MaShonda Surratt of Graham Elementary changed the school culture

MaShonda Surratt worked as a machine handler for Polygram, wondering if she would ever find a career she liked.

“My daughter was young and I didn’t want to be up 12 hours a day,” Surratt said.

A family friend was then principal of James Love Elementary School and offered her a job as a teaching assistant. More than two decades later, Surratt has established herself as a vital member of the community as Vice-Principal of Graham Elementary.

In just two years, she changed the culture of the school, creating a family atmosphere and thrilling students and teachers alike to learn again.

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Women’s History Month celebrates “women’s contributions to history, culture and society,” according to history.com. Women make up 89% of elementary school teachers in the United States, according to usafacts.com.

At Graham Elementary, Surratt knew she had a tough job. Like the women who paved the way before her, Surratt was up for the challenge of making a difference.

At James Love, it was an emotional roller coaster, but in a different way. There were years filled with joy as she grew closer to her students.

Then came the time to say goodbye.

“I was working with students with behavioral issues,” Surratt said. “The teacher quit and I had no idea what I was doing. Those kids who were supposed to be the worst kids ended up being the best. When they left, I cried. I said no one would treat them like I do. Just to see a difference I could make in a child’s life and the difference they could make in my life was amazing.

Surratt graduated from Shelby High School and went on to study at Gardner-Webb University. She is in her fifth year at Graham and her second year as an assistant principal.

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Although there has been a change in culture, Surratt does not want to congratulate himself. She thanks students, parents and staff for accepting new strategies.

“I try to influence and have an impact,” Surratt said. “We started praying with the staff. It wasn’t forced. I asked them to send me their prayer concerns. Having prayer in schools makes a huge difference. Knowing the parents and setting high expectations for students and parents is another change we’ve made.

Surratt said students and teachers should follow the same policies. This prevents behavior changes when students go to another class.

Vice-Principal MaShonda Surratt in her office on Thursday morning March 10, 2022 at Graham Elementary School on Blanton Street in Shelby.

She earned the respect of her peers because she did almost all the work within the school. From driving the bus to cleaning, Surratt understands and respects staff members, regardless of their job title.

“I’m not asking them to do anything that I wouldn’t do,” Surratt said. “I was an assistant. I swept my floor, and I mopped my floor. It helps build respect. When I ask people to do something, I can identify with them. Then they know that I didn’t end up in that position and didn’t change my personality.

She is also a visible figure within the school, walking the halls, giving hugs and high fives to students.

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Building relationships with students and families paid off. When Surratt sees her students outside the classroom, they greet her with a big smile. Many of these connections were made when Surratt and his staff taught students the importance of getting an education and what could happen if you take the wrong path in life. Teachers share stories of humble upbringing. Helping them see the light at the end of the tunnel gives students hope.

“We let them know that we grew up in the same places they did,” Surratt said. “We tell them that if you do this behavior elsewhere when you get older, there could be serious consequences.”

She added that primary school teachers have a big task. They are the first to introduce children to what the next 12 years of their lives will be like. Pushing students to take their education seriously is a priority, Surratt said.

“We tell them that when you do your best here, they’ll know how to do the same in college,” Surratt said. “We tell them to give everything you have, and if you can’t, ask and we will help you. We want them to be their own advocates. We want them to be productive citizens. We teach them life skills. We want to create a well-rounded child.

Latrice Williams can be reached at 704-669-3339 and [email protected]

Martha K. Merrill