in psychology and a minor in educational studies and earned a master's degree there a year later in elementary and early childhood education, has big plans for her classroom, including a carpet and a cozy chair or love seat.
"I want it to look nice," she said. "I'm going to spend most of my life this year in this room. So it might as well look homey."
Bryant Woods, which opened in 1968 as Columbia's first elementary school, is a Title 1 school, meaning it receives more federal funding for resources. As a part of the school system's Vision 2018, Bryant Woods also uses the elementary school model "to create a learning environment that is strengths based, while focusing on academic rigor," according to the school's profile on the school system's website.
Six elementary schools used components of the elementary school model last year and two more schools were added this year.
"I was looking for a Title 1 school. I wanted a school with diversity," said Bullock. "I'm young and enthusiastic. I want to work in a situation that could benefit from that."
"Mia is a new teacher with fire in her eyes," said third-year Bryant Woods principal Kelley Hough. "When I first sat down to interview her, she shared how building relationships with the students is key to learning. She expressed that if she didn't know anything about her students, then how would she be able to reach them.
"Mia was well versed in Guided Reading and how she would implement it in her classroom," Hough said. "Her thoughts aligned with our English Language Arts program in Howard County. Her energy, enthusiasm and willingness to learn won me over."
Using the ESM system means that Bullock will teach only two subjects – English language arts and social studies. She will have two classes daily that each lasts two hours.
"I am really excited to work in a departmentalized school," said Bullock. "The Common Core standards to which all teachers teach is really in depth and there is so much content that students have to learn. It is nice that for my first year of teaching I can concentrate on two subjects rather than four."
Bullock was born in South Korea and adopted by Ann and Robert Bullock when she was five months old. The Bullocks adopted Mia's sister, Claire, also from South Korea, a year later.
Bullock graduated in 2010 from Montgomery County's Northwood High School, where she played soccer all four years. She played club soccer at St. Mary's as well as club Ultimate Frisbee, which she plans to continue playing.
Bullock had two teaching internships during her graduate year, the second one lasting most of this spring. She applied for teaching positions in six Maryland counties and Baltimore City, and received three offers.
"I spoke with friends and neighbors who had experience in Howard County and everyone said that Howard County offered amazing resources to teachers and also still had the feeling of a smaller county," Bullock said.
She had open contact offers from two county elementary schools, and said Hough "was a big reason I chose this school."
Bullock said she looks forward to engaging her fourth-grade students.
"I like fourth grade because I can have real conversations with them and also can start to make solid real-world connections to the content they are learning," she said.
While she is "ready to get started," she knows this profession is not a sprint.
"I definitely agree that it takes a few years to really feel comfortable in the classroom," said Bullock. "I am going to give it my all this first year and am going to set high expectations for myself. But at the same time I am going to be realistic. It is going to be a hard year and I am going to get frustrated. I just need to remember that I have supports all around me."
She added: "I think that no matter what year of teaching you are in, you still have things to learn and things won't go exactly as planned. That's why I picked teaching as my profession. I really believe that I am prepared for the classroom but also know that I have a long way to go."