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Orphaned At 9, Polk County Teacher's Story Of Struggle Helps Students Grow

Teacher wearing apron works with two students in aprons at school
Courtesy: Maude Graham
Maude Graham, center, teaches English Language Arts and Social Studies to third-graders at Blake Academy in Lakeland.

Maude Graham talks to children about how failure isn't a dead-end, how they must have a plan B and plan C in place, and encourages them to avoid a fixed mindset which means making the same mistake again and again.

Research shows that teaching children to adopt what’s called a “growth mindset” leads to better grades and overall well-being.

The idea is that anyone can learn, even if certain concepts are a struggle; that failure is not an end; and that our skills and potential aren’t fixed at birth, or by our life circumstances.

Maude Graham, Polk County Teacher of the Year for 2021, says she encourages a growth mindset by talking to her students about what it means to struggle.

For Graham, that means telling her third graders at Blake Academy in Lakeland about what she went through when she was their age.

When she was eight, her father died of heat stroke. A year later, her mother died suddenly one night of heart failure. The next morning, Graham recalls, she found refuge at school.

Teacher Maude Graham wears a black necklace, white shirt and red jacket for her professional headshot
courtesy Maude Graham
Maude Graham is Polk County's Teacher of the Year for 2021

“Because I didn't know what else to do, and because I had great teachers in my life, that was where my friends were, I went to school the same day.

"You know, school was my escape. School was my get away from everything. So that's what I knew,” said Graham.

It’s quite moving that school was a safe place where you felt you could go and you were received well there. And now as a teacher yourself, you have students dealing with all kinds of crises in their lives. How do you approach that?

“I tell them — I give them the same speech every year. For 17 years, now I've given the same speech. So they know my story, they know that my parents died when I was younger. They know that the guardian that we lived with, you know, we weren't treated well. So they know the story.

"There is no option for failure, there's no option to not do the best you can. Here I am — and the predicament that I was in all those years ago? And here I am. I've made it. I'm somewhat of a good citizen, I tell them. Not the best, you know, I still make mistakes and everything. (I say) you have a teacher who has been through everything, you know, turmoil, heartache and everything, there's no reason why you can't do it. There's no reason why you can't come every day and put your best foot forward.”

What you are describing is the growth mindset that researchers have been looking at for years and how that approach to teaching really helps children. Some recent research came out showing that it helps grades, it helps their well-being. A lot of it depends on how the teacher delivers it.

“That is true, too. I tell a lot of people it's not what you say, it's how you say it. Because third grade is a pivotal year for them. If they don't pass third grade, there's a chance that they can, you know, be retained. There's a chance that [they could enter] the school-to-prison pipeline system. There are so many things that can happen if they don't pass their grade.

"And if I feel like they're having fun, and they're engaged, and they're learning and they're applying those skills, there's no reason they can't get to where they want to be.”

When you think about a growth mindset in learning, versus a fixed mindset, how are some of the ways that our society, our world puts kids into a fixed mindset that maybe they can't do it or they are not smart enough or their circumstances won't let them, how do you get past that?

“For me personally, I got past it because I was determined to be better than my circumstances. And I try to just grow every chance that I can.

“And as for my kids, as for the babies, I just try to make sure they know we are more than a test. I tell them that there are other plans to this piece of the puzzle. Plan A is ultimately passing your (Florida Standards Assessment) test, because this is what you've been working towards since preschool, or kindergarten. And if you do not pass, this is why we are doing these things in class, this is why we have alternative assessments.

"So let's not look at it as this is the be-all-end-all-end-all-be-all type of thing, you know? Just in case you fail it by one point, or you fail it by 20, here's our Plan B, here's our Plan C. And that has helped tremendously this year.

"I am also in my last class of my Ed Leadership Master's degree, and I am having trouble passing one of my sub-tests. So now I am on Plan B or C or D or whatever.

"And I just try to make sure the kids know that if I would have failed the first time and my mindset would have been fixed to where I'm never going to pass this — even though in my mind, I have that doubt, I don't let them see that. And if I do I tell them, I say boys and girls, I'm worried. You know, I'm nervous and everything. But then we you know, we have a talk about it. And they just tell me, 'Oh, Miss Graham, what plan are you on?' (Laughs.)

"What plan am I on? And I'm like, 'y'all hit me with some of my logic. Y'all turn the tables on me. And y'all are trying to build me up and everything.'"

That is amazing that you are still living the lessons you are teaching them. And with the pandemic this year, everyone has been through a lot, teachers especially. How have you managed to get through it?

"As teachers, as adults, we motivate the children to want to do their best. And here they are reciprocating that to me this year. I've taught third grade for 12 years. And this is the first year where like, I really, really, really, really, really, really have put myself in their shoes. Because like you say, I'm living it with them."

UPDATE: Graham says she passed her last sub-test in the first week of May, and will be eligible to enter the Assistant Principal's pool if both her written and oral screenings are successful. In the meantime, she is looking to be a Dean of Students for the upcoming school year.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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