SR: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, you’re listening to Re:Work.
[“Be There” – Nightmares on Wax]
SR: I’m Stefanie Ritoper.
SW: And I’m Saba Waheed.
SR: Who was your favorite teacher in high school?
SW: Mrs. Marshall… I didn’t even have to think twice about that. She was my high school English teacher. Because of her, I developed my love for literature and storytelling. I felt more myself in her class than I did anywhere else in high school. And I think that’s true for most of us, we have that unforgettable teacher that sets us on our life’s trajectory.
SR: Most of the time we know even our most favorite teachers just inside the classroom. So what happens when we learn what they are going through outside of the classroom?
In this week’s episode of Re:Work, UCLA student Tyler Milles uncovers what happened to his favorite teacher in the four years since he last saw him.
T: There I was, just browsing Facebook when I happened across an article. It was posted not once, not twice, but numerous times all the way down my news feed. At first, I didn’t pay much attention, but then I realized that it was written by DJ Cook, my favorite high school teacher. I decided to click on it.
DJ: “Living in a Converted Garage With a Master’s Degree”
I am suffocated by student debt. I am 36 years old, I’m employed, and I live slightly above the poverty line.
T: As I continued to read, I found myself more and more upset. I had known that Mr. Cook had stopped teaching in the city where I grew up, but I couldn’t understand how he could be living in poverty.
I decided to reach out to him to see if he would talk about his experiences and I hadn’t even seen him in years.
[“Breaking Away” – Ratatat]
DJ: So I’m gonna turn so I can actually look at you, so I can actually look at you while I’m talking to you.
T: Yeah that makes sense.
DJ: I’m staring at my coffee cup the whole time here.
DJ: Both first timers.
T: Well yeah, umm, you already mentioned it kind of briefly but how exactly did you get to that point where you wanted to teach, like what led up to that?
I was surprised to learn that he didn’t find his calling until later in life.
He graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2000 as a business major, and started a career in the entertainment industry, but it didn’t stick.
He decided to travel through Europe with some friends from college. And during that trip, something clicked.
DJ: So, when I was in, London, we took the Chunnel down to france and then we backtracked up to the Normandy Invasions. And my grandfather, was at that beach, and he never spoke about it in his entire life, ever ever. And then he sat down with my mom, which it was my dad’s father. So he sat down with basically his daughter-in-law, and for one time in his life he told her every single graphic detail of that day, and I only got the filter of that information and it was that empowering on me that on that point forward, standing in those locations where a lot of the famous American parts of WWII were, really inspired me to kind of wanna do that.
T: In that moment, standing on the beach in Normandy, the history of World War II became more than just history. It was a window to his grandfather’s life, and it was real.
This experience was miles away from his own high school experience, where he always felt bored, waiting for something to happen.
That’s when he realized he wanted to make history that real, and that interesting, for others as well. And he decided to teach.
T: Do you remember how you taught us about D-Day and the beach?
DJ: Absolutely, I always, on every single day if I wanted to make sure I got one thing right, I wanted to always pretend I was sitting in a chair listening and participating in what I was doing, and if I was bored with that, then I wanted to do something else.
For this particular lesson it was the esteemed, coveted, day where I was gonna bring in Call of Duty. And, a lot people immediately dismissed video games. Nope video games, we don’t like em. But, if you use certain aspects effectively, it could be very engaging.
[“Smokin’ That Shit” – MF Doom]
And the thing about some of those video games is that they’ve gone to another level. I have pictures from the actual site of the the Normandy Invasion on the cliffs with the Army Rangers from Point Du Hoc, I have pictures of the exact locations that they replicated on the games in the exact mission they replicated. And I introduced that to the game and I didn’t see any harm as to it being an engaging thing, especially for 15-year-old boys at the time. And then people were fighting over who was gonna get to go through this mission and it was an incredibly engaging mission and I don’t think any one of those kids forgot that lesson.
T: I definitely remembered that lesson. I never had a teacher before who seemed to understand us so well. He made us feel comfortable and had us learn by doing. In his class it was impossible to tune out or fall asleep. Mr. Cook always found a way to make the lessons new and unpredictable, and taught them with an insane level of energy.
Another activity we would do together was a way to introduce us to DBQs, document based questions. They are difficult essay prompts where we are required to synthesize information from a number of documents into an argument to answer the question.
