Behind The Desk: DJ Cook

DJ Cook talks life experiences from film industry to teacher of the year

DJ Cook has been teaching for over 16 years but his journey to teachership was not a smooth one. His own high school career was, in his own words, “rough.”

“There were fights all the time. Half my class that I came in with freshman year didn’t graduate. It was a really poor rotten area to grow up in,” Cook said. “So I didn’t get a great high school education.” 

After graduating high school, he jumped from a double major in mechanical engineering and business administration at the University of Kansas to an economics major at UC Santa Barbara. 

“I got absolutely destroyed by engineering physics at a collegiate level. And I saw that pretty early because of the physics that was involved. At that point I decided, well I’ve got all this math and I’ve got all this science already,” Cook said. “What is something where I can take those classes and still get a major and that was economics for me.”

After graduating with an economics degree, Cook joined the film industry as a production assistant. He worked on two movies, “Road Trip” and “Old School” for a company in Montecito and eventually parlayed that job to work for ESPN.

“I was a production assistant and I was working 80-hour weeks all the time, like 16-hour days all the time. I was aging in dog years not human years and I could not have a life,” Cook said. “I got grinded to the bone doing that job.”

Cook ultimately decided to quit his job and take a break by backpacking in Europe with his friend for two and a half months. It was during his adventures that he “caught the bug” for teaching.

“While I was in Europe, that’s when I really caught the bug, the itch that needed to be scratched,” Cook said. “I wanted to teach because I was experiencing all this old European history.”

In 2007 his teaching career finally started at OPHS.

“When my first years of teaching ended, the great recession began. Teachers were getting pink slipped, basically I would take whatever was thrown at me. So I taught a bunch of classes [at OPHS]. Then I moved to Colorado, taught a bunch of classes and for my troubles that year, I got teacher of the year the same day I got laid off.”

After getting laid off, Cook debated staying in Colorado or moving back to California. It was his mother’s stage four cancer diagnosis that ultimately convinced him to move closer to home. So, Cook packed everything he owned in the bed of his truck and moved back to California.

“I scrambled and found a job in the city of Industry, which is not a pleasant place to live or be. I worked at a very rough school where a lot of the student’s relatives were in and out of the incarceration system. They had much bigger problems than What college am I going to get into? Is somebody going to have a gun, am I going to get beat up or are the cops going to be there?”

Through the hardships Cook witnessed both during his own high school experience and his teaching position in the city, he realized that “kids are kids no matter what they’re going through. Some have bigger and thicker walls to get through, but if you can establish trust with anybody, then you can really break through with anybody.”

In his own classrooms he tries to establish trust with his students by being curious about things like their favorite music, movies and games. His favorite class to teach is World History, because of both the students and the material.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with sophomores because they are in the last year of somebody being a kid and you can see that transition happen over the course of over a year,” Cook said. “Also, large parts of world history cover my own family history.”

Cook’s “historical heroes” are “the people in history that fight an impossible cause for the downtrodden. Somebody who is willing to stand up in the face of inevitable losses.”

Cook has a passion for history and educating his students, but he has also had difficulty dealing with some after the pandemic.

“It is not the students’ fault but there is a lack of psychological and emotional maturity by around two years. There is a price to pay for not actually learning anything and cheating on everything.”

Though Cook has had to make his classes “more accessible to the modern student” due to this knowledge gap, he has admitted that things are getting better. 

Cook is currently in the process of writing a textbook for his Geopolitics and the World Today class, which is one of the classes he created from scratch.