At the front of a brightly decorated classroom, Stacey Hill was pushed by a class of chatty fourth-grade Spice Girl wannabes and prospective power forwards to mutter a "magic word" nine times in three hours.

"When you hear me say this word," she said, writing the letters S-A-L-A-M-E on a board with blue marker, "you stop and look at me. See, that's what the letters stand for. Stop and look at me. It doesn't matter if you are running to the door to throw up. Stop and look at me."By the end of the last class, Hill and fellow teacher Juliette Longson were visibly weary, yet notably upbeat, and looking forward to another day packed with mathematics, rag-tag playground games and schoolmarmish warnings about dawdling during bathroom breaks.

As the majority of students in Utah's 40 districts headed back to pencils, books and teacher's dirty looks in the past couple of weeks, Hill and Longson joined the ranks of 5.6 million U.S. teachers who have made a life of giving gold stars for good work and scolding Bart Simpson-esque bravura.

Last Monday, Hill and Longson arrived at Cascade Elementary School nearly an hour before the bell heralded in a new year, steadying themselves for a day of firsts.

The first day at the Orem school. A first day instructing fourth grade.

And the first full day in front of their own classes of rambunctious kids, applying for the first time what they'd learned about educating children at Brigham Young University.

Relaxing after a long day on a perch outside her classroom, which is inside a portable classroom, Longson says she always wants to make learning fun.

Even after 20 years, she vows, her classroom will still be stocked with caged pets, aquariums, books and good-behavior treats.

"I'd like to keep some enthusiasm and drive and ways to learn that are fun," she said. "But hopefully, by then, I'll have better techniques and better ways to know what levels the kids are at."

Georgia Davis, a 22-year education veteran, has been assigned to mentor the young women, who are both completing student-teaching requirements under her tutelage.

For about eight years, Cascade has hired prospective teachers from the BYU program to head a class for nine months at half-pay to earn teacher certification.

Hill and Longson, the "interns" as Davis calls them, will have a year of paid teaching experience when they receive their teaching certificates. Only the most promising are hired for the sought-after positions, she said.

"They are the cream of the crop. I think in all the years, we've had only one that we wouldn't hire back," Davis said. "We want them to have extensive time in the classroom, with the kids, teaching."

Both Hill, 20, and Longson, 24, jumped at the yearlong jobs.

"You have so much support and so much more help," Longson said. "So why not take it?"

"It's a big jump in front of everyone else," Hill agreed.

Throughout the day, students strained to earn a spot as the teacher's pet - and impishly tested the flexibility of rules explained to the class and posted on walls in both rooms.

No running. No throwing. Talk quietly. Respect others. Take a pass for the potty.

But like most kids, high on first-day euphoria, the limits of acceptable classroom behavior were explored. Both Hill and Longson gave no quarter, showing they were no push-overs.

"I don't think it takes your mouth to use your pencils," Hill sternly warned her class of 27 bustling 9-year-olds.

"I'm hearing a lot of noise," echoed Longson in the adjacent room moments later.

"It's going to have to be quiet or we'll have to take time out of P.E."

During a half-hour outside for physical education, Longson kicked off her shoes, hitched up her dress and joined the rough-and-tumble game of "capture the flag" on the soccer field.

"It's good for kids to know that teachers have fun - that they have a life," Longson said.

Earlier that day, Hill sweated out a wiggly, name-memorization game, asking students to mimic motions corresponding to each syllable in their names.

"Can we do round-offs?" asked Lisa, one of Hill's pupils.

"Sorry," Hill responded, "I'm not doing round-offs in a dress."

Neither seems too worried about Utah's salaries for beginning educators.

Utah trails the national $38,000 average teaching salary, with n median yearly income of about $31,000, according to recent figures from the National Education Association.

An NEA study of all states shows the median salary for teachers ranged from as high as $50,647 in Alaska and $50,426 in Connecticut to as low as $26,764 in South Dakota and $27,711 in North Dakota.

Longson's interest in teaching was sparked during her senior year in high school. She volunteered at a local elementary, helping teachers in a first-grade class.

"I thought, I can't believe teachers get paid for this. Of course, I know now there is a lot more to it than what was on the surface," she said. "You know people are doing it because they love it, not for the money. So, maybe (the lower salaries) are not all bad."

Hill initially entered a nursing program at Ricks College three years ago. She decided the medical field wasn't for her after the sight of an IV insertion caused her to faint.

Education, she found, was more her style. She finished academic work this summer in an intensive program.

Fourth-graders face an interesting challenge. Taking a pencil in hand, the pupils learn to write in cursive. "It all depends on how their motor skills have developed," Longson said. "It can be frustrating."

As a newlywed with a pinched pocketbook, she's been resourceful in her classroom decor.

She spent the summer preparing around 27 small desks and chairs.

"It's hard for a first-year teacher," she said. "We had to make, borrow or buy everything. . . . We're going to have a fish or an iguana or a snake. My husband is scared to death of snakes; he would die if I got a snake."

Hill's hope is to be like one of her college professors, an energetic man who also teaches a sixth-grade class at a local elementary school.

"To listen to him teach," she said, "he changes your life."

"I want to be able to touch lives," she said, with unabashed, untarnished idealism. "My biggest push will be to include the family. I mean, I have tons of parents who would do a PTA party for me, but I'd much rather they'd check their child's backpack everyday."