DJ: In a law class they’d teach you how to do something like that about how to deconstruct a case and make sure there’s no holes in your arguments. So, it’s about taking things apart and putting it together in the right order. So in order to introduce that type of writing style, the day that they come in the class for that one I take all the old style desks and I stack em to the ceiling and I tangle them up as much as I can. And as soon as the bell rings when I walk in I put 5 minutes on the timer, I put my feet up on the desk and I act like I’m reading something for effect and all it says on the board is solve the problem. So at first they don’t know what the problem is, they go the board and they see there’s a seating chart, they see all their names on the seating chart, they start taking it apart, I’ve never had a class not get it done in 5 minutes and then we have some kind of visual and kinesthetic exercise to reflect on whenever we’re unpacking a DBQ.
T: Sometimes his lessons got a little too real.
During our World War I unit, Mr. Cook brought in a fog machine and sound effects and had us turn over the desks to recreate trench warfare. But before he could do that, we had to fully understand the gravity of “going over the top” as they say. It’s that moment when you know you are going to face certain death when you come out of the trenches. He had us write letters to our parents telling them what we were about to do.
Unfortunately one girl didn’t quite remember her vocabulary.
DJ: She, got some of the terminology wrong and some of the statistics wrong and also didn’t put her name on it, and didn’t say this is Mr. Cook’s class and she wrote a letter that essentially said something to the extent of, I’m going over the edge and I don’t think I’m gonna make it. What she was trying to say is, I’m about to over the top, one of our vocab terms. So she leaves this, I don’t think I’m gonna make it note on her bed at home and her parents find it, and they think it’s a full blown suicide note. So they drive down as fast as they came to the school. They are immediately bawling in the office. An administrator comes in a worried fashion to my classroom, calls the student out, the student sees the people crying, her parents crying, she starts crying, nobody knows why everybody’s crying, they show her the note and then they realize that it was an activity I had them do. So I had some questions to answer after that one.
[“Datura Stramonium” – MF Doom]
T: At the time, Mr. Cook was a brand new teacher at Oak Park High School, the only in my hometown. For people who are unfamiliar with Oak Park, it’s a wealthy suburb directly across the northern border of Los Angeles County. It’s one of the top rated public schools in Southern California and there’s even a lottery for out of district kids to get in. People move from all over the region to try to have their kids attend.
That’s what my parents did. We lived in one of the apartment complexes wedged right between the high and middle schools and the cost of living was ridiculously high. Both of my parents worked hard and struggled to keep us in the city.
For Mr. Cook, it was not much different.
So, while my classmates and I were going from class to class, Mr. Cook began to realize how precarious his job was.
DJ: The first year, I was laid off. And that was pretty scary. I was laid off and by the end of that school year in which I was laid off cause in California they legally have to tell you by March 1st I believe it is, March 1st, by the end of the school year they said, we’re gonna bring you back. So, it was only three months of worry for that time period. Second year, again. Now the problem in Oak Park was, it was such a wealthy community that no new families were moving to it. So we had the issue of declining enrollment. And then our superintendent expanded who could come into our district to try and sustain the teachers, and they did. And I got retained again, second year. Third year, same thing, third year was the least scary layoff I had because they basically said, as they were handing me the layoff, this is a formality for paperwork. We have to do this for our budget. This is red tape kind of thing. Then my fourth year at Oak Park, I finally got everything, in place. I got tenure, I got my foot in the door at a school. I was well respected, I had a good reputation, I was teaching AP classes, everything was great. Problem was, I was going backwards in debt 10,000 dollars a year for living in that community.
[Nostrand – Ratatat]
I think I lived in six different places when I was out there, trying to manage a rent that was manageable enough to also pay off my student loans, which, there was a humongous difference between my undergraduate and my graduate school student loans. My undergrad ones were relatively simple. It was one payment, it was once a month, it was manageable. Plus school didn’t cost as much when I graduated in 2000. I think I had somewhere floating around $6000 in student loan debt after undergrad. When I went back to school seven years later, I accrued $36,000 just in student loans, another $22,000 in credit card debt because when you become a teacher you have to teach for six months free.
The only job I could get to manage my student teaching with my, you know night school and everything else, the only flexible schedule I could get was working at Chili’s waiting tables. So I was virtually up from 5:30 in the morning til midnight every day for six straight months. And doing all that, still, I wasn’t even coming halfway close enough to pay rent, have enough food to eat, do all that stuff. But I said this was all gonna be worth it, this is what the teacher’s do, there’s been a million teachers that have done this before me I know I’m gonna be safe and that’s how it felt.
