‘He makes you believe you can do everything.’ Tampa’s Dakeyan Graham is Florida’s Teacher of the Year

The King High music teacher dazzles in song and word.
Dakeyan "Dre" Graham was named Florida Teacher of the Year on Thursday. He teaches instrumental music and leads the marching band at Tampa's King High School. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Dakeyan "Dre" Graham was named Florida Teacher of the Year on Thursday. He teaches instrumental music and leads the marching band at Tampa's King High School. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published July 19, 2019|Updated July 19, 2019

TAMPA — There was a moment Thursday, as he got to know the other Florida Teacher of the Year finalists, when Dakeyan Graham made peace with the possibility that he would not win.

“These guys are all-stars. These guys are stellar,” he said. “I’d follow any of them, any of them, into battle.”

Then his name was called and everything changed.

King High School is now scrambling to find a music teacher, as Graham will be tied up with a year of meetings and appearances.

And he is trying to craft a message, now that he has a platform.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Dakeyan Graham was Hillsborough’s teacher of the year

He told 600 new Hillsborough teachers earlier in the week that they should never forget they are “world changers,” and so are their students.

Now he wants to be the best possible advocate for teachers who feel beaten down by the system’s demands and expectations.

“We need to allow teachers opportunities for success, the same opportunities that we expect the students to have,” he said on Friday, still fine-tuning the concept during a round of media interviews.

This is a whole new chapter for the 34-year-old Graham, who spent the last decade teaching music in the same band room where he used to practice saxophone as a teen.

“Dr. Dre,” as he is affectionately known, was a finalist for Hillsborough Teacher of the Year, twice. This year, when he won, he dazzled the audience by singing the opening lines of a spiritual hymn. He did the same thing after Thursday’s announcement in Orlando, although a different hymn.

Married to a Mort Elementary School teacher with a 5-year-old daughter who plays the violin, Graham said he always had a passion for music. He grew up in a family that sang four-part harmonies on the way to church. “Music was never really an option, it was something we did,” he said.

School came easily, so he enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at King. He doesn’t think he was especially popular. But “many people knew me.”

He started college at the University of Florida with a double major in music education and microbiology. His plan: Become an anesthesiologist, make money for 10 years and then retire and “teach music because I like it, right?"

But his former band teacher predicted he would go straight into teaching, and she was right. Describing her at the new teachers gathering, Graham said, “My only desire in my position is that I can positively and dramatically influence my students, in the same way that she influenced me.”

Back at King, he adjusted to working alongside the teachers who had taught him, while pursuing his doctoral degree at the University of South Florida.

Nishira Mitchell, who was assistant principal over the IB program, said Graham could connect with students the other teachers and administrators struggled to reach.

He could talk the IB students through their anxieties, having weathered the rigorous program with some of the same teachers. But he was equally effective in motivating other students.

“He allows every person to be who they are and he navigates accordingly,” said Mitchell, who is moving to Adams Middle School as principal.

“Dr. Graham makes you believe you can do everything and you are the best at everything. He did that for the faculty and for the students and for the parents. It’s like they will drink the Kool-Aid for Dr. Graham. They worship him.”

She attributes those qualities, in large measure, to faith and his family.

“He knows who he is as a man of God, and I think that because he has clarity in his purpose in life, it allows him to navigate so intricately and bond with any person from any background," Mitchell said. “His mother and his father, his wife and his daughter help define his 'why.’ And the love that they give him, you can see that they are the village that pours into him.”

Mitchell believes, and Graham agrees, that a key role model was the stepfather who raised him. “You would never know, nobody would ever know that he was not my biological father,” Graham said. Both parents were at Thursday night’s banquet in Orlando.

On Friday, congratulations were coming in so quickly that Graham struggled to read them all. He had not even checked social media when he arrived at King around noon. On Thursday night, he said, “I had 350 text messages when I got off the stage.”

He sang the national anthem at Monday’s new teacher gathering and it’s a safe bet that he will sing at the next joint principal’s meeting.

Mitchell used the word “humble” to describe Graham, and said she always observed “student-led learning” in his classroom.

But Graham is not without ambition. Eventually he wants to move into administration. One of his two masters degrees is in education leadership.

While it is too early to chart his path, he has no doubt that Thursday’s honor will open doors.