Maude Graham, a third-grade teacher at Rosabelle W. Blake Academy in Lakeland, was unveiled Jan. 21 as the 2021 Polk County Teacher of the Year.
Lisa Gill, paraeducator at Jesse Keen Elementary, also in Lakeland, is the district’s 2021 School-Related Employee of the Year.
Graham and Gill will each receive a cash prize donated by MIDFLORIDA Credit Union. As Teacher of the Year, Graham will also receive a car, courtesy of Lakeland Automall.
Both winners will move on to compete for state titles. Each year, the Florida Department of Education names a statewide Teacher of the Year, as well as a School-Related Employee of the Year.
The Polk Education Foundation and PCPS’ Department of Public Relations & Strategic Partnerships consulted with the Florida Department of Health in Polk County to develop stringent safety measures for last week’s award ceremony, which was held at the RP Funding Center’s Lake Hollingsworth Room in Lakeland.
Attendance was scaled back to a fraction of the normal audience. Face coverings were required and dinner and student performances were eliminated to shorten the ceremony.
Event sponsors included Aramark, Boswell & Dunlap, Florida Blue, Lakeland Automall, LEGOLAND, MIDFLORIDA Credit Union, Mosaic, Publix Super Markets Charities, Tampa Electric Company, and the Polk Education Association.
Maude Graham teaches English language arts and social studies at Rosabelle W. Blake Academy in Lakeland. She became an orphan at a young age, with both of her parents passing away by the time she was 9. She struggled in school with reading but felt a desire to pursue a career as a teacher.
“I learned that teachers were progressing me, because I was young and fragile, wide-eyed, eager to learn, and very obedient,” Graham said. “Knowing this, I always wanted to become the teacher who taught students who struggled as I had. I always dreamt of teaching students reading strategies, no matter the circumstances that stood in their way.”
Graham, who has served in the Army National Guard, credits her military service with providing her valuable skills for becoming a teacher.
Her students learn through hands-on reading and writing activities, scavenger hunts, rope climbing excursions, and other engaging lessons. She shares her life story with various groups, serves as a mentor, organizes parent/teacher events, and spearheads a leadership program for third- through fifth-graders called “Leader in Me.”
Graham was chosen as the 2021 Polk County Teacher of the Year among the following teacher finalists: Christi Egor (third-grade teacher, Citrus Ridge: A Civics Academy), Shelly DeVore (social studies teacher, Bartow High/International Baccalaureate/Summerlin Academy), Teresa Negley (fourth-grade teacher, Frank E. Brigham Academy), Page Oestreich (Exceptional Student Education teacher, R. Clem Churchwell Elementary), Yvonne McDuffie (first-grade teacher, Frostproof Elementary), and Ana-Maria Galbis (school counselor, East Area Adult School).
Lisa Gill is a paraeducator who coordinates many parent involvement activities at Jesse Keen Elementary in Lakeland. She is known for making home visits whenever necessary and oversees the school’s weekend backpack distribution program to make sure students have enough to eat.
No matter what crisis is taking place, Gill is ready to act. Following Hurricane Irma, she worked with a local church to create a food and supply bank at the school. She also helped arrange housing through local agencies for families whose homes were damaged during the storm.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Gill has offered to help wherever she is needed, such as organizing her school’s device distribution program, so students could get internet-accessible devices for online learning.
Lisa Gill was chosen as the 2021 Polk County School-Related Employee of the Year among the following finalists: Ely Rivera (paraeducator - physical education, Sandhill Elementary), Charles Luster (custodian, Union Academy), Todd Koza (school safety guardian, Lake Alfred Elementary), Rebecca Carroll (ESE paraeducator, Socrum Elementary), Stacy Leech (cafeteria manager, Ben Hill Griffin Jr. Elementary), and Allison Crutchfield (network manager, East Area Adult School).