How much do you remember from your middle school math class? Fractions? Exponents? PEMDAS? Odds are, not much. But one teacher in Richmond is changing that.

Deidre Kelly teaches sixth-grade math at Polly Ryon Middle School in Lamar CISD, but she teaches millions more on TikTok. Kelly says her students had been bugging her all throughout the 2019-2020 school year to download the app, which she finally did during the spring semester.

Originally, Kelly, a.k.a. @the_mrskelly, began her TikTok account to just make videos with her students, but she switched to giving short, fun math lessons once the pandemic hit. As the traditional classroom was replaced by dining room tables during last year’s lockdown, Kelly’s lessons went viral. Since then she’s posted hundreds of videos to her account, which has garnered more than 25 million views and acclaim from more than just her students.

Earlier this month, TikTok released a list of 10 “standout teachers” on the app, including Kelly. The shoutout includes $5,000 that can be used towards their students as well as their virtual or in-person classrooms.

We spoke to Kelly about her newfound TikTok fame and how her videos help her students learn. 

Why did you begin making TikTok videos?

My students had been asking me the whole year to get on TikTok, but I didn’t know what TikTok was, except for dancing. Finally, after Christmas [in 2019] is when I first started to download it and just do little dances to entertain the kids. But once we got into quarantine, I thought I could still reach them in a way, since they are always looking at TikTok. So, they can just scroll and watch me teach some real quick math lessons. And I can throw it in with music that they love to hear anyway or do a dance before I do the math part. So, it engages them in a different way than watching me on Zoom.  

How do you go about planning what to post?

Usually, it is a real quick type of math problem or easy simple steps. I’m not trying to reach the high school kids, so I’m just trying to reach the basic math. Even parents who are working on their GED actually need that basic math, so I’m reaching them too. So, if it’s just a simple problem I can do that takes 15 seconds, then I’ll focus on those: Nothing too crazy—something that’s a quick step, or sometimes I’ll show a trick to a problem instead of the actual method.

What has been the response to your videos been like from your students, the school, and the general public?

They all have my back with it. I know in the beginning when I used TikTok, I got into a group of teachers there and we started following each other and did a separate group where we could communicate and talk about how schools either appreciate it or don’t appreciate the videos. I’m glad my principal has my back—he loves TikTok and how all of the kids engage with it and loves that I use it for math and not just because. Even parents like that I post lessons that help them help their students. So, I’m glad my district and principal and everyone has my back.

What do you feel your students gain from your TikTok videos?

I feel like they learn from each other, sometimes I’ll ask a question. One time I asked what is the difference between a debit and credit card, and everyone’s posting their responses and I don’t reply. I’d rather wait a little bit and post another video of what I feel the difference is. So, people will comment and talk back and forth. They are learning from each other through it, too, and having great conversations with each other. Or if I give them a math problem, then they are all talking about the rule and kids are reading the rule over again and [that’s] getting them to memorize it.

Do your videos help you connect more with your students?

Yes, it is something they are already into, and they all come back to me the next day after a post saying they remembered talking about the lesson. … On the first day of school, the majority of the kids knew who I was. They thought I was just some celebrity. So, it’s already connected in that way. They love me interacting with them.

Do you feel this platform has made you a better educator?

I think so. I’ve always been an entertaining type of teacher: I rap, I sing, I dance for the kids and make them rap along with me. Just being engaged more with the kids in the hallways. Playing games with them. I like to keep them on their toes. I’ll go to the cafeteria and sing “Happy Birthday.” I do things that hopefully they’ll remember me by. Just make it fun for them because I know when they get to seventh grade, they won’t have this type of feeling anymore and all the fun we have here, and it gets more intense trying to get them ready to be an adult. It’s almost like it’s their last time they get to be real, true kids and have fun. And that’s what I’m about: to have a great year.

How did you react when TikTok named you a “standout teacher”? How will you use the prize money?

I was very surprised. There are so many amazing teachers on TikTok who do everything from teaching lessons or funny videos [to] talking about how their classroom is. It was pretty amazing to get this award, and the award goes to my classroom. I asked my math department what they wanted because that’s a lot of money to spend just for myself. So, I’m not selfish like that and asked what things we can get as a team, what things we can get as a school. Because we play lots of games at our campus. So, I can buy some big Connect Four games. There are so many things to get so I couldn’t spend that all by myself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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