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Teachers Make Good DJs

My first gig

My first gig

On January 16th, 2014 I held a press conference to announce my retirement.    There comes a time in every person’s life when they know it’s time to move on.   I’ve seen some of the most memorable sports retirements and wanted mine to be modeled in the same vain.

Unlike those memorable speeches held in stadiums around the country, mine was held in my kitchen around the table. No microphones or press (unless you include the 3 precocious girls running around at the time).

It was time.

And so, with a heavy heart I told my wife that I was retiring from the DJ business.  Instead of tearful goodbyes and interview questions those athletes face, my exit interview was much more steeped in reality. My wife’s response was, “that’s great honey, can you change the baby’s diaper?”

From a career that had humble beginnings DJing a friend’s wedding as a favor in 2010 to the height of my career in 2012, I had a lot of joy in getting the crowd up and moving during a wedding.  I’m not blessed with much musical talent and I’m notorious for singing the wrong words to songs.  One thing I’ve always been able to do well is motivate an audience to get up and dance.

I realized something those last few wedding gigs – good teachers are essentially classroom DJs.

Think about it.

Performing at TCEA 2012

Performing at TCEA 2012

Your job as a teacher is to motivate the kids to learn.  The good ones know when things are going slow, when the crowd is starting to get bored and they change the song.  Sometimes, you even need to get out into the middle of the room and get the kids up and moving. I mean, if we didn’t do that, we could essentially be replaced by a really good Pandora station for learning.  Here are four traits that really good teachers and DJ’s share:


Just as there are classic songs that we play, there are classic lessons that teachers teach.   However, the same songs don’t always work for the same crowd.  If I tried to play some hip-hop at a predominately country wedding, I’d get a lot of listless, slack-jawed stares.  The same is true for the how we teach.  I used Google Docs with the Bride and Groom to request songs for their ceremony in advance.  This “formative assessment” told me a lot about their styles and tastes and I could tailor the music to fit their needs.  I see teachers doing more and more of this in classrooms as they change the direction of a lesson based on the crowd’s tastes.  Sometimes, you have to remix it, change the style and suit the interests of your audience.

Content –

One other thing I loved about DJing was discovering all the new music the “kids these days” were listening to. Keeping my material fresh and up to date was a big key to my success.  There’s nothing more embarrassing than playing MC Hammer’s 2 Legit 2 Quit to an empty dance floor.  As teachers, we also must make an effort to stay up to date.  The influx of technology and tools available on the web are infinite and sometimes mind-numbing.  However, using these fresh tools can keep your crowd more engaged and often will save you time in your day.

Pacing –

This one was a challenge for me early in my career.  I felt it was so important to keep people dancing non-stop for 4 hours that I never planned for breaks or mixing in slow songs (“drink-getters” we call those in the biz). A good DJ knows when to change things up by reading the audience. With the amount of content we are “forced” to get through in the classroom, it’s easy to put the petal to the metal for 180 days straight.  However, you’ll leave your students exhausted and drained if you went at that pace every day.  Instead, change it up a bit.  Have a “slow dance” from time to time to allow kids to catch their breath, reflect, and then get ready for more.

Participation –

Some of my most memorable moments of being a wedding DJ are when the crowd responds to a song.  (The Isley’s Brother’s “Shout” being the ultimate audience response song) .  Sometimes in the classroom there can be that magical moment where the kids are so engaged you can almost feel them learning together “out loud” as a group.  While you can do you best to anticipate this by judging your audience, adjusting your music and pacing, sometimes, you just have to let it go and let them take control. Pass the mic around and let them sing their rendition of “Sweet Caroline” so they can make those memories.

While I may be retiring in name, I’m not retiring in spirit.  My crowd has shifted from inebriated party-goers to teachers and administrators that are thirsty to learn.  My music is now the infusion of technology and dynamic learning in every day classroom life.  I still need to judge the crowd for interest, avoid the empty dance floors, and allow them time to get a drink every now and then.  So, in a way, this isn’t a retirement, it’s a melding of my previous career with my current one.  I’m teaching like a DJ.

And that is sweet music to my ears….even if I get the words wrong from time to time.

View from the DJ Booth - my last gig

View from the DJ Booth – my last gig




The Magic of Lending a Hand

Last spring I was called in to help collaborate on a video project for an elementary school.  This isn’t unusual as there is usually a campus or two that wants to work on something for their local community. However, this project was different, and I could tell from the beginning, it was going to be something that all kids, not just those at Eanes, could benefit from. The principal had sent me a song, that I thought was surely commercially done by some sort of Disney song-writer and singer.  She explained to me that actually a couple of students had written a song as part of an anti-bullying project and they made the song over the weekend (with the help of their Uncle, a guitarist for Kelly Clarkson).

I met with a team of staff and the kids’ parents in mid April to discuss the possibility of making this into a music video.  We listened to the song several times together as a group to get various ideas of how we wanted the video to look. My first thought when hearing the song “Lend a Hand” was that kids would slowly start to join their cause throughout the video.  The premise behind the song is that bystanders can be just as guilty as bullies and instead of standing idly by, they should “lend a hand”.

We had 5 graders develop vignettes for the verses of the song and we plot pointed parts of the playground and areas around the campus to shoot all of this.  Originally, the thought was that we would lipdub the entire song in a single shot.   While this can be tricky, it does make editing very easy.  I had some experience with this from the previous year and Forest Trail’s “Project Firework” which got on the news when Katy Perry decided to post it on her Facebook page.  The only problem was, I shot that entire shot moving forward.  This one would be the opposite, and require me to walk backwards, film and give direction.

Needless to say, the ending footage wasn’t very desirable.  (click here for never-before seen rough cut footage) It was blurry, not in HD, and bouncy since I had to walk backwards. I ended up enlisting the help of the Westlake broadcast journalism department and a couple of their aspiring videographers.(interested side note, these two students actually attended Eanes Elementary when they were younger!)  While the idea of filming the whole song in sequence remained, we decided we could shoot from two different angles and give it more of a music video feel.  As a director, it made my life a whole lot easier not having to worry about the camera and focus on what the kids were doing. We could zoom in and focus on the vignettes that the kids had made too, which I felt weren’t seen in the original. To put the finishing touches, the parents enlisted the help of Austin Children’s choir to sing the ending chorus and refrain. The end result was a purely magical video created by students for students.

Here’s the official HD video:

Thanks to the Westlake Film Crew, Eanes Elementary, students Alethia and London for their amazing song, their parents for supporting this and Julia Fortman for thinking enough of me to ask me to come help!

Click here for the full KXAN news story