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Teacher, comedian Mr. D returns to CMU for 2019 Leadership Conference

Alumnus Joe Dombrowski (Mr. D) talks about innovation in the classroom during the Central Michigan University 2019 Leadership Conference for staff and administrators July 23 in the Bovee University Center Rotunda.

When Joe Dombrowski graduated from Central Michigan University in 2012, he entered two different career fields simultaneously – one as an elementary school teacher and another as a professional comedian.

Dombrowski – also known as Mr. D – found success in both fields. 

By using comedy in his teaching, Dombrowski has become an advocate for creativity and innovation in the classroom. He gained national recognition for his teaching practices after making two appearances on the Ellen Show. 

Staff and administrators laughed at his stories about field trip fails and classroom antics during the closing session for the Central Michigan University 2019 Leadership Conference on July 23. 

When he first came to CMU, Dombrowski had no idea what career he wanted. He became interested in teaching after volunteering at camps for children with terminal illnesses.

"I saw kids experiencing joy in times when they really couldn't," Dombrowski said. "I knew from there that I wanted to go into some sort of education field and work with kids."

While studying elementary education, Dombrowski became interested in improvisational comedy. He had friends in Trap Door Improv, and decided to audition. He said through improv, he gained the confidence to try professional comedy. He auditioned for a comedy troupe in Detroit and drove every Sunday during his senior year to perform.

He continued performing in the comedy troupe as a professional member after he became a full-time teacher.

"That was kind of like my part-time job," he said. "Teachers always have part-time jobs and that was mine."

As his teaching career advanced, so did his comedy career. Dombrowski continued his work as a comedian in Detroit for about five years before moving to Chicago to teach. Since he didn't have many connections there, he started online comedy work like writing sketches and making videos. He also spent time working on his one-hour stand-up comedy show.

A year later, Dombrowski moved to Seattle to teach fourth grade. At the same time, he completed his show and began performing around Seattle.

Dombrowski likes to bring comedy into the classroom. To teach students what poor handwriting looks like, he created YouTube videos reading the work his students turned in. After laughing at the garbled words, the fourth graders worked harder to improve their handwriting skills.

For April Fool's Day in 2017, Dombrowski gave the students a spelling test of made-up words with random silent letters and punctuation. He recorded it and posted it online. The video had nearly 20 million views, which earned him two appearances on the Ellen Show.

"I get spotted almost every day on the street now," he said. 

Dombrowski has begun using his national platform to give back to teachers. He created a national scholarship for first-year teachers to promote innovation and prevent teacher burnout. The first recipient of the scholarship in 2018 received $4,000, personalized classroom materials and a consultation with Mr. D.

Since his appearance on Ellen, Mr. D's comedy career has flourished. He is planning on touring across the United States, and he also plans to tour Australia in December. 

"You've got to strike the iron while it's hot, and right now comedy is very hot for me," he said.

He is not leaving the classroom though. Dombrowski plans to serve as a full-time substitute teacher in Seattle, which gives him the flexibility to travel, but also allows him to maintain his passion for teaching.

Although he is in Seattle now, Dombrowski still comes back to Mount Pleasant frequently. In February, he spoke to students in the College of Education and Human Services, and he spoke at the 2019 Leadership Conference for staff and administrators this summer. 

"Immediately when I walk onstage, it's like you're at home," he said. "I can do very specific jokes about CMU and everybody knows what I'm talking about."

He is working on a return to campus this fall. Nothing is finalized yet, so Dombrowski said to stay tuned for more details later.