NEW CANAAN — Like the rest of South Elementary School’s students and staff, Madison Mulhern walked through the doors on the first day of school, Aug. 30, excited for a new year of opportunities.

But unlike others, Mulhern, a former South student, was returning to the school in a wholly new capacity, this time as a third-grade teacher. She’s the only alumnus currently on the staff, it conjured memories.

“It’s been really exciting. It’s always great to be back in this school and get to know the kids and all the teachers and feel the whole South School community again,” Mulhern said.

Mulhern, 22, is a recent graduate of Pennsylvania State University, where she majored in elementary education. At South, she will teach a group of 18 students this year.

“They’re all so great and they have their own stories,” Mulhern said, of the ten boys and eight girls that comprise her class.

For Mulhern, who has lived in New Canaan with her family for most of her life, accepting the job at South School was a choice to return to the place and people that inspired her to become a teacher all those years ago.

“A lot of the people who inspired me to become a teacher were my South School teachers here. And they’re all still here, which is really cool,” Mulhern said.

Before returning full-time to the school, Mulhern volunteered at South while a student at Saxe Middle School and returned a second time for her senior internship while at New Canaan High School. By the time she graduated, she was certain she wanted to be an elementary school teacher.

“From there I kind of knew that was my path,” Mulhern said.

Following high school, Mulhern studied elementary education, completing the internship part of the program last year working with two third-grade classes. According to Mulhern, third is her favorite grade.

“I love that the kids are still young enough, but they’re also pretty independent. You can do so much with them — a lot of complex, deeper thinking rather than just a classroom routine and teaching them how to behave in school,” Mulhern said.

Upon graduation, Mulhern saw the posting at South School and reached out to her former teachers, with whom she had maintained contact.

“When I saw the job posting I emailed them all, just to let them know and get any advice they had. They were all super excited and super supportive.” Mulhern said.

For some former teachers and administrators of hers, Madison guessed, it might be odd to work side-by-side with a former student.

But for Kathryn Nicholas, Mulhern’s former third-grade teacher and new next-door neighbor at the school, Mulhern’s return is a happy example of a student coming full circle.

“It’s really exciting to see Madison again. She’s come so far. This is where she belongs,” Nicholas said. “And she looks very much the same, just grown up.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1