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EP 47 – Joe Dombrowski: Finding Humor in Teaching

In this episode, I interview Joe “Mr. D” Dombrowski. Joe broke the internet in 2017 with a fake spelling test that he gave to his 4th grade class as an April Fools prank. Joe has been performing and writing comedy professionally since 2010 which is when he got his start in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Joe and I chat about how he uses his huge fan base and comedy to bring awareness and advocate for change in the systematic issues that teachers face.

Listen to the episode in the podcast player below, or find it on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

It’s Healthy to Have Multiple Passions

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Hello, Joe, how are you doing today?

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh my God, so good. This is my first thing of the day today.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Oh, I thought you were going to save your first podcast. This is my very first podcast interview.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh, no. Honestly, it’s so funny, my whole day to day is all podcasts interviews for both others and my own. So, this is the first one. You got me fresh.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Well, thank you so much for joining us.

I have been a huge fan for forever and I’m sure that my audience is probably familiar with who you are, but for anybody who’s just kind of learning about you or hearing your voice for the very first time, can you give me a little insight into your experience in teaching and then why you are pretty well known in the teacher world?

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Yeah, for sure. Joe Dombrowski. I have been an elementary teacher. This would be my 12th year in education. All elementary, all elementary gen ed. I have taught everything kindergarten through sixth grade with the exception of first and second. Love it. Love teaching, fabulous profession, not anything that I regret at all.

However, I think it’s healthy to have multiple passions and my other passion has always been comedy. I was actually… A little unknown fact, I was a stand up comedian when I was eight years old for my third grade talent show. So funny how things come full circle.

Now I am a full time stand up comic touring the world and, like you said, a lot of teachers may know me because I do a lot of teacher comedy. Keeping it real about education, saying all the things that teachers can’t say, which kind of built up this niche but also very broad audience of people who are teachers, are parents, want to hear about teaching, are interested in hearing funny stories about kids.

The audience is pretty massive due to some viral videos that happened a while back that I’m sure we’ll get into. That’s me in a nutshell.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I think that actually segues into this next question really well because in your comedy on your Instagram, your TikTok videos, all of your presence, you are very, very honest.

You make a lot of jokes that a lot of teachers can resonate with, but you do so in a way that keeps a really positive attitude to find the humor in usually pretty stressful situations. Has that always come naturally to you?

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh yeah, that’s just who I am. The funny thing about it, too, is people who know me, like childhood friends and cousins and family members, they’ll say this when they come to my shows and they say this when they watch my videos online, they’re like, “That’s just Joey who we’ve always known, who would light up a room when he would come to a birthday party, or whatever it was.”

So, it’s really just me and who I am. I have always been unfiltered. You know when you’re in a meeting, especially like a staff meeting, and everybody is thinking this one thing about what is being directed to us but nobody says anything? I am not that girl. I am the person who will be in the meeting, I’ll be like, “Actually, no.” That’s just who I’ve been.

But the thing is I don’t think I’m crass. I don’t think I’m aggressive. I don’t think I’m a blue by any means, but I speak my mind through the lens of comedy because I feel like that’s an inviting way to get people to think or at least open their mind a little bit to your side of the story, which is what I do in my comedy. It’s a lot of teaching. It’s a lot of teaching stuff, right?

But I wrote it in a very broad way and my goal there is really to have non-teachers come to my show, which it wasn’t always this way but my shows are now about 50/50. 50% teachers, 50% muggles, which is my term for non-teachers.

What I really want is I want those non-teachers to laugh like crazy. Then, go in their car and continue laughing with their partner and turn to them and say, “Why are we laughing at this? This is terrible that teachers have to go through this. We should do something about that.”

The reason that I want that to happen is because the truth of the matter is it’s non-teachers who make the decisions for teachers and if I can infiltrate their minds through the vessel of comedy. I feel like I’m making a bigger impact and arguably even a bigger impact than what was in the classroom. So, there is strategy behind these jokes.

Using Teacher Skills Outside of the Classroom

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I love getting that insight I guess I never really like dove in and thought about the way that you were structuring some of the jokes because I have followed you and like lurked on you for a while. I also love that you talked about, teachers are human beings and they’re going to have other passions as well and yours has been comedy.

