Student Achievement

What This Superintendent Learns From Teaching a High School Course

By Mark Lieberman — February 25, 2020 3 min read
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Dan Grabowska has been working on developing e-learning programs for more than a decade, first as superintendent of a school district in Idaho, then as a principal of a high school in Montana. Nine years ago, as part of those efforts, he started teaching an online English credit recovery course, administered by the state-funded Montana Digital Academy.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Grabowska would have dropped that responsibility when he was promoted in 2014 to superintendent of the three-school Montana district. But that’s not the case--Grabowska still teaches the course to this day, though he has since stopped teaching a more time-intensive version that’s offered during the summer.

“The one thing I missed when I became an administrator was being in the classroom,” he said. “That gives me that feeling of being in the classroom, still being the English teacher that I started out as.”

The courses consist of high school English students--mostly freshmen as well as some sophomores--who struggled through the course the first time, and need a do-over to pick up the credit. Students work at their own pace using a curriculum that’s been designed by English teachers across the state. Grabowska was among the teachers who helped shape that curriculum, and he continues to contribute to revisions.

Grabowska’s main responsibilities come in each time students complete an assignment. He has to grade their work and offer feedback within a 24-hour window. If students appear to have missed several days of class in a row, Grabowska sends them a warning, followed by two more. These messages often prompt phone or email conversation with the students.

Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, thinks all superintendents who have the time would benefit from teaching online. “It gives them an immediate sense of the online program, how effective it is, how the kids react to it, how they’re doing,” Domenech said. “There’s a lot that a superintndent can learn from that kind of activity.”

A few lessons Grabowska has learned from this ongoing task:

Watch your tone. “If I’m short or inattentive to the credit recovery kids, they’re not going to work very hard,” Grabowska said. “They’re oftentimes going to get a little snarky in their email responses.” He tries to carry that same philosophy to interactions in other areas of his superintendent duties.

Grabowska estimates that grading takes up to 90 minutes to two hours of every weekday during the school year. The time crunch gets tougher when the class is larger; at times he’s had to grade work from as many as 90 students--and more than double that during the summer sessions he used to teach.

Students crave instant feedback. Teachers with a regular course load can easily get behind on their grading duties as they struggle to keep up with assignments from numerous class periods throughout the day. Grabowska has found that credit recovery students tend to perform better and stay engaged when they have an immediate sense of how well they’re doing, particularly since they lack face-to-face interaction with their instructor.

“They know I’m pretty good at that, and if I do miss [deadlines], they let me know,” he said.

Stay humble. Grabowska sends out an introduction letter at the beginning of the course, and his name is easily Google-able, but he said many students don’t realize that their teacher is also in charge of all the other teachers at their school.

“I’ve had students that have gotten pretty dang snarky with me and I’ve had to contact the school saying, ‘This kid failed the paper three times, he’s not listening to a single comment. You might want to have a visit with him because he just called me an a-hole,’” Grabowska said.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.