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September 10, 2019

A Conversation with Florida’s Teacher of the Year, Dakeyan C. Graham, Ph.D. 

By Laura Byrne

“There is no greater profession. If you want to understand your impact on the world and leave a legacy, then education is the place to be.” -Dr. Dakeyan C. Graham, Florida’s 2019 Teacher of the Year 

Every student has the one. That one teacher who made such an impact on their life that it resulted in a life pivot that put them on the path of success. For Dr. Dakeyan C Graham, his ‘the one’ was his high school band director at King High School in Tampa.

Florida Teacher of the Year Dr. Graham
Dr. Graham with his students at King High School in Tampa.

Even though he had a life long passion for music, the younger Dr. Graham had his mind set on a medical degree. After all, it was a promise he made to his family.

But, medicine would not be a part of his final score. What he didn’t realize as a high school student was his life’s journey was already being orchestrated as he played the saxophone in his high school band classroom—he just had to find it in his heart to follow the music back to that very spot.

We recently sat down with him to find out more about the journey that led him back to King High School and what life has been like since being named the 2020 Florida Department of Education Teacher of the Year.

Florida Teacher of the Year Dr. Graham

*Edited to fit page.

TBPM: What inspired you to become a teacher? 
 
Dr. Graham:  It was definitely the role of my high school band director Cheri Sleeper who also taught at King High School, who also a student at King High School. She learned under her father who was the band director here for 20 years. After a 2 year hiatus she took over for 13 years and I took over immediately after her.

TBPM: There was a point in your life when you had other educational goals, right? 
 
Dr. Graham: When I went into college (at the University of Florida), I actually wanted to be an anesthesiologist. My junior year, I was one class away from finishing my microbiology requirements and I decided music and teaching was where I needed to be.

I always promised my grandparents and parents that I’d be a doctor so it kind of shifted the lens that I could still be a doctor, just not a medical doctor. That’s where that plan started to formulate.

Ten years later I know have four degrees and I’m just looking for more opportunities to learn.

Dr. Graham’s degrees: 
Bachelor’s and Master’s in Music Education from the University of Florida
Master’s in Educational Leadership from Concordia University
PhD in Music Education from the University of Florida

TBPM: It sounds like there’s valuable lesson in this life pivot. 
 
Dr. Graham: That’s one of the key things I try to instill in my students is the significance of flexibility -not only in their role and how it fits in our program, but also in life. Learning to roll with the punches and move through things.

Things may not be going in the direction you want them to be but that doesn’t mean you can’t steer things back toward your goal. That it’s okay to make mistakes. We’re only human.  There are going to be times when we don’t get the result we want or we don’t have the outcome as it relates to the effort we’re putting in. But stay true to the course and keep pushing forward and with whatever life’s got in front of you.”

TBPM: What is your most proud moment as a teacher here at King High School? 
 
Dr. Graham: If we’re talking school specific, It was when my ensembles performed at Carnegie Hall. There’s really no words for being on that prestigious stage. We were the first ensemble to perform so I got an opportunity to go out and take everything in before everybody else came in. Just being in that hall and knowing the performers that have performed there, knowing that this group of kids from a Title 1 school in inner-city Tampa had an opportunity to perform on a world-renowned stage, that was definitely unique as a director. It was an incredibly proud moment getting to hear the passion these students are playing with and performing with and their take on performing there.”

Florida Teacher of the Year Dr. Graham

TBPM: What would you say to aspiring teachers about the importance of becoming a teacher? 
 
Dr. Graham:  No other profession exists without the teaching profession. What we do is so vital to the very fabric of our society.

A lot of times teaching gets a bad rep, but it’s all about what we’re doing for our kids and to move our community forward. So the advice I would give to incoming teachers is to remember your why. Why are we here. My why…the students who come back who have impacted me or have caused me to stretch and grow and become a better educator or shift my perspective. They’re the reason I continue to come back.

TBPM: What’s your advice for students? 
 
Dr. Graham: The biggest thing for students is, you get out of it what you put into it. If you go into the school year with a positive mentality and you want things to be better and you want to get as much as you can out of this school year, then you put everything, all of your positivity and all of your energy into and that’s what you’re going to get out of it.

We do an activity with my students-it’s the applause activity. I’ll pick a random student, usually I’ll try to find one who is really silent or really reserved and I’ll bring them up to the front and the job of the students is they have to give their most ridiculous and obnoxious applauses, if they could just pour everything into this student.

Kids are jumping up and down, doing hand stands, screaming and doing their thing and this student who may have never gotten an applause just for existing, now all of the sudden they’re getting a sense of self like ‘wow, this is pretty cool, I’m getting all of this applause and everybody is cheering for me just for being here’, but then I flip it around and look at this student over here who was literally doing back flips for this student.

I’ll ask, “Did you enjoy that activity?” And they’re like, “Yeah , that was so much fun!”

And then I’ll find someone who was a little but more reserved and ask, what did you think of that activity, be honest and they’ll say ‘I don’t really understand why we did it.’ Exactly. I say, but that student who put in their everything had a fantastic 30 seconds that he really enjoyed while you feel like you wasted those 30 seconds. You get out of it what you put into it.

TBPM: What was that moment like when you were named Florida Teacher of the Year? 
 
Dr. Graham: Surreal. Even now, being granted the title of Teacher of the Year it is still unbelievable a lot of times.

It was absolutely one of the most incredible moments of my life. What I do is not for me, I’m here for my kids. The fact that someone else is acknowledging that sacrifice that my wife and my daughter are making day in and day out so I can pour into my students here. I look at it as something for them …so they can say, daddy is doing something great that’s worthwhile.

TBPM: What’s next for this year as you serve your role as Florida’s Teacher of the Year? 

Dr. Graham: I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to see a lot of places I’ve never seen before, to learn a lot of the inner workings of how things are decided, and understanding the legislature a little bit differently. And. getting a chance to hopefully inspire other teachers in the same way I’ve had an impact on my students.

TBPM: As your daughter starts kindergarten this year, what is your hope for her? 

Dr. Graham: I just want her to take advantage of all of the opportunities she has to learn. I really want her to jump into it and make the most of her educational experience.

Every student has the capacity and the potential to learn. It’s our job as educators to provide the support to allow them to achieve at that high level.

We have a high expectations for all of our students that come in and not allowing their background and the areas they come from to work as a crutch, but using that as a strength so we can emphasize those things that are positive in their situation and get them to change their perspective so they understand the value of not only their education but having great self efficacy and self worth and know they are worth it and the sky is the limit regardless of what they’ve gone through.

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