Mr D, internet-famous teacher, shares his secrets


Trista Sobeck

Mr. Joe Dombrowski is an energetic teacher with just a little more than six years experience in the classroom. He teaches elementary school at a Title I school in Michigan and has a passion for education.

Pretty typical, right? Well, this particular teacher is far from typical. Joe, known, as Mr. D in his classroom and online, has a global following on his social media platforms and has recently been on “The Ellen Show.” Yes, with Ellen Degeneres. And now, future educators, current teachers and leaders in the field are packing rooms across the country to hear him talk. With a cult-like following, Joe Dombrowski is making teaching cool again.

We caught up with him in September when he spoke at ASU to a roomful of fans and soon-to-be educators.

mr d on stage

Finding your tribe

“I’m pretty relatable to education students,” he explains. “I’ve always had a platform on social media; it started as part of my master’s in educational leadership and administration.” Social media was simply a part of a class and an experiment in connecting people in a global sense, he explains “I was always posting uplifting, positive messages, engaging with other teachers online because I think teachers learn the best from each other.”

With his main goal of reaching other teachers by sharing tools, strategies and ideas, on anything from classroom management to curriculum, Joe’s relatable and fun personality quickly made him popular. “I just want teachers to understand how precious the profession is and how amazing it is. I want them to know that they are really making a difference.” What educators — newbies and seasoned alike —  need is to know they are all in the most important profession. And Joe is bringing that message to them.

However, it was when he posted a video of a prank he played on the kids in his classroom on April Fool’s Day that he caught the eye of Ellen Degeneres and quickly became a viral sensation. At the same time, he became a hero to young teachers everywhere.

Now, Joe is sharing his tips and tricks, his stories and his passion, inspiring all types of educators by meeting them in person. He’s packing lecture halls — big and small — and keynoting at professional organization events on culture-building in schools. But his favorite by far is speaking at universities: “I love picking new and pre-service teachers’ fresh brains and talking to them about all exciting things that are going on in education and giving them my insights,” he says.

The highlight reel

Joe has found the golden ticket that made him go viral. It’s that magic moment that every person active on social media strives for and what every brand pays millions of dollars to ad agencies to achieve. And his audience is teachers — a particular group of folks that are always in need of a bit of a boost.

Once you start digging around on his social media, you yourself may be convinced to go into teaching because it looks so fun. But proceed with caution. Teaching is a serious profession that takes education, skills, desire and tenacity.

“My social media presence is just a fraction of my day,” explains Joe. “What you’re seeing there is not the whole day. My students are very much in a routine of time and place.

Joe goes on to explain that his students are trained to know what they’re getting into when they come into his classroom and are extremely excited. “And like all kids,” he says, “they are going to test the waters.”

You may expect that a teacher who has developed a bird call in order to get his kids to line up in recess be extremely fun-loving and relaxed. However, in order to have a lot of fun with a group of 35-plus kids on a daily basis, one must set a protocol. What’s his secret?

“That first week of school for me is really helping my kids differentiate between time and place,” he explains. After all, how does one teach what’s appropriate but by letting them experience it?

“When we are in the first month of school, my students start to understand that there is a time to be silly and a time to have fun. But I work on getting them to learn quickly that once that moment is over we get right back to being focused again,” he says. “And when we do have those silly times and there’s a lot of energy in the room that freedom to let go is really what’s getting their little minds back to focusing so they are able to bring it back to the curriculum.” he explains.

Because let’s be honest, kids really need to have an outlet for their creativity and energy during the day.

So Joe has decided that teaching routine is paramount. “If I’m going to have fun and be silly with a bunch of kids, they have to be prepared.”

Joe explains that he’s not just teaching kids spelling, facts and how to communicate effectively. He’s training them for adult life. “I like to tell the teachers I work with that the academics and data are at the forefront of their growth, but what we really want to understand is that we are molding the next members of society who are going to take our place,” he says. “But when when does that training start? That starts when they walk into school.”

  students listen to Mr. D

Giving a voice and a platform

Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of a teacher’s daily job is to motivate and also to have students take ownership of their own work. Joe says he has discovered an interesting strategy.

