If the Dance Floor Is Empty, Change the Song (and other lessons educators can learn from a mobile DJ)

In my senior year of college I began helping my buddy Rich with his DJ service. He had been in business for a few years, was starting to expand, and he needed somebody to help him out. For the next eighteen years, DJing became my full part-time job. It was only over the past couple years that I’ve given that job up (although I come out of retirement every once in a while to do a gig for a friend or relative).

DJing and education have a lot in common. Over my years in the business, I came to learn a few things.

1. If the dance floor is empty, change the song. Image As much as you might want to sit around blaming the crowd for being boring, that’s not going to fill the dance floor. What will fill the dance floor is playing great music and being interactive with the crowd. 

The same is true in the classroom. If kids are not engaged in a lesson, complaining about their lack of motivation is not going to solve the problem. Instead, differentiate your instruction to motivate each individual student. 

2. Nobody will remember the chicken or rigatoni or green beans, but they will remember if they had a good time. Every wedding is on a budget, and tough choices need to be made. We used to remind brides and grooms that in 30 years, nobody will remember what they ate, but they will remember if they had fun at your wedding. 

In the same way, 30 years from now most students are not going to remember the history or math or science lesson you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel. Therefore, building relationships should be a top priority for teachers. Kids don’t care what you know until they know you care.

3. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who like Barry Manilow, and those who pretend they don’t like Barry Manilow.  ImageIf you pass out a few maracas and tambourines and play “Copacabana” at a wedding reception, chances are you will have a huge conga line dancing throughout the hall. And those who aren’t in the conga line–those who are sitting down pretending they hate the song–look closely at their feet. I bet anything they are tapping their feet and humming along. 

There are a lot of egos involved in education, particularly with students. Nobody likes to be embarrassed in front of their peers, especially kids. Sometimes kids will pretend not to be interested in participating in school because it might seem uncool. The savvy teacher will recognize these kids—the closet Barry Manilow lovers—and find ways to keep them engaged in learning while allowing them to maintain their image.

4. If you play Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” near the end of dinner and nobody sings along, it’s going to be a long night. I used to call “Sweet Caroline” my Barometer Song. I would always play it near the end of dinner, when conversations started picking up, as a test to see if it was going to be a fun night. Invariably, if people sang along—especially to the “BAH BAH BAHs”—it was almost always a great wedding reception. But if nobody sang along, it seemed like those wedding receptions dragged, even though I’d change the song throughout the night. 

In the same way, if you don’t hook kids in the first days of the school year, it’s going to be a long year. Spending the first day of school in August teaching kids the rules will not prevent them from breaking the rules in April. Spending the first day of school in August building relationships and trust with students will prevent them from breaking rules in April. It goes back to three things: relationships, relationships, relationships. The tone is set at the beginning of the year, and it’s hard to recover if the tone that’s set is negative.

5. A bride only goes to a reception once, but a DJ goes to a thousand receptions. Brides are nervous. They want a perfect wedding, and they are counting on you to give it to them. Because a bride only gets married once, but a DJ goes to a thousand weddings, it is up to the DJ to take control, guide the bride and groom through the reception, and give them confidence that you will make sure it’s the best day of their lives. 

Kids (and their parents) only go through your class once, but you teach the grade or class for 35 years. They are nervous and don’t know what to expect. Your job is to ease their anxiety. How? Communication. It’s imperative that you engage your students and their parents in constant communication: email, Twitter and yes, even the phone need to be in your toolbox. I often say the phone is the most underused piece of educational technology today. Make the call home; nothing is more powerful in reducing anxiety than hearing the voice of another human being.

I loved working as a mobile DJ. I love working as an educator even more. But truth be told, DJing taught me a lot about being a better educator.

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3 thoughts on “If the Dance Floor Is Empty, Change the Song (and other lessons educators can learn from a mobile DJ)

  1. Dr. Clark, Carrie Hutchinson (a good friend of mine) posted your “Snow Days” post on Facebook today. After reading that I looked at your blog and bookmarked it. There is a lot of wisdom and feeling here. Thank you for sharing it with us! I think this particular post is one I am going to share with my staff next week. – Lynn Villa, Principal at Wilcox Primary School in Twinsburg

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