T: Since we’re young we’re told that to be successful, we had to go to college to get our dream job and live the “American Dream.” Mr. Cook felt like had done everything right.
DJ: I was a straight-A student in high school, I played 5 sports in high school. I did all the extracurriculars, I did community service, I did all the things you’re supposed to do in order to get into college. I graduated from UC Santa Barbara. I went back to school, got my masters degree. Said okay, this is what everybody’s done to get to the point in your life where you buy a house, you get a family, you start the American Dream, whatever that cliche now is, and I decided I had to make a change if I was ever going to be able to be self sufficient and sustainable without going into the point where, you know, it’s irreversible.
T: The change Mr. Cook decided to make was a drastic one. He was going to move out of not only Oak Park, but the state of California itself to Colorado.
Here in Colorado, Mr. Cook hoped to teach in a place where he could afford to live hopefully pay off his loans. He moved into a 2-unit place in Denver right below a young couple who had a story similar to his.
DJ: They were an engaged couple that lived above me, they were gonna get married after they graduated from Law School and passed the bar. They both got out of law school, both passed the bar, they couldn’t even get a job at a law firm with a law degree. And both of them, are, when I left Denver, making $7.50 an hour at a Starbucks trying to pay off $150,000 worth of student loan debt and those stories are way too common these days and heartbreaking when I see it.
[“Dura” – Ratatat]
T: This couple is only one example of a fast growing phenomenon in the United States. For the first time in the history of the world, student loan debt passed credit card and auto loan debt, valued at $1.3 trillion. Compounding that, $300 billion of that $1.3 trillion has been added in the last three years. This is largely in part due to the massive increases in college tuitions which have increased by over 600% since 1980. And as of 2005, bankruptcy can no longer absolve you of this student loan debt.
In Colorado, Mr. Cook managed to find work as a high school teacher again, but the threat of being laid off was still ever present. And with Colorado not having the same layoff notification laws as California, Mr. Cook feared unemployment could come at any point in the school year.
DJ: So two weeks before school ended, in a, probably what was one of the worst weeks of my life, my house was leaking carbon monoxide and I was told by the furnace guy that if this continued for any more time I would’ve been a corpse in a bed. It made my dog sick.
That next day, I went into my classroom. I’m in front of my 36 students in class. I’m in the middle of class, the Vice Principal walks into class and says hey, can you come over here real quick. And he hands me a piece of paper like that, and he says, you know can you sign that? And I’m like sure, I was a teacher, you signed a million things all the time. But, I always read things first, make sure what I’m signing. As I’m reading, this is how I’m being informed that I’m being laid off. In front of my class, in the middle of my class by an administrator who also, when I said, and I asked him, is this telling me what I think it is? And he goes oh, what’s it saying, and I showed him. I don’t even think he knew what the document said.
[“Golden Light” – STRFKR]
T: Left without a job or even a place to live, Mr. Cook was at his wit’s end. And then he got a call that he believed to be his saving grace. It was Oak Park High School, prepared to offer him his job back if he returned to California.
DJ: I, was relieved to hear from them, and I said, absolutely I’ll come back. Now, in hindsight I should’ve signed on the dotted line somewhere, before I packed up and moved 1,800 miles but 5 days after being back, due to, you know, circumstances, 2 different opportunities went away and I found myself unemployed, Colorado rejected my unemployment and I had 2 months of money before I was dead broke. Maxed out credit cards, dead broke, masters degree, what the hell happened to my life kind of moment, you know? I was two weeks away from quite literally running out of money, running out of options, running out of hope.
T: Mr. Cook did end up finding a job, in a very different part of LA. He started to teach at La Puente High School, in a low-income neighborhood.
DJ: I teach in a heavily impoverished area now. a lot of the kids have no hope in high school because they know, that they’re never leaving that community. They’re, they don’t have a lot of options because even if they wanted to go to college, now it costs, now it’s almost prohibitive and you can get the student loans but then you end up in a situation that I’m in.
I don’t know the exact statistics but it’s hovering around where somewhere around 40% of these kids, all the food they eat in the day is the breakfast and lunch they get from school. There is a firm military discipline at this school where, I think there’s a value to positive psychology, positive reinforcement. And only the negative gets attention at the school I teach at.
You’re only told what you’ve done wrong in some circumstances. It’s never what you’ve done right. I, you know, whenever a student gets like a 96%, well they go what 4% did I miss, I said you’re concentrating on the wrong part of this, you know, equation, you got a 96%, that’s outstanding.