With that, you still have a teacher brain. For me my passion started to become business, which was not something that I actually thought that I would be really passionate about learning about, but I love it.

Do you feel like your teacher brain makes you more enthusiastic and go into deeper dives into learning about comedy and like comedy writing structure?

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh, yeah. Being a teacher made me a better comic and being comic made me a better teacher, for sure. My kindergarteners were my worst hecklers. Worse than the 45 year old drunk men at a 10:30 show on a Tuesday.

My kindergarteners made me stronger. Also teaching, especially teaching kindergarten, but teaching period is the art of being able to edutain. You have to keep their attention and their minds are so underdeveloped that keeping their attention is quite literally a circus and you’re the ringleader.

Then I’m taking that skill and using that Hogwarts magic, if you will, on a room of 500 adults who will turn you off on a dime. You have to be able to change your voice, use characters, do act outs, have a story that arcs, do callbacks to other jokes that you had before. You have to be able to do all that, which you also have to do in the classroom.

I don’t think people realize how undeniably well teaching and comedy go hand-in-hand. It was a gift. It was a gift that I actually got to do both.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: My teaching style was very hard on trying to be the funny, cool teacher, trying to keep lessons engaging because that’s how I saw that people were hooked.

Those little people, those little fifth grade people were hooked in and they were paying attention to me and more likely to try things that they would have been hesitant to if I came in today we’re learning fractions.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Yep.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: They were a lot more receptive to things, and I love that about you. That’s one of those viral videos of what kind of brought you out and I think made you go so famous is really emphasizing your passion to make learning fun for your students.

How did your students always react to your sense of humor in the classroom?

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Well, the goal since day one, my goal and mantra has always been to make school a place where kids want to be not where they have to be, and I just did that by being myself. Naturally, I mean, I don’t mean toot my own horn, but I’m kind of a funny person. That is the thing.

It’s common misconception people will be like “I bet the kids love you!” Vast majority, yes. But there are a few kids who don’t resonate with this teaching style and that’s cool too because I feel like the detriment in the education system is that teachers feel like they have to be this cookie cutter individual of what teachers are.

I call them “Mary Poppins teachers” because they’re, on the outside, practically perfect in every way and I think that’s harmful to students, because students need to see diversity. They need to see difference in personality, in culture, in style, in connection, they need to see that difference year after year, after year, and students should have a teacher who they don’t actually connect with so deeply every once in a while so that they can learn how do I still function when I’m not necessarily naturally drawn to the leader? I think that’s healthy.

Being myself in the classroom allowed me to be a better teacher and putting my own “zhuzh” on the curriculum allowed me to be a better teacher, too. I think we need to foster teachers letting loose and kind of like making it their own in the classroom. It’s so sad that people just don’t think like that. It really just grinds my gears.

When Social Media Meets Teaching

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I do feel like now that there’s a lot of social media teachers that are letting people kind of get a glimpse….

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh, don’t get me started.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Okay, I can say some sassy things, too, but I would say that there are a lot of people who are showing what their own unique teaching style looks like and it’s making people who maybe hadn’t had exposure to what different teaching styles would look like.

It’s an easier way for them to actually see other teachers are doing their own unique thing that gives me the permission to be myself in the classroom as well and I do like that. I like seeing….

JOE DOMBROWSKI: I’ll give you that.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Okay, now you can say your salty comment.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: No, no, it’s not salty. It’s not salty. So when I actually started to put some of my things that I was doing in the classroom online, it’s because I worked on… My team was two, me and one other teacher. We didn’t not get along, but we didn’t vibe. She was type A. Like A A, and not Alcoholics Anonymous, like A A, and I’m total type B.

I thrive in the chaos, my desk is nothing but piles but baby I know what those piles mean. That’s me. So we weren’t kind of like doing it. Then when I turn to the internet to look at these other teachers and what they were doing, not only to give me hope but it gave me more ideas to implement things because there’s teachers all over the world who are also teaching fourth grade and I can pull what they’re doing.

