University of South Florida

College of The Arts

University of South Florida

USF Music Alumnus and Florida Teacher of the Year Dr. Dakeyan Graham Meets with USF Music Students

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dr. Dakeyan Graham stands on stage of Barness Recital hall before USF music students

USF music alumnus Dr. Dakeyan Graham speaks with the USF chapter of NAfME at the School of Music on October 3, 2019.

Earlier this month, the USF School of Music welcomed back Dr. Dakeyan Graham, 2020 Florida Department of Education Teacher of the Year and graduate of the USF doctoral program in music education, for an intimate lecture and discussion on music education before the local USF chapter of the National Association for Music Education.

Graham, who is the band and orchestra director at King High School and is currently serving a one-year term as Ambassador for Education for the State of Florida, shared his journey as a music educator, advised students on how to be a force for change, and answered students’ questions in an open Q&A session.

“Music has the power to do something that many other courses don’t, and it ties all the other content domains together,” said Graham. “It accesses a different part of the brain and helps to get things to fire together—helps us to learn other subjects in different ways. And so when we look at that, music is an innately human characteristic.”

Graham, affectionately known as Dr. Dre by his students, advised the room of future music teachers on how to be a force for change and positively influence the lives of students. One way they can do this, he says, is to expand their reach beyond their classrooms.

“If there’s nothing else you take out of today, collaboration is so significant,” Graham told students. “As a music teacher, don’t be an island, It’s already easy to make that happen because you could just be one music teacher on your campus. Reach out to other music teachers, have some collaboration.”

At King, Graham has connected with other music teachers in the area to expand the scope of their individual music programs. Now, students from King and five other schools in the area take combined field trips and attend multi-school leadership camps for students.

This collaboration, Graham says, enables educators to elevate their classrooms and allows students to better learn, grow, and meet new people.

During the lecture, Graham also advised students to expect the unexpected as they enter teaching careers and may be called upon to teach outside their area of expertise.

“Just because you have a specific primary doesn’t mean that’s what you’re going to teach. … You will get thrown into something,” said Graham, who began teaching band at King and later on began teaching orchestra as well.

Graham also encouraged students to seek out classroom experiences beyond what is required of them in school. With this experience, he says, students can become the most effective educators they can be while creating lasting connections in the field.

“The more you do now, the more relationships you build now with the educators that are out there, the better things will be for you once you graduate,” said Graham.

Throughout the lecture, Graham did not shy away from discussing the mistakes he made along the way. When Graham began his first year of teaching at King High School, he inherited 35 years of straight superior ratings for the marching band. He was excited to apply what he learned in school and to continue the legacy of the program.

When the marching ensemble received only an “excellent” under his direction, Graham learned he needed a fundamental shift in his approach to teaching.

“That year was the best learning experience of my life because it shifted my perspective,” said Graham. “It's not about having the best ensemble, getting the best ratings, and being the best band or the best orchestra or the best chorus. … It's about the individuals that are in your ensemble not about you.”

Dakeyan Graham stands on stage in front of students

Dakeyan Graham answers students’ questions during his visit to the USF School of Music on October 3, 2019.

Graham also shared how he came to be the music educator he is today. He completed his K-12 education in Hillsborough County public schools, eventually graduating from the King High School IB program where he was involved in the band program under the direction of his mentor and predecessor Cheri Sleeper.

Fresh out of high school, Graham wanted to be an anesthesiologist, retire early from medicine, and then become a high school music teacher. Sleeper was not convinced by his plans. Graham recalled how she prophetically expressed this during Graham’s high school graduation ceremony.

“Ms. Sleeper looked at me as I was walking across the stage … I shake her hand, and she doesn’t let me go. She turns around to the microphone and says ‘this guy wants to be a doctor, but he’s going to be a music teacher,’” Graham said, “So I looked at her and I laughed and said ‘challenge accepted.’”

He pursued both music education and microbiology at the University of Florida and maintained a busy schedule. On top of the two degree programs, Graham volunteered at public schools in Gainesville. He worked as an assistant choral director at Gainesville High School, helped out the band and orchestra at Lincoln Middle School, and taught steel drums at Duval Elementary School.

Still, he didn’t limit his teaching to music. Graham, a former martial arts world champion, also worked as a martial arts instructor at World Martial Arts Center. He traveled the world martial arts circuit with his students, gave demonstrations, and competed as a martial artist himself.

“Everything I was already doing was revolving around education,” said Graham.

After one of Graham’s top private martial arts students won first place at a competition in Minneapolis, Graham began to understand the immense impact he has as an educator.

Upon returning to UF, he made the bold decision to drop the final class of his microbiology degree, thereby foregoing a degree in science, and solidify an unwavering commitment to become a music teacher. He went on to receive a master’s degree in music education from UF and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Concordia University.

When Sleeper passed the torch to him in 2008, it was not long before Graham was back continuing his education by pursuing a doctorate in music education from the USF School of Music. By taking classes with USF music education faculty members Clint Randles, Jennifer Bugos, and David Williams, Graham was able to apply what he was learning in the doctoral program to his classroom, reflecting on and gaining additional real-world experience in the process.

Now, Graham continues to create change beyond his classroom. As the 2020 Florida Department of Education Teacher of the Year, Graham is serving a one-year appointment as the ambassador for education for the entire state. He has the personal goal of meeting every County Teacher of the Year in Florida to understand their experiences and better serve their needs.

“Last ten years I've been in Hillsborough County, so I know Hillsborough County fairly well, but if I'm supposed to be the face of the state, I should probably learn about what's happening around the state,” said Graham.

His mission is to not only advocate for the importance of music education but also be a voice for all teachers and all students in the state.
“My goal is to positively impact the next generation of world changers because as a teacher, that's what we're doing,” said Graham. “Music is our medium, but we don't just teach music.”

As an ambassador for education, he aims to elevate the teaching profession and help create a positive culture in education.