[“Sarsaparilla” – MF Doom]
T: When there’s such a strong emphasis on the negative, it has real effects on students and also on teachers.
DJ: So, you have a lot of jaded students in a very jaded community with a lot of jaded teachers and, some of them, not all of them but there are a few who, have mailed it in at that point. And that’s where the stereotype of the bad teacher comes in. Something like that. You know, somebody who’s like this is a 95 minute class, here’s a packet, I’ll be at my desk. //
T: When teachers, “mail it in,” as Mr. Cook says, the district has to start cracking down. And one of the tools that they’ve taken to using is a new, stringent curriculum that mandates specific ways that he has to teach in class. Not only does this make him feel limited in his ability to teach but he also feels that it makes students limited in their capacity to learn.
DJ: The way our education system is set up, if you don’t get it immediately they move on in a lot of cases. So, if we extinguish that hope it gives me hope, and I’m not always successful, but to, to reignite that love of learning because, there was a time period in my life when it was extinguished. I think I was so burnt out by the time I got done with college and so ready to get into the world and make a paycheck, that I think my learning portion of my brain kind of shut off for a few years, five, six, seven years, and unfortunately some people get locked in that way forever.
[“Smoke and Mirrors” – RJD2]
T: Mr. Cook was dedicated to reigniting that desire to learn in his students, especially at La Puente High, where students really needed it. He pressed ahead with using creative ways to teach the curriculum, using many of the high energy activities that he started at Oak Park High.
But just when he was starting to figure out the ropes, he was laid off, for the 6th time in 7 years.
So Mr. Cook went back to the drawing board looking for jobs. He applied for numerous teaching jobs all throughout Southern California.
He interviewed with public schools, non profit charter schools, and private schools. But to his surprise, the only offers he received were even lower than the pay he received before.
Already living paycheck to paycheck, Mr. Cook knew he couldn’t afford a pay cut without defaulting on his student loans.
DJ: It’s getting to a point where I might have to choose a different profession which would break my heart. You kind of get what you pay for in a lot of situations. If you really wanna make the teaching profession stronger, demand it. And demanding it, pay them a wage that would demand that. Would you want to, in any situation, go to a doctor who made $38k a year and have them do surgery on you? I mean, you get what you pay for in a lot of senses. So if you want the teaching profession to be a valuable resource, you have to make it a valuable resource, and you have to make it a priority.
I would honestly be better off with job security making $15 an hour than I do now, being laid off every single year, almost running out of money at the end of summer every year and only paying off the interest on my student loans and never touching the principal.
I find myself getting pushed out by the profession. And it’s pushing a lot of very qualified, very good people of it. And, you’re getting a replacement system which is, going to be, a monstrous mess before anyone realizes it.
T: And that’s when Mr. Cook decided to write the Huffington Post piece. He read an article similar to his on the site, and at the end it said, “Submit your story.” So he decided to go for it and wrote his piece that night.
DJ: I currently live in a converted garage (500 sq/ft) with no heat, no air conditioning, and no kitchen — and all of that costs $900/month.
In these current economic circumstances I have experienced the following emotions, thoughts, events and actions: 1) My financial situation has caused a level of depression that is hard to overcome sometimes; 2) My financial situation has made it impossible to buy a home and build equity; 3) My financial situation has caused so much stress it has inadvertently cost me two very important relationships; 4) I have thought about moving out of the country for good, abandoning my family, my friends and most importantly, my debt; 5) Worst of all, my financial situation has broken my spirit and leaves me with a sense of hopelessness most of the time.
I feel like this situation is turning me into a bad person. What happened to the American Dream we all strove so hard to reach?
[MUSIC – Distance – Nosaj Thing]
The outpouring of support after the article was written, I didn’t know it was gonna be as big a deal as it turned out to be, I knew the Huffington Post was a big deal. That thing posted I think 10 days ago, and, I got, I didn’t know, I should’ve known but, you know, I didn’t know how big it was gonna be. I’ve been now on two radio shows, which is, 10 days ago if you’d told me that, that’d be insanity to me.
I’ve been contacted by hundreds of people with similar stories. I had a woman just yesterday just say, I’m in a 120,000 dollars of student loan debt, and I only pay partially half of the interest that I accrue every year, but after reading your story I want to give you a donation just so you feel better about the situation. And I wrote in response to her, the best donation you could give me is just to raise awareness about this issue because, a lot of people immediately dismiss it when they hear student loan debt because they go, eh I went to college and these young kids, they complain too much, they’re too busy on their smartphones and their twitters and their google and it’s a very ignorant thing to say and to think because you’re not really, you’re dismissing the issue before anybody can even explain it to you in a lot of cases. And I don’t think very many people realize just how big of a problem this student loan problem is.