But we need to take say to teachers, that if you dare to compare you will wind up in despair. There’s a mask behind social media and the vast majority of the social media teachers are giving you the highlight reel, as they should, but you’ve got to keep that in mind and realize that their day isn’t perfect.

They’re going through struggles, there are things that you’re not seeing here. Sure, they’re reading bins are perfectly color coded and pristine, but can they teach guided reading. You know what I mean? Just a little grain of salt.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I feel like this might be very controversial to say because I haven’t ever said it on the podcast.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh, I love this.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: But there are some classrooms with perfectly colored bins that are actually studio sets in the back of people’s houses that have quit teaching long years before.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Bada boom, baby, bada boom. Quick shout out to my friend, Michelle Griffo, from Apples and ABCs, who openly says, “I’m not in the classroom right now, this is my business.” But she’s like one in a million. You know what I mean?

There’s so many people who do that, and I’m just like, “Come on.” Do you agree with me too? If we were real about that and being able to capitalize on all the skills that teaching taught you to be able to do something else because let’s just like call it what it is. You’re not going to make no money honey.

You’re going to live this life of poverty like I had. My first five years, I’m not even kidding you, there were multiple times where I would get my paycheck, pay my bills, which is my car loan, my rent, my student loans. Pay all of my bills and then the next day after being paid have to choose from groceries or gas in my car. Honest story.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I barely made my rent living in Los Angeles on my teaching salary with a Master’s.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: With the master’s, right? Me, too. I remember too when I got my first paycheck, I asked my mom. I was like, “Is this right?” She laughed in my face. She’s like, “Yes, this is right.”

It was three numbers. Three numbers and the first one wasn’t even a nine. Okay, that’s an issue. Then, on top of that, moving out and I was working three jobs. I was teaching but before I would go teach, I’d wake up in the morning be a spin instructor, and then after I’d go do sets in the club, comedy clubs for 20, 50, 100 bucks if I’m lucky, just to make up for that.

I’m exhausted, but that is the life of a teacher. If you can use all these amazing skills that this beautiful profession has taught you and it’s not working for you, because you need to, what? Survive, then baby survive!

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: 100%. Yes. Just the façade of keeping it optimistic and talking about all the great things about teaching, but also being real if you have left the classroom and your Instagram looks like you’re in a classroom and you know that 50% of your audience might be struggling and need some realness.

It might be time to be transparent, so kudos to your friend for being transparent and saying, “I did what I needed to do for my own mental health and that’s okay for other people as well.” Mental health, financial health.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh, I’m so grateful for this podcast. Honestly, I wish more people were doing what you’re doing. I truly I mean that.

Leaving Teaching for Comedy

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I struggle a little bit and I know that everybody who listens to the podcast knows that I am very intentional about the way that I approach this message, but I know that it’s not a one size fits all answer for anybody.

I urge anyone who’s listening to this, especially because they’re just listening to this because Joe’s on and I know that there’s probably going to be a potential for that, to go back and listen to episode one or two where I talk about the signs and the different things that you should do before thinking of leaving teaching.

But it is 100% okay to leave teaching if you have really thought about it and it’s been something that your heart, mind has struggled with for years. It’s okay for you to take that next step and take a chance. With that I want to kind of push a little bit into your decision to leave teaching for comedy.

It was a couple years ago, the first time that you left for comedy. Did you struggle with that decision?

JOE DOMBROWSKI: I did struggle with that for quite a bit and kind of like looping back to what we were just talking about, it’s a perfect segue. I was in a really dark spot in my career. Just completely under supported with kids who needed so much more than what I and the school was able to offer.

Crying every day when I would come home thinking such negative things about myself, and sadly, the profession. I was not a good teacher, I was not a good teacher at that year and I made the conscious decision to leave. I think that that was the best decision that I could have made for the kids and for the classroom. This is one of the hardest, under represented, under appreciated professions in the world and it is hard.

Teachers need to be able to say that if you are burnt out and it is not for you, it is okay to leave for the sake of the kids. They need teachers who are like there for them. They need teachers who are ready to go, recharge, and do it. But it also might not be leaving. It’s a detriment that we have this mindset that teachers have to teach the same grade forever. If you’re getting a little burnt out, go to sixth.

