This annual awards program honors approximately 240 outstanding employees from across the district.  Along with 12 finalists, the winners receive cash awards and other prizes from event sponsors.

Judges include community members from local organizations and businesses, as well as past winners and finalists. Judges review the applications without knowledge of applicant names or schools. Judging criteria includes leadership and professional development activities, community and school involvement, and teaching style.

Each year, the Florida Department of Education names a Florida Teacher of the Year, choosing an educator who has “demonstrated a superior capacity to inspire a love of learning in students of all backgrounds and abilities.” The Florida School-Related Employee of the Year award recognizes outstanding education support personnel for contributions to their schools and communities. Both of Polk’s winners move on to compete for the state titles.

Teacher of the Year, Maude Graham, District 1

Maude Graham — 2021 Teacher of the Year

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.”

School-Related Employee of the Year, Lisa Gill, District 1

Lisa Gill— 2021 School-Related Employee of the Year

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.

Previous Winners