“Each child is so much more than a score. Beneath each score, there is a story, and I want to know every story, to really get to the ‘why’ and figure out how we really address the needs of every child in ways that take into consideration those specific needs.”
Our Tillman Scholar Voices blog and video series amplifies the work of Tillman Scholars who actively work toward equity and justice and showing us every day the importance of leading through action. This week we highlight Maisha Rounds and her work as a teacher, transformational school leader and principal in fighting to transform the current education system to be more accessible and inclusive of every child.
Maisha Rounds is a 2018 Tillman Scholar, military spouse, teacher, and doctoral candidate in educational leadership and policy at Vanderbilt University.
In 2009, her husband deployed to Afghanistan, and she found herself taking on new challenges. While worrying about her husband’s safety, Maisha was raising her children, managing work-life balance and discovering her purpose as an educator. Yet, within these challenges, Maisha also found inspiration and began focusing on a commitment to service.
Maisha looks to her husband’s example of service and his military unit’s focus on support and togetherness to find ways to do more for the students she taught at home and on the other side of the world.
“I embraced this idea of service above self, and worked together with my school community and forged a partnership with our family readiness group with the military. I also forged a partnership with my husband’s military unit and together started collecting books to donate to students over in Afghanistan,” she said. “I looked for opportunities to give back, not only to our community but seeing ourselves as global citizens to give back to communities across the world.”
Maisha’s commitment to education, service and self-development led her to pursue National Board Certification and publish All God’s Children Can Read, a book championing multisensory literacy instruction. Her efforts earned her Teacher of the Year in her school district and a nomination for South Carolina Teacher of the Year. After 16 years as a teacher, Maisha moved into serving as a transformational school leader for the past four years; currently, she is an elementary school principal.
For Maisha, these were not just merely awards and titles to her name. She saw these platforms as ways to support other teachers across various disciplines.
“When I served as Teacher of the Year, I saw myself more as a servant leader, and in terms of providing support to staff, to students and to families throughout all of these changes,” she said. “I wanted to model for my staff, my students and families that they could not only survive but could thrive despite unsteady circumstances around them. So I spent a lot of time looking for the silver linings, for these opportunities to transform obstacles into opportunities and challenges into triumphs.”
This determination started early for Maisha. As a young student, she faced the limited resources and preconceived notions her students did in a school, much like hers, where most of her peers were students of color. As she found herself in the role of both teacher of color and mother of children of color, she saw with ever-increasing clarity the opportunity gaps and unmet needs of children in a broken system. These experiences drove her towards reimagining a more inclusive and holistic approach to education.
“I really believe in teaching that reaches the whole child and supports them all the way around. Doing that means not only am I working to support each child, but I’m working to support their family as well,” she said. “I saw it is my mission to move obstacles out of the way to make sure every child could get what they came for and to get what they needed to be successful. I believe leadership is an extension of teaching, and I’ve dedicated my life to championing equitable access to robust educational opportunities for all students, especially those who have been historically marginialized, disenfranchised and underserved.”
With her knowledge of how the current education system in America works against marginalized students in both a personal and professional capacity, Maisha offers that to truly see progress, the systems that disadvantage these students have to be viewed and addressed intersectionally.
“Because of the fact that we’re living through multiple crises and economic crises, social unrest, and we’re living through a pandemic, this is now a time for us to really re-evaluate where we are as a country, as a society, and look at what wasn’t working,” she said. “We know that the education system, for example, was not working for every child. Now is the time to reimagine it.”
For real education reform to happen, the first step is to come to terms with the fact that society as a whole has been placing the blame on the wrong actors.
“The system itself is broken, not our children. We must focus on building a better system, rather than force-fitting students into the existing system as the only way forward,” she said. That also means acknowledging that students are brilliant, creative and full of potential, even when the historical narrative tells us that these same students are the ones destined to fall behind.
“The larger narrative has always been around blame the student, blame the family…but that’s a deficit mindset,” she said. “There’s a way to flip the script and rethink that narrative, and really [see] our students for who they are. We don’t have to fix them. What we do have to fix is the system.”