See if you like it. Drop down to kindergarten. Maybe it’s going to recharge you in that thinking on your feet every single day, whatever it is, change is going to make you a better person. But for some, you might need to be real with yourself and say, “I got to go.”

There’s this weird stigma that when you leave teaching, you get this scarlet letter of like you couldn’t take it or you’re now less than. I think that is so wrong because we need people in this profession who are going to care about the kids and if you mentally cannot do that at the time being, for whatever reason, it is so honorable to recognize that within yourself and step out.

So my journey was…. Whoa, and there was that and now let me actually get to the question. I’m so sorry.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: You’ve been dying to have a vent session about this.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Well, you know what? It’s kind of funny that you said that. Feel free to edit this out if you want but I don’t often get opportunities to speak about this in real time. So God, I’m already just so appreciative that you asked me to be a guest because I feel like this is where these things get said.

Yes, I’m a very funny person, and yes I do comedy, but I have thoughts and passion and depth to who I am also. It’s cool to be able to not just be the funny guy. This is great. Thank you for having me. Back to my journey.

I was teaching fifth and juggling comedy. It was at this point where it was really difficult and definitely was at the point where I was like, “Okay, this is hard. I’m really not making the money and I have an opportunity to really take on my other passion which is stand up.” I had an opportunity to take my tour to the next level, and not only do a full tour of the US, but Australia and Canada as well. It was one of those things that you just can’t say no to.

So, I took it and left that year. Do not regret that decision by any means. To make it in comedy, to be able to support yourself full time, is a real step. I’m touring Canada, the pandemic happens, all my dates are gone. I come back and I’m just like sitting here with all this time on my hands, waiting for the world to reopen, and I’m like, “Hey, it’s not that I don’t like teaching. I’ve always loved it.”

But here I am sitting here doing nothing with skills and degrees to be able to do this at a time when teachers are getting out of this profession more than ever because of health reasons or whatever it is, maybe I should give my skills for a minute.

Right around the time my brain starts going like that a kindergarten position opens up down the street from my house because they opened up more sections of classes to make the class sizes smaller and they needed a kindergarten position.

Applied. Got it, and it was the best year of my teaching career, the best. It was my first year teaching kindergarten. I found that that was the place for me. I absolutely loved every single minute of it and it was a joy. Then the year ended and I was offered to come back, but also the world was opening up a little bit and I had an opportunity to really take my tour to the next, next level.

I was given an opportunity to be able to tour and teach at the same time, but I decided that that might not be appropriate because when you leave your five year old baby with the teacher, there’s so much worry and those parents as is, I don’t need them worried that their teachers traveling the country then coming back on Mondays to be with their kid again. Plus other teachers in the building, I don’t want them to be uncomfortable being around me.

So, I decided that this was going to be the year that I did not go back for real. If I have a huge chunk of time where I’m able to quarantine for a little bit and maybe go back and sub and help out by all means I will. But I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be in the classroom right now. With that said, I’m quadrupling down on comedy and it’s been alarmingly successful. I’m loving my life and where things are going and I have never been happier.

Regardless of where my career takes me, I’m always going to have the backs of educators and paint them in the light that they need to be lit.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: You left so that you are now…. You’ve made yourself bubble boy, you are now living in this little quarantine, that’s a really respectful and responsible decision that you made, and I did not know that you did that and so kudos to you. I want to talk about a couple things that I heard you say.

First, talking about the stigma that teachers face with leaving the classroom when they know they are doing a disservice to their students. It’s so funny, and it’s something that I talk about a lot, is teaching is like the one career that is you sign an invisible contract and it’s your forever career.

Whether or not it’s the first career you chose when you were 19 years old. Whether you are in the classroom for three years, for 17 years, the second that you decide, “Hey, I might not do this anymore,” the stigma you know starts to, the wave comes down on you have you must not care about the kids even if you cared about them for 17 years or three years or went and dedicated getting a master’s for this profession.

