When she was 9-years-old, Maude Graham dreamed of replacing the lined-up teddy bears in her bedroom with her own classroom of students.
Even after facing some of life’s biggest hurdles—the loss of both her parents and her difficulties with reading—Graham knew she wanted to inspire children to overcome anything that may come their way.
“Everyone has problems in certain areas, and I wanted to be the teacher who teaches kids in a way that I hadn’t been taught,” Graham said. “I want them to know that there’s someone in their corner who’s there to help as much as they can.”
In the years that followed, Graham served in the Army National Guard for nine years, began her studies at South Florida State College and pursued her bachelor’s degree in elementary education with the University of South Florida (USF).
Today, she’s an experienced third-grade reading teacher at Rosabelle W. Blake Academy and was honored as the 2021 Polk County Teacher of the Year—a recognition that’s reserved for only one out of 6,800 educators in the county’s school district.
“It still hasn’t hit me yet that I have this title,” Graham said. “There are so many deserving educators in Polk County. I am very humbled, astonished and very grateful.”
Throughout her teaching career, Graham has continued to go above and beyond for her students and in helping new educators. In 2019, as Graham navigated her duties in the classroom, she also began mentoring new teachers, organizing parent/teacher events and leading student-centered initiatives such as “Leader in Me,” which provides third, fourth and fifth graders at Blake Academy with character-building lessons.
Aiming to advance her skills and extend her impact with students, Graham decided to pursue her master’s degree in Educational Leadership through USF’s-Polk Academy program, a collaborative partnership between the College of Education and Polk County Public Schools that helps educators earn a master’s degree in Educational Leadership or Reading Education from USF.
“I applied to USF, went in for the interview and all of the sudden, I got an email that said I was chosen as one of their 50 candidates,” Graham said. “USF is where I started as an undergraduate student and where I really hoped to complete my graduate studies.”
From the time she began her graduate studies at USF, Graham was introduced to a program that encompasses several aspects of school leadership while also placing a focus on equity, inclusion and cultural responsiveness. Graham says through her studies, she’s been able to apply her knowledge by helping students in her classroom and sharing it with her colleagues.
“I’ve taken our student improvement plan and I’ve asked myself, ‘what are our goals for the year?’” Graham stated. “One of our goals was to have ‘PACK time,’ which is where we work with students who may be struggling with a specific skill or skills, so I worked on helping teachers create activities based on their data in order to bridge that gap.”
While she admits it’s often difficult to juggle her studies and the responsibilities she has a school leader, Graham shared how her professors have helped guide her. In her program, she identified three “trailblazers” and explained how each of them have supported her journey.
“Dr. Black has been a ray of sunshine,” Graham said. “Dr. Shapiro has this ‘you tell me how you want this class to run’ mindset, and that’s made me reflect on my teaching practices.
“I also have to mention Dr. Ramlackhan. The research she has us doing and the questions she asked us were so thought-provoking to where you couldn’t help but see a change in your thinking.”
Since earning the Teacher of the Year title in January, Graham has been honored by her school community and by several members in the Polk County School District. This achievement is one she’s proud of, Graham said, but it also demonstrates just how significant the role of an educator is.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve dropped the ball,” Graham said. “But, when I do have the ball and I’m running, I feel like I’m making a difference because my kids see me fighting for them. They see me trying to make sure they get the best educational experience of their lifetime.”
After completing her master’s program, Graham aims to apply for school dean positions and pass her Florida Educational Leadership Examination (FELE) Test, a certification exam that enables professional educators to advance into school administrator roles.
Her advice for those who wish to follow a similar path is to stay on track.
“Never give up—and ask for help,” Graham said. “When I started this master’s degree, I realized I’m not the super woman everyone thinks I am. There were times that I asked for help because it was either something falling by the wayside or me. So, make sure you take care of yourself so you can be your best self to help others in need.”
USF’s Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Educational Leadership prepares compassionate, ethically centered, public intellectuals to become transformative leaders committed to justice in America’s schools. The M.Ed. program provides course work and internships leading to Florida Level 1 Educational Leadership Certification.