“My classroom in the beginning of the year gets a lot of critique because it feels empty,” he says. “But that’s done very intentionally to give students the space to show off all their hard work. So when we write articles or work on a paper, it’s that publishing piece that matters. Really, what I’m doing is giving them a platform,” he explains.

Students, children and adults alike, need a voice and need to be heard. Teachers have a unique opportunity to provide both. “I’m always displaying their work in the classroom, says Joe. “I have the students not only choose how they are going to display but what they are going to display; they pick it out on their own,” he says, adding that he also asks them what they are proud of and why. It is then that the piece gets displayed.

Serious fun

“People are always saying to me, ‘Joe, you’re like a teacher,” rather than affirming that he is indeed a professional educator. This is probably because not everyone has a strong grasp of what a teacher’s entire day or life is like. Joe isn’t like a teacher. He is a teacher —  to his very core. He never misses an opportunity to explain patiently and make the kids understand.

Mr. D speaks

Joe explains that during his undergrad years he didn’t really know what he wanted to do with his life. (Sound familiar?) “I thought teaching was a cool idea,” he says. After a taste of working with children with terminal illnesses at a summer camp, he knew teaching was more than just a cool idea.

“Through my fraternity, I volunteered at a summer camp for kids with severe and terminal illnesses,” he says. “And I was able to witness these kids with such intense setbacks be kids for once and live without fear and take on challenges. I was motivating them to have fearlessness in their lives,” he continues.

“When I helped out a child who was in a wheelchair go up a tree and down a high ropes course and saw he was having the time of his life, it was moments like this that made me say, ‘Yeah I’m doing this for the rest of my life, for sure.’”

Knowing your role

“I teach in a Title I school,” Joe says. “It’s the most rewarding teaching I think any teacher could ever go into.” He explains that the experience a teacher gets in such a school is really all the things you don’t learn in school; “you’ll find out how to handle all the things they don’t teach you,” he affirms. “When you’re in a Title 1, not only are you getting the academics across, you are even more so playing a role in creating these humans — most of the time these kids see their teachers more than they see their parents.

You’re not just their teacher, you’re a role model for their lives, and when a student really depends on a teacher for that aspect it really makes you realize how important education is. 

Joe continues to explain that all kids (whether in Title I schools or not) deserve the strong educational foundation to get through tough times and work hard to find themselves in a great spot.

“I care about my students’ lives outside the classroom,” he says. Whether it's a sporting event or a birthday, Joe’s there. It’s because of this tight connection that Joe learned early on how to create healthy boundaries. “I tell my students that I am not their friend right from the beginning. Using the word ‘friend’ is not setting a good boundary. Instead, I tell my students: ‘I’m here to guide you, I’m here to make you better than you were when you walked into the room. I’m a role model and a leader. Not a friend.”               

Behind the sensation

Teachers have a big job. And Joe is no exception to this. So, what advice does he have for how to deal with stress? “I’m a spin instructor,” he says, explaining that he uses his talent in educating in yet another way. “I’m an active cycler and active in fitness. I have found that an active body and a sound mind is critical if you are going into the classroom,” he says.

Bottom line advice from Joe: “When you feel good about yourself you are able to give good of yourself.”

But where did this passion for education and public schools come from? “When I started school, I went to an underfunded school in the neighborhood,” he says. “But then a brand new public school opened and my parents took me there.”

He says it was like he was seeing in color for the first time. “All the teachers were invested and engaged. I was exposed to art and science as part of curriculum for the first tem. That’s when I fell in love with school.”

It was the engagement of the teachers at that school that made all the difference to him. So it’s not surprising to see how engaged Joe is as an an educator. Some new teachers may wonder how he gets away with some of the outlandish lengths he goes to in order to engage.

“I’m not a rule breaker, but a rule bender. If there are things in place that I see and they do not do a service to my entire classroom, I’m not afraid to break the mold and change what I was given,” he says.

“As long as I’m teaching the common core standards and giving my students the information they need to have, I’m going to find a way to get them what they need,” he explains.

“Nothing good ever happened by staying the same, but things happen when you take a little bit of a risk; and that’s really my philosophy for myself.”

So, take a risk, push buttons, ask questions and, as we like to say at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, be an intrapreneur. Educate like a boss.


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