It’s very hard for people to accept that you can do both things. You can still care about kids and still have to walk away and not know what’s going on on the other end of that decision to walk away. It is usually not an overnight flippant decision. It’s something that you thought was going to be your “forever career” and it’s something that probably kept you awake at night.

But I also love how open you are about the idea of coming back because I am still the same way. I don’t know what school would hire me looking at my podcast page. They might say, “Well, she’s got fight or flight syndrome, she’s going to leave halfway through the school year.” But I always want to keep it open because we change and adapt as human beings.

We constantly are growing and evolving, and keeping an open mind to I don’t know what’s going to happen in five years or 10 years, and I did love working with students. So, I love both of those things that you touched. Did you— and if this is too personal, just tell me to kick rocks

JOE DOMBROWSKI: I’m an open book.

Doing What’s Best for Your Mental Health

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: —have to explore any counseling or therapy to help you come to that decision? Because that is something that’s very common with a lot of teachers who are thinking of leaving.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Did I have to? Yes. Did I actually go through with it? No. That is like a detriment on my part because I’m going to tell you… Growing up as a little gay boy in the Midwest, that is called childhood trauma. So do I need to check myself in? Yeah.

Comedy is literally releasing your trauma onstage to strangers. So I think that comedy is kind of like how I save myself. I let it out through this lens of humor and I feel like safe and protected. But should I actually do it? Yes. Have I been meaning to? Yes. Am I an advocate for it? Oh, yes.

But I have allowed my “Detroit hustles harder” mindset to just work non stop. I do definitely make time for self care, I block off time on my schedule for me.

Sometimes if I have like an insanely busy week, I’ll take one day and tell my whole team don’t call me, just let me be. I want to sit on my couch and watch Netflix all day and eat Thai food and just leave it on the counter and then wake up the next day and then clean my apartment. That’s what I want. So, no actual help, just helping myself.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I love that you block off time for self care too, and that’s something that it feels so silly. I’ve had people come on and they’re experts in this. It feel so silly to have to say that we have to but by nature, if we are people who go into the helping profession, we are naturally inclined to put everybody else’s needs and priorities over our own needs and priorities and this does not come naturally to us.

We burn ourselves out in every profession. Even after you leave the classroom, you are going to struggle with you have to write it down to remember to not be helping, to not be taking care of other people’s needs, or working ahead to make sure it’s easier on other people. You have to work on yourself. It feels silly, but it’s just something that teachers struggle with.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: I quote RuPaul all the time and it’s so true and teaching more than anything else. “If you can’t love yourself, how are you going to love somebody else?”

I don’t know if you’re familiar with child psychologist, Dr. Jody Carrington at all? But she always says, “As teachers, you’re expected to hold the hearts of these babies, but if nobody’s holding the heart of the teacher, then how can you expect them to do that job.”

It’s so undeniably true that if nothing in your life is helping you, then you cannot be perfect for the kids. The kids need teachers who are present, who are there, who are ready to take it on, who are ready to go. There are options that people don’t know about.

I’m going to go ahead and say, anybody who works here in a public school who is listening to this, and you’ve worked for I’m going to say maybe five or more years, you have the option to take a one year sabbatical. Take one year. Your job will be guaranteed when you come back. Maybe not in the same greater building, but you’ll have a job when you come back.

Take one year and explore you. Take another job in something else you’ve always wanted to do. Travel for a year if you have the financial stability to do that. See what your options are and take them. Also, people are so afraid that when you leave, that you’ll get a job in another district and you won’t be granted the years and you’re going to come back at base pay.

Yeah, that’s true for some places, it is not true for everywhere. There are a lot of other schools who will even let you negotiate your salary. People don’t talk about that. It’s this fear of I’m going to lose everything I worked so hard for but you could also gain. My mom always instilled with me that without risk there is no reward. With that I always choose risk because the reward can be so high.

That is something that teachers would tell their students, right? So why don’t you believe it for yourself?

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I wish I could really quick do a google so that I don’t say the wrong word, but I’m just going to go ahead and have a word salad moment, and you can correct me if you know the right term for it.

