Salem’s 2022 Teacher of The Year is no stranger to winning, but in this instance the focus isn’t on a pageant crown, but rather on the many other hats Mallory Graham wears for so many in our community.
“In my classroom, I lead with love,” says Graham. “Everything I do comes from loving my kids and loving what I do. I try to teach each child the way I would want someone to teach my son; with love, acceptance, understanding and a little bit of fun sprinkled in.”
The eighth-grade English teacher at Andrew Lewis Middle School, who captured several pageant titles while in college, including Miss East Coast USA, has earned the respect and admiration of her students and fellow teachers by modeling these behaviors and instilling a sense of selfless service into her students.
“I teach the way I parent,” says Graham. “I truly love my students with my whole heart, but just like with my son, there are things you can and cannot do. They know there are boundaries, but they also know it is a safe place where they can be creative and express themselves.”
Graham expressed herself in these same Salem classrooms growing up as Mallory Birckhead. She attended South Salem and Andrew Lewis before graduating from Salem High School in 2005.
“I know the caliber of the teachers in this division, so to be recognized when I know how special these people are, means the world to me,” she says. “I am surrounded by innovative educators, kind educators and people who put their whole heart into educating students.”
"Mrs. Graham has the unique ability to teach anyone because they know she genuinely cares,” says Jamie Garst, Andrew Lewis Middle School Principal. “The Salem community is so incredibly fortunate to have one of its own back home making such a significant impact on the lives of children."
Graham is Salem born and Salem bred, and she even met her future spouse here when they were students at Andrew Lewis. Parker Graham claims he called “dibs” on Mallory when the two were just 11 years old at a neighborhood trampoline party. Despite his bold proclamation, they never dated until years later when he was active duty in the Air Force. His service in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom allowed Mallory to gain valuable teaching experiences in four grade levels in several different school systems, including one in Charlottesville and another in Alaska.
“In my heart, I do not care how old you are when you are in my classroom,” she says. “Even at Roanoke College when I taught math, we sorted Skittles and used blocks to build on them becoming math teachers. All kids just want to be valued, be loved, be safe and have a good time.”
Graham earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Virginia. Her undergraduate degree is in English while her advanced degree is in Teaching. Currently, she is pursuing her Doctorate in Curriculum Instruction from Liberty University.
“UVa was amazing, but I am a teacher because of my experience with the Shelor family in Salem,” she says. “Throughout high school and college I worked as a physical and speech therapist for their son who has cerebral palsy. Watching him learn and grow opened my eyes to the world of teaching and how special it can feel to help children reach their goals.”
Looking back, she now knows many of her own teachers made education their life’s calling for the same reasons.
“I teach the way I teach because of Mr. Hairston,” she says of the revered Andrew Lewis teacher. “He had the ability to love kids so well and by observing him I learned how to express that for my students. To me, he is the G.O.A.T., the greatest of all-time, and one of the most phenomenal educators ever.”
“I had the distinct honor and pleasure of teaching Mallory during my first year at Andrew Lewis when she was in the 7th grade,” says Corbitt Hairston. “She was a hard-working student who always worked well with her classmates, and I am so proud of the woman she has become. She is an outstanding teacher who always goes above and beyond what is expected of her.”
Graham helped create the Wolverine Way making all in the building accountable for being responsible, respectful and safe. She oversees sending postcards home to students in all grade levels and they aren’t delivered by email or jammed in a backpack. They are mailed the old-fashioned way and they lift-up student accomplishment in every way imaginable.
“Even the eighth graders tell me that their moms put them up on the refrigerator, as soon as they get them,” she says. “This ties into the culture that we have tried to create, and we are going to celebrate you, even if it is just for consistently making it to 7th period on time.”
The Andrew Lewis “House System”, based on the Ron Clark Academy model, also has created a sense of belonging for everyone from the youngest students to the oldest employees. There are six different houses and competitive giving is a major component among the various groups.
“If you are going to be in a family and have this type of climate and culture there has to be an element of impacting others in this beautiful Salem community,” she says. “Every month we partner with an organization and see which house can bring in the most money or the most donated items.”
As a result, monetary donations and thousands of items have been given to the Andrew Lewis food pantry, the Roanoke Rescue Mission, the Ronald McDonald House, local animal shelters and cancer research.
“You have to know how to treat each other in the world,” she says. “I have to help students become individuals who can go into society and be kind and respectful. People are going to have different opinions, but you cannot be mean and hateful and come at them aggressively.
“Having conversations, being kind and showing your heart are things that matter to me. We are not going to yell and scream, post bad things about each other on social media or record it on Snapchat because we are trying to build something for the future.”
And for Graham, the future is now.
“The pandemic and COVID are what fueled some of the fire to do these things,” she says. “We lost some of the connectiveness and collaboration that are so important to teaching and learning, but many of the things we are now doing are bringing us back together. Andrew Lewis was a phenomenal place for me as a student and I want to make sure it stays that way as a teacher.”
Graham and Salem’s other Teachers of the Year will be recognized by the School Board on Tuesday, March 22. The other Teachers of the Year representing the five remaining Salem schools are:
East Salem Elementary
Salem High School
South Salem Elementary
West Salem Elementary
In 2021, Salem suspended this award for a year and instead recognized all employees in the school division as Employees of The Year. They were honored for their amazing service in the heart of the pandemic.