Former educator held ‘unique perspective’ on legislative process

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Derrick Graham taught social studies at Frankfort High School (Frankfort Independent) for 27 years. He recently retired from teaching, but is still serving District 57 as a state representative. Graham said balancing his teaching job and his state representative duties was one of his biggest challenges the last 10 years. Photo by Amy Wallot, Aug. 3, 2012
Derrick Graham taught social studies at Frankfort High School (Frankfort Independent) for 27 years. He recently retired from teaching, but is still serving District 57 as a state representative. Graham said balancing his teaching job and his state representative duties was one of his biggest challenges the last 10 years. Photo by Amy Wallot, Aug. 3, 2012

For the past ten years, Derrick Graham has led a double life of sorts, serving both as a full-time high school social studies teacher and an elected state representative.

The two roles are definitely not mutually exclusive. Graham says he has always been a student of politics and government, participating in political campaigns as early as his junior and senior years in high school.

He would come to share that love of government and politics with his students, teaching social studies at Frankfort High School (Frankfort Independent) for 27 years, until his retirement  at the end of this past school year. 

Graham, a graduate of Frankfort High, Kentucky State University and Ohio State University, was not just content to teach his students about politics and government. He also practiced it, campaigning and winning several elected positions, including his current one as state representative for District 57. The Frankfort Democrat is serving his fourth term.

During his time in the General Assembly, Graham has chaired the House Budget Review Subcommittee on Primary and Secondary Education. He’s also a member of several other legislative committees.

Kentucky Teacher recently asked Graham to reflect on his time in the classroom and the State House, share his thoughts on what he sees as exciting education legislation and offer some advice to teachers who might be interested in getting involved in Kentucky politics.

You had been teaching at Frankfort High School (Frankfort Independent) for more than 17 years before you ran for state representative. What prompted you to run for office?

I was always a student of politics and government. I began participating in political campaigns in the late 1970s when I was a junior/senior in high school. In 1991, I ran for Frankfort city commissioner and won. Since I received the largest amount of votes, I became the vice mayor or mayor pro tem, a position I held for nine years. In 1994, I ran for state representative and lost by about 400 votes. However, when former Rep. Gippy Graham retired in 2002, I ran and won the House seat for District 57.

How has your teaching experience helped you as a representative?

Because I’ve been in the classroom for more than 27 years and have been involved in my community for many more years, I have a unique perspective on the legislative process. I am able to see how bills directly affect our educational system and can then articulate to my legislative colleagues the real impact of the legislation under consideration. In working with my legislative colleagues I have tried to help formulate educational public policy that serves to challenge and yet meets the needs for all children to succeed and compete in today’s global economy. I believe my experience as an educator has had an impact on helping to bring changes to educational standards in our commonwealth.

How did you balance your teaching duties with being a representative?

Learning how to balance my teaching job and serving in the role as a state representative was one of my biggest challenges. In the beginning I taught three classes under the block schedule system with a planning period at the end of the day. As my responsibilities grew in the House of Representatives and as administration scheduling and school calendars changed, I started taking a leave of absence during most of the sessions. It was a major sacrifice for me, but it served to provide my students with a strong teaching presence, as well as allowing me to fulfill the legislative responsibilities of my district.

Did you learn anything regarding education from being a representative that you didn’t know just from being a teacher?

I’ve had to learn more about the complex funding formulas of our educational system, innovative testing procedures and how to best prepare all students – from kindergarten to college seniors – for the 21st-century economy. But serving in the legislature has allowed me to convey to my colleagues the role of the teacher and our commitment and dedication in educating our students, all across our great commonwealth. My experience as an educator, I believe, has helped to convey to my legislative colleagues how diligent teachers are and the sacrifices they make to serve the educational needs of our students.

Did you ever incorporate legislative experiences into your lessons? If so, can you give an example?

Yes I have. In my 9.5 years in the Kentucky House of Representatives, I have had students serve as constitutional pages in the General Assembly. This opportunity allows students to see the process of passing legislation on a first-hand basis. Students are given the opportunity to lobby legislators for various issues important to them, research those issues then watch legislation go through the legislative system each session. Watching the legislature in session shows students both sides of an issue, such as coal and environmental concerns. It teaches law, analytical skills, collaborative techniques and knowledge of key issues, qualities that are important and will help young people develop in their academic experience and later as they mature into adults and citizens of the commonwealth.

What recent political decisions regarding education have excited you the most?

Probably Senate Bill 1, which passed in the 2009 session and focused on many areas in education, especially testing. This legislation changed the way our children will be assessed and when tests will be given, and it demands more accountability. The changes will better prepare our students for the workforce, keep parents informed, provide better testing products and tools for our teachers and provide tangible measures of success that we can track. It’s the biggest legislative educational initiative since the Kentucky Education Reform Act, and while change is always a little difficult to accept, I believe it will be deemed highly successful in years to come.

How has Kentucky’s focus on college and career readiness impacted your choices as a state representative?

As I mentioned before, Senate Bill 1 truly was a sweeping piece of legislation that impacted all aspects of Kentucky’s educational systems. An important element of the bill was to develop a unified strategy to reduce college remediation rates of recent high school graduates by at least 50 percent by 2014 from the rates in 2010 and to increase the college completion rates of students enrolled in one or more remedial classes by 3 percent annually from 2009 to 2014. The emphasis on college and career readiness has encouraged me to focus even more diligently on all educational legislation, discussions and policy so that we adhere to the charges put forth by Senate Bill 1.

What educational committees have you served on while serving as a representative?

I have been a member of the Education Committee for nine years. I am currently chair of the Budget Review Subcommittee on Primary and Secondary Education. For more than eight years, I have served on the Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education, and for the last six years I have been a member of the Appropriations and Revenue Committee. I was recently appointed by House Leadership to the new Student Access to Technology Task Force.

Do education stakeholders and state politicians work well together? In what ways can they improve their partnership?

Overall I think the stakeholders in education and legislators work closely together to move Kentucky forward, but more can be done. I believe that educators should make it their responsibility to become involved in our legislative process, whether it’s following a piece of legislation of interest to students throughout the session, visiting the Capitol, meeting with their legislators, watching the legislative process and trying to incorporate government and democracy into the curriculum whenever possible. We have state government in operation every day right in our backyard here in Frankfort, and we should do everything we can to take advantage of that.

What advice do you have for teachers who might be interested in running for office some day?

I believe that teachers should have a voice and should be actively engaged in the political process, whether they are running for office or promoting candidates with a strong educational platform or record of accomplishment. Teachers should be well-educated about public policy and immerse themselves into the process that brings that about. I would encourage them to do their research, know the issues and ask a lot of questions as they relate to changes in our educational profession.

What was your most rewarding experience as a teacher?

The most rewarding experience for me as a teacher was watching my students succeed and become productive and hardworking members of society. It is a great pleasure for me to see former students excel in higher education, land great jobs and become successful employees, also rearing their children and becoming involved in their churches, neighborhood groups and even engaged in the political process.

It is indeed a joy to know that maybe I may have played a minor role in helping my former students succeed in becoming productive members of our community, commonwealth and country. In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons why many people choose the teaching profession.

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