Is it conscious bias, where people are looking for something that confirms what they are already thinking? So they’re thinking, “I can’t leave and go to a different district” because it sounds scary. It’s a lot of work, and you don’t know if it’s going to be better over there.

So one person says, “Oh, I went over there and you’re not going to be able to get the same salary.” So they say, “Okay, well, that’s my data, that’s my research. That one person said that thing.” I don’t know if it’s conscious bias. I don’t remember what it’s called.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: I don’t know either, but it is true that people naturally seek out advice of which they wish to hear. You’ll even go to a person who left, who you might know is going to give you the answer you want, and then you hear it, and you’re there with it.

Nothing in life is guaranteed, even though I’m saying this. It might not work out for you, but it could so take the opportunity, do your own. Call different schools, see if they’re hiring. They’re legally obligated to share their salary schedule. Look at your options. They’re there for you.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I’ve heard from so many people. I thought some of the first pieces of advice that I give to teachers who are thinking of leaving, to change grades, because sometimes your grade level teachers suck and they make you feel uncomfortable.

If you got moved to third grade, you might have better time with classroom management, you might mesh better with that team, and that might be the shift that you need. Even just changing districts and demographics, if you haven’t tried that approach, it’s something to explore before potentially leaving the career.

You can leave the career and be the happiest teacher in the world because we’re all human beings and you never sign that invisible contract. I want to switch gears for a second because I wanted to talk a little bit more about your time in the classroom. I am imagining having a social media account, and going viral in any way opens up a lot of opportunities for fun criticism from parents.

Did that ever happen to you during your teaching career?

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Yes, but the truth is not as often as people would think. People often think that the parents must hate this and have a lot to say about it. It really only happened maybe like once or twice and both times were like not bad. Not mean, just skeptical.

I think that that’s appropriate because parents should be curious that their teachers doing something like this. I do not advise anybody to try to do what I’m doing unless you got the chops to take the heat because it is rough. But for the parents for the most part, after a while, I think they realized I don’t paint the kids in a negative light.

I don’t give out their names, I do not show their faces. In my podcast, I would change names and genders for the safety of the students, and really understanding the legality here but more than the legality the betterment of the child. I think they really understood that.

Also when they understood my why, I’m actually using comedy as the vessel to better my profession, that’s when they were really like, “Okay, let this guy go. Let him do his thing.” Which was cool. The couple times where I’ve had like concern or criticism from parents, luckily I’ve had bosses that very much would deflect that and say, “You should talk to him about this, not me, because I support what he does. I would love for you to engage with him about it so you can understand why he does what he does.”

Those have been beautiful conversations. It’s other people, it’s like the jealous trolls online, keyboard warriors, who have everything to say and behind the safety of their computer will just unleash and it’s like baby come for me, I’m not the one.

The Environment You’re in Can Make a Big Difference

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: That’s amazing. I really thought that it was going to be the opposite. That was my assumption, but I had a very negative last school year. It was a very toxic work environment for me and I had just moved from another district to move to Los Angeles to be with my now fiancé.

I remember the parents were trying to find me on social media and then very loud, and lots of complaints about “She’s too young to teach our students. What makes her qualified?” I wasn’t that young. So, thank you. I think I was still in my early 30s then, but they kept saying, “She looks like Katy Perry.” I was like, “Is that a complaint? Is that are you writing to the district? I’m confused.”

But lots of pushback just based on physical appearance and really trying to…

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Disgusting.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Yeah, very strange. Just for that one school.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Can I ask? Did you teach in private school?

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: No. It was a public school, which I don’t say the name of the district or anything like that, but I did have the student-actor gifted class.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh, poor you.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: So, the parents were very entitled in a way that was also very much from the admin side would kind of bend over backwards where I was reprimanded for giving the students a spelling test.

