Things came full circle last week for Manassas Schools Superintendent James Upperman. Like most top-ranking school administrators, Upperman started his career in the classroom. Last week, he went back for a day to teach Spanish to 68 students as a substitute.

A Spanish teacher 20 years ago, Upperman, 43, dusted off his grammar and took to the classroom as part of a voluntary program he instituted this year to get school administrators involved in teaching. A dozen of the city's 20 top school officials have taken up chalk for at least a day this academic year, teaching subjects ranging from math to art. Next year, the program will be mandatory.

"He made the class interesting," said senior Chris Blough. "It was fun."

"I actually understood!" said sophomore Andrea Lawson, who claims she's a poor student in Spanish.

For his part, Upperman said he was impressed with the students and the job done by their regular teacher, Laura Nejfelt. "They really seemed to understand a lot of what was said," he said. And he had not only enjoyed the experience but felt more in touch with everyday life in the school system he heads.

"The purpose of this is to bring administrators into schools and give them a perspective on what goes on day-to-day in classrooms," Upperman said. "I noticed students with a variety of needs. One young man had trouble keeping his head off the desk. Another . . . hasn't been here {in the country} very long. He seemed very shy and had a hard time in English."

Upperman also had to deal with students who chatted, flirted and asked to leave and visit the bathroom.

"You have to decide how much time you're going to spend on those things," he said. "If we administrators stay away for long enough, we forget about those little irritations."

Any Spanish II student expecting to sit quietly in the back row and watch the teacher conjugate verbs on the blackboard got a surprise.

After a few introductory remarks -- "Hi, I'm James Upperman, superintendent of schools, and I apologize for my rusty Spanish" -- the superintendent launched into 45 minutes of conversation, asking the students questions using the present tense, then coaxing from them answers in complete sentences.

"What time is it?" he asked in Spanish.

"A las . . . . What's 11?" said Lawson, looking for help.

"Once," Upperman replied patiently.

Before the end, students had talked about telling time, where they were born and brought up. They had introduced themselves properly in Spanish, discussed "stem changing verbs" and conjugated several verbs in unison.

Upperman kept things going at a rapid clip, holding dialogues, checking homework and interrupting himself a few times to quiet private conversations ("Por favor, senoritas", "Please, young ladies"). He concluded with a little homily on the value of learning a foreign language.

"Learning Spanish is probably going to have a profound influence on your lives. Everything we know about demographics says that we are going to have more and more people in the United States who speak Spanish," he told the students. "You'll probably be asked in some job, 'Do you speak or write Spanish?' "

Knowing how to do so will be a big advantage, he told them.

Upperman said after the class that he looks forward to returning to teaching again next year. Recently, he ran into one of his former students from almost 20 years ago. She now is the mother of a third-grader in a Manassas school.

"She was an outstanding student," Upperman said. "And you know, she could still remember some of the dialogues we did in class. From my perspective, my fondest memories in education were teaching Spanish I in Rockingham County {N.C.}."