Photo by Brianne Lehan/UF Strategic Communications and Marketing

"I never looked back"

A formative experience as a UF student shifted Dré Graham's path from medicine to education. Now he's Florida's Teacher of the Year.

As a student at the University of Florida, Dakeyan Graham had a plan: Go to medical school, work as an anesthesiologist for 11 years, then, after saving money, pursue his true passion: music education.

A hug from a student put him on a different path.

Graham was coaching at a national martial arts competition — one of many teaching jobs he had in college — when one of his students nailed a routine and ran over to him to share his excitement. In that moment, Graham saw that his encouragement and support shaped students’ lives far beyond martial arts. 

“That was when I realized that my passion, my responsibility, my ministry was to teach,” Graham said.

This summer, he was named Florida’s 2020 Teacher of the Year.

Video by Brianne Lehan and Wise Clairvoyant/UF Strategic Communications and Marketing. Classroom footage courtesy of Florida Department of Education.

Once Graham threw himself into teaching, he never looked back. 

“I guess the worst part was telling my parents that I was no longer going to be a doctor,” he said. He did, however, earn a doctorate in music education. (His bachelor’s and master’s degrees are from UF; his PhD is from the University of South Florida.)

“I still have those letters before and after my name, it just may look a little bit different.” 

His advice for students contemplating a major shift?

“Go with your heart. That seems so stereotypical, but really, we know what's best for ourselves.”

Following his heart led Graham — whose students call him Dr. Dré — to the position of band director at his alma mater, C. Leon King High School in Tampa. He took over the role from his high-school mentor, Cheri Sleeper.

“Without her, I wouldn't be here today. She’s the person who instilled in me the passion not only for music, but also for teaching,” he said.

Graham hopes to use his platform as Teacher of the Year to emphasize the difference teachers can make.

“We didn't get into this for the money. We didn't get into this for the fame. We got into this to make a positive impact on the next generation of world changers,” he said. “I've had so many incredible experiences…things I would have never experienced had I continued just to do what I was expected to do.”

Alisson Clark February 24, 2020