I gave them the pretest on a Monday, and then the post test was going to be on a Friday. I remember the principal was very upset with me that I did not let her know that I had planned to start giving spelling tests in my classroom.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh, micro managing. Micro managing.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, because the parents came to her with this concern and I had to politely say, “Why would they come to the principal over something that they could easily confirm with me in ClassDojo? Why do you continue to engage in conversations that are not…”

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Annoying.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Yeah, but it’s okay.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: The vast majority of my career was in Title I schools and there was so much beauty there because the parents I feel were very much like, “This person cares about kids enough to take care of my kid when I’m working two jobs, also, to get food on the table. So I’m going to let them do their thing.”

Which I very much appreciated when we would have that sense of understanding with each other. The year that I sold my soul to the devil and went to a very bougie private school, it was a rude awakening about the concerns that they would have and the things that they would write me, I’m like, baby…. God I keep saying that. I don’t know why I’m patronizing these parents for today.

But I would be like, “I don’t even have the time to talk to you about this, how do you even have the time to think about this? You need a job? Because your job is not to scrutinize me.”

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was mostly the people that I feel like had a little bit too much time on their hands. I want to dig into this a little bit, because I told you, I lurk on you a lot.

What’s your beef with the fifth grade? That’s all I taught and so I have some strong opinions here.

The Grade You Teach Can Matter, Too

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh, me too. I am grateful for the experience because I also think that it’s weird that in teaching, you get these certificates that are such a broad scopes. I’m certified to teach kindergarten through eighth grade. There’s like, the difference between each grade level is so immense that can’t possibly be legal, but it is.

So I dabbled in fifth, and first of all, I’ll say this. It’s not for me. I’m glad it was for you and I can’t wait to hear why, but it is not for me. First of all, it smells. Second of all, I cannot deal with the attitudes because a fifth grader…

When a kindergartener wants to be mad at you, they will stomp their foot and say, “Oh, you’re a poop.” Or something, and then you pretend like you’re not laughing and you move on with your day. A fifth grader will look into the depths of your soul and rip out the one thing that you’re so self-conscious about, and you’re just like, “Oh my god, like I can’t handle it.”

Then the attitude, all of that, the prepubescent energy, I was les miserable. Not to mention I’m not smart enough to teach fifth grade. They were like, “Mr. D you have to teach social studies.” I’m like, “The only thing I know about social studies is one time, I met a drag queen named Nina Pinta Santa Maria, but other than that, I don’t know anything about this.”

Still had teach it and I was just like, “I don’t like this curriculum. I’m not even into it, can I go back to kindergarten where I can teach like volcanoes and dinosaurs?” That’s my jam.

Which is why I think it’s important that teachers explore other grade levels because I now know that fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth is not for me. I think that that’s a good thing to be aware of. But no, no, no, no. Never again. Then, teaching sex ed. Oh, oh, was it hilarious? Yes. But was it like anything ever want to put myself through again? No. No.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I can confirm that’s some of the most traumatic times of my life. Those poor students during those sex ed conversations. Oh, that’s funny, we had a different perspective because I thought fifth grade was the last leg of if they tried to hurt my feelings, they weren’t quite there to find my weaknesses.

I’ve heard from junior high teachers who had someone say, “Oh, Miss so and so, your bra’s old, your boobs are sagging.” She went home and she was like, “They’re 100% right. They were 100% right, I need a new bra.” That’s where my biggest concern was, but my fifth grade students were independent enough to remind me of things like, “Is it Monday, get your journal out day?” I’m like, “Shoot, it sure is. Thank you.”

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh, see, I hated that. I hated that.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Kindergarten scares me so much, because I’m a worrier. I was not a fan of field trips or things where I would be responsible for people’s children’s safety and I felt like kindergarten at all times.

Maybe it’s because the first time that I subbed kindergarten, it was one of the first sub experience that I had, A little girl said, “I can’t breathe.” I’m like, “I’m sorry, what does that mean? Hold on, let’s call the cops, let’s call the ambulance. Like, what? What does I can’t breathe mean?”

Then another little kid started crying and was saying things in Spanish, he was an English language learner. But I was like, “What is he saying?” They’re like, “He said, he can’t breathe.” I’m like, “No, I don’t like this. I’m out.” I don’t know what to do here.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh my God, I thrive in that chaos.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Just children saying that they can’t breathe.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Well, no, but I feel like my ADHD thrives in kindergarten. Where there is so many fires that you have to put out in the same millisecond that I can do it. But like you said too everything that you’re saying about fifth grade and why you like, it is exactly why I don’t like them correcting me on my stuff. I’m like, “Oh, God, like, this isn’t me. I should be better at this.”

