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Dr. Graham practices with his freshman band class one day before performance evaluation

Humor, Humility & Talent - Is What Makes Our Teacher Of The Year So Special!

March 07, 2019 - Employee Excellence

“Gentlemen! All black attire! Black dress shirt, black dress pants, black shoes, black socks--NO WHITE SOCKS! You are NOT Michael Jackson! NO white socks!”

That is Dr. Dre Graham, Hillsborough County’s Teacher of the Year, instructing the young men in his band class at King High School how to dress for performance evaluation the next day.

His comments get nervous giggles, and excited head-nods from his young, freshmen class.

This is their first time performing at this level—and you can tell they want to make their teacher proud.

That’s one of the first things you notice when you walk into Dr. Graham’s classroom—the reverence and respect the students have for him.

It’s a respect he commands… NOT demands.

In his gentle way, with a mix of sternness and humor, Dr. Graham makes sure his students are as prepared as possible for competition the next day.

These students certainly think it’s cool their leader is Teacher of the Year—but they have little idea how big of a deal it really is.

Maybe they heard about the evening thousands of people packed into the Straz Center to honor the county’s best teachers and staff…

Or the moment their teacher’s name was called and he walked out on the stage into the spotlight…

Or his rousing speech that began with a song so powerful and faithful it caused cheers to rise from the rafters…

But they probably don’t understand the gravity of representing every teacher in the district.

Dr. Graham sure does. It’s an honor he takes seriously and with humility.

That humility is something instilled in him by his mother. He didn’t always have it. He remembers when he was a student at King High School and he walked the halls with arrogance and swagger.

It was his mom who put him in his place. “I’m confident in myself, yes… But something my mom told me as a kid always stuck with me. She said, ‘you’re not better than anybody else—but nobody else is better than you’”

That’s a message he lives by, and tries to pass along to his students.

He talks fondly about the students in his class now and in the past. One student, his first year teaching, really stands out for helping shape him into the teacher he’s become.

She was a difficult student, behavior wise. She’d been in five schools in three years when she ended up sitting in Dr. Graham’s band. She loved music, but it wasn’t enough to keep her out of trouble. He tried everything to get through to her. The breakthrough came, one day, at a football game when Dr. Graham saw a disturbance up in the bleachers. It was this girl, causing trouble.

He had a decision to make. Wait and deal with it later, privately—or address it publically and send a message.

He chose to march into the bleachers, sit the girl down, get one inch from her face and lay down the law. “I told her, ‘if you don’t figure out what’s going on with you, then you’re out of this program.’ It was the only way she could really understand. In that instant, in order to get her respect, I needed to show her I could get on her level. From that moment on, there was respect”.

The girl went on to get a $40,000 scholarship to Bethune Cookman, and later become an EMT. She tells Dr. Graham now, it was that moment, up in the bleachers, that turned her life around.

That’s what Dr. Graham loves most about his job. NOT the moment in the bleachers where he had to discipline—But the success stories. Being a music teacher, he is in the unique position of seeing his students grow from freshmen to young adults. He gets to see the progress and know he had something to do with it.

Of course, the job doesn’t come without its challenges. Dr. Graham spoke very honestly when asked about the most challenging aspect of being a teacher. Balance. He says balancing his commitment to his students and his commitment to his family is something he struggles with. “And I fail a lot”, he says. “But life is a process and just because I fail today doesn’t mean I’m going to fail tomorrow. Every day I wake up, I have another opportunity”.

That brings us back to the band room.

Dr. Graham, speaking gently to his nervous freshmen, just hours away from their first big high school performance.

When no more hands are raised, and no more directions are left to give, Dr. Graham leaves them with one last instruction.

“Just leave everything on the stage”.

Just like Dr. Graham does, in every aspect of life.


To watch Dr. Graham's inspiring acceptance speech: