Meet the Mathfluencers: Teachers Are Turning to TikTok to Sharpen Kids’ Math Skills
Sixth graders at Polly Ryon Middle School in Richmond, Tex., clamored to get into a certain math class at the beginning of the last school year. That’s not because they’d heard rumors that the class was easy or that they’d get to watch a lot of movies between lessons. The reason: The class was taught by Deidre Kelly, a teacher with 1.5 million TikTok followers.
“Usually the kids before they even come to this school know who I am. They’re excited to see me,” Kelly, 34, said. “They’ll say they’re starstruck. I’m like, ‘I am just a teacher. I am so normal.’”
Kelly’s TikTok account is full of math-focused videos with tips and tricks for adding fractions, subtracting integers, and multiplying by 8. She often stands in front of her classroom’s whiteboard, usually with a trending (but appropriate) TikTok song playing in the background. Sprinkled between educational videos are sponsored clips that Kelly ﬁlms for advertisers such as Mastercard’s Girls4Tech STEM education program and fast-food chain Sonic’s donation campaign for local school projects.
Kelly, who has been teaching for 10 years, started posting videos during pandemic lockdowns in 2020 as a way to reach her students outside their virtual classes. “Knowing that they’re all going to get on TikTok right after we got oﬀ Zoom,” she said, she hoped that the TikTok videos would reinforce the lessons students were supposed to be learning in class.
A growing number of teachers are tapping into the short-form–video app to reach their students, as well as a broader population of math-curious young people and even adults. TikTok videos using the hashtag #TeacherTok have been viewed 2.8 billion times, while #mathtricks has been viewed 1.4 billion times.
While students turning to social media is nothing new—just look at the popularity of Khan Academy—TikTok has emerged as a quick, punchy alternative to in-depth YouTube videos. Plus, the ByteDance-owned video platform is already where young students are spending hours of their time each day. TikTok became the favorite social app of U.S. teens earlier this year, surpassing Snapchat for the first time, according to a spring 2022 survey from investment bank Piper Sandler. In 2021, 63% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. used TikTok on a weekly basis, according to research from Forrester, up from 50% a year earlier.
Katrina, a 12-year-old who lives in New York, said she searches for math videos on TikTok about once a week, most recently looking for help with ratios and fractions.(“I’m kind of struggling with those a little bit,” she said). Katrina said she uses TikTok for quick help—“I scroll until I see something that I understand”—but if she needs more in-depth information, she’ll turn to YouTube or ask her teacher for extra help after class.
Shanjana Hossain, 35, teaches ﬁfth graders all subjects, including math, science and history, at a charter school in Hollywood, Calif. Her TikTok account, which features videos about subtracting unlike denominators and a primer on negative integers, has amassed nearly 94,000 followers. “I’m meeting them where they are,’ she said. “I talk to my students all the time; it seems they just prefer TikTok more as opposed to YouTube. Even a year or two [ago] that wasn’t the case. They are there more, so I feel like they will see the content more often.”
Hossain said her students are her “biggest fans” and are constantly asking her if she’s surpassed 100,000 followers yet. “Sometimes when someone will say something negative, they’ll stand up for me in the comments. They’re so sweet.” She has worked with a handful of advertisers, such as math app Air Math, on education-related sponsored posts.
Teachers on TikTok said they’ve received some backlash over their videos, especially those oﬀering easy math workarounds. “There have been negative [comments] like, ‘That’s just a hack.’ And I’m like, well, not everyone learns the same, so I have to teach diﬀerent ways of solving certain things. Even in the classroom I do that,” Hossain said.
Kelly echoed the sentiment. Critics will say to her, “‘Are you really helping them?’ I’m like, well, these are for those kids who need that trick,” she said, noting that such tips may help students memorize their multiplication tables, for example, which is ultimately the goal.
“Having more resources out there for kids is always a good thing,” said Robin Jacob, associate research professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Education.
“Like any media, it is only as good as its source.” Jacob worries that kids do not have the skills “to suss out what are good sources of information about most things”—but at least STEM subjects like math or science have clear answers. Things get much shakier when teachers are broaching subjects like history or English, where they can expect a variety of interpretations.
“With the kind of math most students are doing, you can check your answer,” said Alyssa Wise, a professor of learning sciences and educational technology at New York University. “For some just-in-time help on a concrete math skill it can be helpful, especially if the student doesn’t just watch but applies the technique they are watching to some problems.”
But some short videos, including those with tricks, can lack context and may not work in every scenario, according to Wise. Take one video from one video from Kelly showing a method for calculating percentages, which she notes in the caption “only works if both numbers end with zero!”
Like all social media, TikTok is more about getting attention than depth,” Wise said. The videos aren’t engineered to “help you build robust math knowledge,” but rather to help with very specific problems. In most cases, the videos are notable for what they lack: specific feedback on where a student may have stumbled. “When you’re just watching a quick video online, you get none of that,” said Jacob.
As the school year wraps up, Hossain will have more time to post on TikTok and plans to create review videos of what her students learned during the school year. “I won’t have my [classroom] whiteboard, but I have a whiteboard at home,” she said.
Kelly said her success on TikTok has gotten the attention of other teachers at her school, who are now thinking of posting their own videos on the platform. “I’m like, y’all should’ve gotten on it when I told y’all to a long time ago,” she laughed. “Now you have to compete with all the other teachers. It’s too late!”
*Kaya Yurieﬀ is a reporter at The Information covering the creator economy. She previously worked at CNN. Based in New York, she can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @kyurie*