But in kindergarten, they don’t know school. They don’t know anything. So everything that you do, it’s like the first. So they’re like, “Oh, this is what school is. There is no wrong, there is no forgetting.” Because the teacher just like changes every once in a while, and I was like, “Aha! This is good for me.”

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: But I also like laughing with them, seeing them become funny, and not necessarily laughing at them, and fifth grade was right where some of them were really starting to shine. I remember one student where I could not give them a high five. I had to Mary Poppins teacher it, but I said, “Everybody put your balls away.”

He said, “That’s what she said.” All the class laughed, and I was like, “God, that was such a good one. Good for you. You earned the praise of your peers with that. Good for you.”

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Yeah, I feel you. I feel you.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I don’t feel like I would have gotten that in kindergarten, and that’s such a strange thing but….

JOE DOMBROWSKI: You wouldn’t. I love when they don’t even know they’re being funny because they’re just talking to you. They’re just like saying things. I had a kid— I can laugh at myself, I can always take a joke on myself— and I dyed my hair before I left for tour, and when you change anything about your physical appearance to a kindergarten class, they’re like, “What is happening? Are you the same person?”

That is kindergarten. I dyed my hair and they’re like, “Why did you do that?” I’m like, “I wanted to look a little bit younger.” One of my students said, “But what are you going to do about your face?” I loved that. I was like, “What am I going to do about my face? You’re not wrong.” That’s the type of stuff that I laugh at and she, to this day, has no idea how terrible that is to say to somebody, which is why I love it.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I definitely had students draw a picture of me and at the time, I don’t know how they knew I was single, but they were like, “Here’s a picture of your imaginary boyfriend.”

He had a T-shirt on that said, “I’m old.” That was unprompted, I don’t know why he was wearing an I’m old T-shirt, but I still am a fan of that.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: I would be, too.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I mean it’s a good burn, whoever Ms. Williams is dating he’s got to be really, really confidently shouting from the mountaintops how old he is.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: I love that.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I want to talk a little bit about what’s your next move? What are you up to? Also the Social Studies Podcast, which is blowing up and huge and fun to listen to.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: It is blowing up. That was a really awesome quarantine project that I took on. So what am I up to? I am currently on tour. I don’t know when this comes out, but cities that I’m coming to that you could probably catch me at.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: October?

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh yeah, that is coming out in October?

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: So San Diego, all of Texas, Irvine, Tempe, Nashville, there’s more. You can check out my website, mrdtimes3.com, for tickets. So, that’s really sucking out my time. I’ve been filming a couple of commercials, which is cool.

That was really interesting a direction I never saw myself going into, but really liked it. I just shot a commercial with Chevy for their back-to-school campaign, which is really, really special and very nice. Other than that, just writing, writing, writing and working on some bigger projects that I would love to launch in 2022. We’ll see if that happens, but the podcast is really my baby.

We just started it on a whim, being bored in quarantine and it took off. Especially, when I started talking about what happened in kindergarten every day. Since then, not being in kindergarten, I’ve pivoted and I take submissions from the fans and I read about the chaos that has happened in their teaching life and then I read to the audience what has gone on and give my commentary on the chaosity that is the education system.

It is great. Called Social Studies. You can get it wherever you listen, your podcast and it is just fun. A fun little thing to listen on your drive to work.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Well, I am so happy that you came on here and especially that you are still dedicating yourself to continuing to impact education in the way that you are.

Whether it’s bringing laughter to stressed out teachers days or shedding a light on the issues that education is facing by promoting it to your larger audience. Kudos to you and I’m just so excited that I got to meet you finally.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Oh, well thank you. This has been a joy and please keep me posted when this comes out. I’ll definitely put this on blast for you. This has been a fun one.

DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Awesome. Thank you so much.

JOE DOMBROWSKI: Thank you.

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