Tony Raye admiring his honor out front og John F. Kennedy Middle School in Nashville.

NASHVILLE, TN — Tony Raye’s recognition as JFK Middle School’s Teacher of the Year for 2022-2023 didn’t surprise anyone. The reasons are countless, stemming from his inspirational personal and professional trajectory. 

Born in Gallatin, Raye became a successful basketball player at Gallatin High, and that success continued at Austin Peay State University, where he earned his undergraduate degree. While in college, Raye played in the 1987 NCAA tournament and hit the winning free throws in the first round to defeat highly ranked Illinois. 

“None of the national polls predicted Austin Peay as the winner of the game. The entire team decided we could win, and winning is exactly what we did,” he said. “I was so excited to share that moment with my students as another example of the endless possibilities that result from hard work, perseverance and faith.”

Raye’s fruitful path in MNPS started out on an alternative teaching license, working at Hillwood High School in the early 2000s. Then he passed the tests he needed to take to become a fully certified and licensed teacher. For the next 10 years, he obtained tenure at the Williamson County school district, which allowed him to grow in the field of special education.

Since Raye returned home to MNPS, he has worked at JFK Middle School for the past three years. Tony Raye in front of the Teacher of the Year sign at school

“I am now overseeing the special education department at the school, enjoying leading our teachers and our students this year,” he said. “I work at one of the most diverse schools in the state, and it’s great to see the amazing things these kids have to offer our school and community.”

Sources of Inspiration

One of the programs Raye manages is Rites of Passage, a curriculum that encourages all young people, especially those of color, to view themselves as future success stories.

“The program shows these kids that their behavior, effort, resolve and hard work will get them places,” he said.

Rites of Passage also shows students many examples of successful people.

“I have our young men learn to tie a tie and button and iron a shirt so they can show up to interview dressed for success. I encourage our young women to view themselves as potential doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc.,” Raye said. “They, too, can be successful in any area they want to work, whether they wear heels or flats.”

Raye’s source of inspiration for his educational career was primarily his uncle, who was diagnosed with a severe disability.

Raye said that “Growing up in the early ‘70s, there weren’t many opportunities for students with major disability limitations. I remember being in the back room of the trailer playing with my uncle, who was close to the same age as myself,” he said. “While today he would have been diagnosed as intellectually disabled, back then he was classified as mentally retarded. The only strategy my grandmother knew then was isolation!”

Raye said he  had such a traumatic experience with his uncle, that he decided he didn’t want other families to feel the way his family felt during those times of no support and “that’s why I wanted to be a special education teacher, so that I could help students who, like my uncle, just needed a little help from a teacher who could get the student/family through during difficult times,”.

Raye also attributes his decision to become an educator to his faith and to his mom, coaches, and teachers for helping him along the way. “My teachers and coaches were like parents to me on campus. They showed me right and wrong and encouraged me to follow my dreams in basketball and in the classroom. Thanks to them, I am a teacher and will soon be an administrator.”

As an avid learner, Raye decided to go to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in education from Grand Canyon University. In the spring, he will be receiving his second master’s degree in educational leadership from Austin Peay.

Raye also is part of the Diverse Leaders Network in the state of Tennessee, which aims “to get people of color and people from underrepresented communities into positions of leadership in education,” he said. He joined the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance during the pandemic so he could collaborate with other teachers of color around the state, via Zoom, to share best practices of helping students during and after the pandemic with positive, equitable outcomes.

Raye’s philosophy to have an enjoyable, successful career as a teacher is based on several factors, including teachers’ awareness of students’ life situations and consideration of the types of skills the students need to leave the classroom with. 

He said that “Teachers also need to be aware of how students will copy everything they do and will respond to their negativity or positivity with the same attitude. “Are you happy to see your students? If the answer is yes, the students will be happy to see you. Be positive and supportive of students even in the most difficult times.”

Outside of his dedicated work in MNPS, Raye enjoys spending time with his wife and children and being active in sports. He also participates in his Omega Psi Phi fraternity meetings and attends Mt. Zion in Antioch, collaborates with the NAACP and strives to make a difference as a proud member of the Austin Peay Alumni Association.

Growing up in the early 70’s there wasn’t many opportunities for students with major disability limitations. I remember being in the back room of the trailer playing with my uncle who was close to the same age as myself. Back then he was classified as Mental Retardation: classic cleaved root togue, mute no sound, ear deformities, Beatie eyes with a bulge. (Now it’s called Intellectual Disability) The only strategy my grandmother knew then was ISOLATION!!

We lived in a rural poor community and the only person we could rely on was God. Once I got into high school, I was determined to get my grandmother/uncle some type of services for comfort of life for both. My dream of course was to play Pro Basketball and take care of my family, that didn’t happen so Plan B was enacted.

I knew when I went to college my main goal was to help my family and community. I graduated and started working on getting services, information, and access to services that would address some of the community needs. I was fortunate to coordinate with a state counselor who assist in this area for my uncle. Thirty years later we were able to get services for my uncle (dentist visits, medical visits, transportation services, assistance with personal care, and sitting services) this made the quality of life workable for my grandmother who was getting into her later years of life.

I had such a traumatic experience with my uncle I decided I didn’t want other families to feel the way my family felt during those times of no support. That was one of the major decisions to bring me into Special Education, to help lower the burden of families needing trusted assistance and not having access to simple services. These services really were helpful and beneficial during my uncle’s later years of his life.

After the passing of my uncle, I was more determined to help support these families needing support more than ever. I continually work with at-risk students, socioeconomic, behavior challenged students, and social and emotional challenged students. I’m comfortable with helping give a voice to the voiceless and continuing that path of success for these students.

I’ve been serving in my community teaching for over 20 years, my friends call me T-Rex after the dinosaur because they say black men like me who have taught in the education field for over 15 years are (extinct or hard to find just like dinosaurs) in the education field.

I continue to coach, mentor, teach, advocate for services and continuing support for my African American communities. I will continue to be a bridge builder for those coming after me to continue the path forward to reach 100% equitable opportunities for future students. I worked every program in the school setting dealing with behavior, ISS, Detentions, Saturday Schools, OSS, Restorative Services, Counseling, and support groups. Many of these programs don’t contribute to a positive outlook, we need positive solutions for our students.

So, for student improvements throughout the years I’ve produced Relationship Building Strategies to implement with these students and it helps them navigate through difficult situations with real-time strategies to help with positive outcomes.

I will continue to build relationships with our Diverse students, continue to support and inform their parents each day, advocate for equitable success for ALL students that I serve. My goal is to prepare this generation for academic and social and emotional success  they  deserve it.