History Repeats: Florida’s Teacher of the Year, Dr. Dakeyan Chá Dré Graham, Directs the Band at His Alma Mater

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • October 3, 2019

When the Florida Department of Education chose its Teacher of the Year for 2019/2020, it could be seen not only as an achievement for the individual, Dr. Dakeyan Chá Dré Graham of C. Leon King High School (Tampa, Florida), but also as a win for music teachers throughout the state.

“It says that we value the arts,” Graham says. “For a music teacher, any arts teacher, to be selected as the top teacher in our state speaks volumes about the value we place on the culture of a whole student.”

Graham knows the Florida educational system from every angle. Currently serving as president of the Hillsborough County Secondary Music Council, and as a member of the Florida Music Educators Association, he has been teaching music for 10 years in the high school he attended before pursuing his BM and Master’s degrees at the University of Florida, and later a Ph.D in music education from the University of South Florida. Incidentally, he’s also a fifth-degree black belt in taekwondo—also formative in terms of his values and philosophy. The Florida DOE’s stated purpose in creating idea the Teacher of the Year program is to enhance the stature of teachers and the teaching profession, promote the importance of quality education and teaching, and inspire and attract talented people to become teachers. Graham will serve as the Ambassador for Education for the state. He will also have the privilege of giving an $8,000 college scholarship, sponsored by Florida PrePaid, to one of his students. He has big plans and an exciting year ahead.

Congratulations on being selected Teacher of the Year! Let’s talk about how you got here. Who were the music educators who inspired you to choose this path?

The teacher who shaped my career and my perspective on teaching was my high school band director, Cheri Sleeper. She also graduated from the school where I teach. Her father was the band director for 20 years. She came back to teach two years after he left, and I took over for her when she left. She is definitely the person responsible for my love and my passion for teaching.

What was your first instrument?

In sixth grade I started as a clarinet player, but when I got to seventh grade, I switched to saxophone and that became my primary instrument. I also played mellophone when I got to the University of Florida and played in the marching band, because I wanted to play a brass instrument. Now I play all the wind instruments. My high school band director could play all of the instruments, and I wanted to be that same example for my students I understand you’re also a blackbelt.

How does that fit into your life of music and teaching?

That has definitely been one of my sources of discipline and confidence. The five tenets of taekwondo have been engrained in my life: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and an indomitable spirit. I attribute a lot of my poise and success to those ideals. I was a competitive martial artist throughout college, and my first teaching job was teaching martial arts when I was still in college.

When did you know that you wanted to be a music teacher?

When I was a senior in high school my band director, Cheri Sleeper, said in front of the entire ensemble and everyone’s parents who were at our senior banquet, “He’s planning on being a doctor, but it’s not going to happen. He’s going to be a band director.” At the time, I said, “Challenge accepted!” If you issue a challenge to me, that’s not a deterrent. If anything, that encouraged me to pursue what was my grand plan at the time: When I started college, I was a double major in microbiology and music education.

My goal was to be an anesthesiologist for 11 years; the first year would pay my malpractice insurance for 10 years. For 10 years, I would save money, and then I would retire from that and be a high school band director. But by the time I was almost done with my microbiology degree, I was also training a team of martial arts students from the ages of 6 to 14, and I had spent some time as the assistant choral director of a high school and helping with the band program at a local middle school. I realized, this is my passion, my responsibility—my ministry.

Education—that’s my life. I’ve always been doing it in some form or other. Still, I had made a promise to my grandparents and my parents about being a doctor, and that’s what encouraged me to get my Ph.D.

Now you’re working with students in the community where you grew up. Do any of your students remind you of you?

Yes. One was a phenomenal saxophonist in my program who reminded me of a younger version of me. He even looks a little like me and we gave him a “Look-Alike Award” and took a photo of him and me side by side.

But kidding aside, it’s important for me not to see the students as reflections of me. My relationship with each of them comes from a place of friendship and wanting to establish a mentorship where they know they can come to me with anything—any questions, any thoughts that they have, even if they’re not school-related. I want them to become the best versions of what they want to be, to achieve the most of what they want to achieve. They’re not the same as I was, and they don’t have the same dreams and aspirations. Knowing that, my goal is for them to be able to leave my program as contributing members of society in a positive way.

Is your program well supported in terms of financial resources and the value your district places on music education?

I’m fortunate to be in a district where my community values music education and the arts. In terms of financial support, they do what they can, but we do raise a lot of those funds.

One of our main fundraising activities is, we host one of the state’s largest marching band competitions. It’s called Lion’s Pride and averages from 25 to 28 bands per year, from the local area and throughout the state of Florida. It generates the majority of our funding, and it’s great for the kids to be exposed to other school programs. We’ve also sold cheesecakes, popcorn, discount cards, movie tickets. We’ve even sold mattresses. You have to get creative. I don’t think a lot of people realize the amount of money it takes to properly fund a high school music program.

What is your opinion on the need for students to raise money for their music program?

One of the things I mention to my parents whenever I’m talking to them about fundraising is the importance of having the students do it and take ownership themselves. Accountability is one of the values I try to instill in my students. Taking ownership of their learning gives them a deeper appreciation of what they’re doing. We also emphasize the importance of hard work. You get out of it what you put into it.

Are a lot of the kids in your program college bound?

Yes. I work at an International Baccalaureate program, so a lot of the students are expected by their families to attend college. That is awesome and I completely support that, but I also have students who want to be workforce-ready. College isn’t for everybody, and I encourage those students who are not college-bound to find their niche, the special thing they can do.

What would you say are the qualities needed in a great music teacher?

I think it’s super important to have a sense of humor. If you take yourself too seriously, then you’re not going to be successful in education. You’ve also got to have empathy; you have to put yourself in the position of your students, and understand that these are young adults who also have lives and desires, dreams and priorities.

I chose music as my primary focus in life, but that’s not everybody’s primary focus. It goes without saying that you need to have a love for music and the love to see what music can do for someone, but you also have to get out of the way. This isn’t about me showing anybody how great I am at music. It’s giving my students the opportunity to experience how great they are.

What are your responsibilities in the year ahead as Teacher of the Year? What do you hope to accomplish?

Part of my new responsibilities is sitting on the board of directors for the Florida Education Foundation, which is the direct support organization for the Florida Department of Education. I’m also the Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education, which means I represent Florida teachers in our state and across the nation. I’ve been fortunate to visit schools with the Commissioner of Education and sort of serve as a liaison between teachers and the Department of Education. I also deliver keynote speeches across the state and conduct professional development workshops on strategies that have been successful in my classroom.

Probably my favorite aspect of it all is, I get to collaborate with other teachers of the year in other counties and find out what they’re doing well and share those ideas with the whole state. Another thing I love that I’ve been able to do is give exposure to other counties about the challenges they face and be their voice. Last year, Hurricane Michael ravaged Bay County, and many of us don’t understand the dramatic toll that took on that community. Ten months later, kids are going back to school and they’re trying to do everything status quo, but students and teachers are living in tents and still living with no plumbing or electricity. I didn’t fully understand what they were dealing with until I had the opportunity to go there, but now that I have, I can be a voice for that community and help raise awareness to get them the support they need to get back on their feet.

I understand you also get to bestow a scholarship. What will be the deciding factors in who receives it?

One of the biggest elements is that it is need-based. There are students who have all the potential in the world to succeed but don’t have the avenue to achieve that. But along with that, there has to be an interest in pursuing education, regardless of the discipline, so they can turn around and give back and have a positive influence on the next generation of world changers.

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