LAKELAND, Fla. - Maude Graham has many titles. She is a teacher, a mentor, a student -- and she can now add "winner" to the list. Mrs. Graham is 2021's Polk County Teacher of the Year.
"I don't know if you can hear it in my voice, I am still in shock. There are so many deserving teachers in Polk County," Graham said in disbelief.
Selected from seven finalists, Graham received her award during a small, socially distanced banquet back in January. Nearly four months later, she says she's still surprised.
"I feel like I'm living a dream. Every time I talk about it, I get goosebumps," she continued.
She may be surprised, but no one else is. The third graders at RW Blake Academy, or "her babies" as she calls them, have a lot of wonderful things to say about their teacher.
"She is smart, loving, and kind," one student said.
"She always comes up with crazy ideas and always takes care of the class," said another student in Graham's class.
Graham is in her 17th year teaching, 12 of them spent at this academy in Lakeland. She calls the past year her best and worst, as she has had to learn how to effectively teach during the pandemic.
"I am a hands-on teacher. I want you in the classroom. I want you seeing my face and I see your face," Graham said. "If you are struggling with something, I want to be there to help you find what you need to find. That part has been very difficult."
Her lessons go beyond language arts and social studies. She gets candid with her kids by sharing her own childhood struggles.
"I tell them that I lost my parents at a young age. That's around the time I realized myself that I wasn't a great reader. I wasn't comprehending the text," Graham explained.
But that didn't slow her success. She tells her students how she reached out to teachers, who then became her mentors. At 17, she joined the Army National Guard. After graduating high school, she earned her education degree. Now she's working on her master's degree.
"I just try to make sure they know my story and how people in their lives want them to be better than we are," she said. "I always tell them the generation after us has to be better than the generation before."
It's a big job and she takes it seriously. She spends hours creating lesson plans, which she caters to her students' interests and needs by incorporating costumes, arts and crafts and other hands-on activities.
"Coming to school was my escape from the world and that's what I try to do for my babies," she said. "I just try to make sure they have the best educational experience that they can while they're in my care."
Graham's actions show she's a dedicated teacher honored for her compassion and creativity in and out of the classroom.