MSU education alumna inspires generation of lifelong learners

“I want school to be a safe environment where our students can get a hot meal, be heard, be understood and have their minds stimulated. Wherever they go, I want them to be able to hold their heads high because they know they have an education.” ~ Rhonda Burrage

When Mississippi State alumna Rhonda Burrage earned the prestigious national Milken Educator award, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her $25,000 prize. It’s something she has done every single day since she first started teaching eight years ago–put her students first.

“One of the first things I did was buy some more calculators for my eighth-grade class,” said Burrage, who graduated from Mississippi State with a bachelor’s in mathematics education and master’s in secondary mathematics in 2003 and 2010, respectively.

A native of Meridian, Burrage teaches eighth-grade pre-algebra and algebra I at Magnolia Middle School in her hometown’s public school district. She was among 40 honored last year by the annual Milken Educator recognition program. Known as the “Oscars of teaching,” it was established in 1987 to reward and inspire excellence in education.

Throughout her career at Magnolia Middle School, Burrage has won the hearts of students who have benefited greatly from her patient teaching style that doesn’t cut corners. She also has earned the respect of administrators and fellow teachers for her continued success in improving student performance on the state algebra test.

“According to all of my data, I’ve always had students pass the state algebra test since I started teaching at Magnolia,” Burrage said. “Five years ago, in my first year at Magnolia, 100 percent of my students achieved proficient or advanced on the state algebra test. Since then, I’ve been able to manage two-digit percentages. I don’t think I’ve ever had below 84 percent.”

Burrage likes to ask lots of questions and provide students with plenty of time to practice new concepts during class. She also is happy to meet before and after school to tutor students who need extra help grasping new material.

MSU alumna Rhonda Burrage takes great pride in preparing the next generation of lifelong learners at Magnolia Middle School. In addition to improved performance on the state algebra test, her teaching success is evident in the attentiveness and enthusiasm that emanates from her eighth-grade students. She is pursuing an educational specialist’s degree at Mississippi State to further impart on students the value of a quality education.

“Sometimes a student may not have a ride after school, so I’ll meet with them before school instead,” she said. “I always build rapport with my students and check on their understanding because if they’re confused, I want to help them as soon as they start getting stuck.”

This desire to help others is one that Burrage said she developed at a young age, with support from her parents and seventh-grade teacher. She wants to instill the same passion for math, and education in general, in as many students as possible.

“Math always came very easily to me, and I loved the idea of breaking things down into simpler steps,” Burrage recalled. “My seventh-grade teacher selected me to be the math tutor for the classroom, so once I finished my work, I would circle around and help my peers. A few years later, I was even tutoring college students in college algebra.”

She continued, “I try not to do too much talking and instead let my students talk and discuss more with each other. I teach them how to hold themselves accountable for the material, so they can explain it to me and I can see they understand it.”

Burrage said seeing students successfully grasp new concepts is rewarding, and she encourages her students to celebrate personal victories, both big and small.

“Whether they get an A on something or just make some progress, I tell my students to give themselves a pat on the back,” Burrage said. “They know they’re going to be challenged to learn the material, but they know they’re also going to be rewarded for actively participating in class and doing their work.”

Since arriving at Magnolia Middle, Burrage has implemented a reward system in her classroom. Students who give correct answers or provide helpful mentorship to each other receive tickets that can be redeemed for a variety of educational items that Burrage purchases.

Working to obtain her educational specialist’s degree from Mississippi State, Burrage aspires to one day teach on a collegiate level. Because students learn in different ways, she said she is always doing her homework on new types of educational resources she can incorporate in the classroom.

“I want school to be a safe environment where our students can get a hot meal, be heard, be understood and have their minds stimulated,” she explained. “Wherever they go, I want them to be able to hold their heads high because they know they have an education.”

Burrage has not missed a day of school since she first started teaching. Outside of her classroom duties, she enjoys tutoring students from other city and county schools, as well as chairing Magnolia Middle’s BETA club, where she coordinates community service projects for sixth, seventh and eighth-graders. Most of all, she remains grateful for opportunities to impact the lives of her math students, who she said bring her so much joy.

“I have a lot to do and there is a lot of planning involved, but there’s not a day where I go to or leave school feeling stressed,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, and I don’t see myself in any other profession. I go to work and I’m happy. I teach my students and I’m happy. I come home and I’m happy. It’s just good all around.”

By Sasha Steinberg, Photos by Megan Bean