T: A lot of people in generations older than mine dismiss student debt, but what they don’t realize is that this is a very different monster than we have ever dealt with before. We have a serious concentration of debt in only one generation. And we are the same generation that has to pay into Social Security, pay into Medicare, pay into these systems in order for them to work in the future. And the way things are now, we might be prevented from doing so.
DJ: And it’s halting our economy and in my very humble opinion, if you had 1.3 trillion dollars to reintroduce right back into the economy, I mean, you’re gonna solve a lot of problems.
T: For me personally, Mr. Cook lit a fuse that had long gone out. For years I thought I was a horrible public speaker. And then I was given the opportunity to give my first speech in Mr. Cook’s class. It was the HiFi project, a presentation my whole grade was required to do where we researched a historical figure of our choosing.
T: I remember, back then, like you really changed the way that I perceived my presentations and stuff like, it was, it was something that you know it really seemed like something you seemed to think through and it really does really reflect, talking about your teaching philosophy, you want us to be, you see yourself in our position and like, I remember back then, you really changed the way I perceived my presentations and stuff,
Like it was, for the first time in classes, I felt like when I went up to give a presentation I could do something I wasn’t allowed to do in other classes, which was that I could entertain students and, get a good grade for it. It wasn’t just about hitting, like hitting these talking points, it was about actually teaching people in a way that they wanna learn and they wanna hear what you have to say.
DJ: Well I’m incredibly flattered and radio doesn’t convey my blushing right now but I, I still remember, and you get 170 students every year but I still remember your HiFi project because Tyler was incredibly smart, but, you were so quiet all year and you came out and you were cracking the whole class up with your presentation and I was like where did this come from, I’ve never seen this in you know 36 weeks of school and, you know, it really foreshadows why you’re here today, you know speaking on the radio because you have it.
T: And I never would’ve known that I had it, that ability to really speak and entertain if it weren’t for Mr. Cook and I know he had that impact on others as well
All of your students, I will, I’m speaking broadly but I also think I’m speaking correctly, all of your students loved you as a teacher, I loved you as a teacher. And, I just want you to know that all of us, all the students you’ve ever had and all of the students that you will have, want you to continue and they and they wanna see you continue to teach, and even if it’s hard and you have to take a break we just hope that you come back and you keep teaching.
DJ: Well, that is honestly probably one of the nicest things that anybody has ever said to me and, I’m I’m close to speechless about it.
[“Nostrand” – Ratatat]
I want to stay in teaching. I want to continue doing what I’m doing because stories like Tyler tells of the classes are what I live for. I live to see the sparks in these kids and I live to make a difference in these classrooms and in these communities. And, and, and, be there as a mentor for the rest of their lives if that’s the kind of relationship they’d like to have.
The fact that I have Tyler sitting next to me as one of my former students, you know, this, this makes my day, this makes my month seeing the success of the people who I’ve come across in my life. I take great pride in that. I take great pride in seeing it happen before my eyes over the course of 36 weeks in the school year. And after college if they get the rare opportunity to do something impactful in society, then I feel like my contribution to society is one person greater than myself. And I take great pride in that.
T: After finishing the interview Mr. Cook gave me a hug and we said our goodbyes. And I realized something had shifted. Even though I still can’t bring myself to call him by his first name, I like to think that we’ve become friends.
And in realizing that we were no longer on separate levels, I came to understand that our struggles were connected. We usually think of teachers as not getting paid enough or and we think about rising tuitions punishing the students. But these really go hand in hand, especially now that us students are becoming the teachers. And as that student debt goes up, we’re losing more and more opportunities to have great teachers like Mr. Cook.
SW: Thank you to to DJ Cook for sharing his story. You can find a link to his Huffington Post article on our Facebook page at forward slash reworkradio.
You’re listening to ReW ork a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This week’s show was produced by Tyler Milles, Quincy Surasmith, Stefanie Ritoper, and Saba Waheed. Music supervision by Francisco Garcia Nava. Special thanks to Henry Walton.
SR: To find out more about the show, and to catch up on previous shows, visit our website at rework radio dot org. There you can find more information about how to get involved and also subscribe to our podcast. Tweet your reactions at rework radio or send us an email at reworkat IRLE.UCLA.edu
SW: Until next time re-think, re-work!