Craig Smith ’15, math teacher and viral TikTok sensation, meets students where they are

4th February 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–It’s a rare middle school math teacher who dances his way to social media stardom.

Craig Smith ’15, a math teacher at Oldham County Middle School in LaGrange, Kentucky, is rare.

Smith’s TikTok dance videos, intended to engage his students at Oldham Middle School, have gone viral, gaining over one million followers on the platform and garnering media attention from Kentuckiana to New York, and beyond.

The videos are more than just random playfulness. There’s method in those moves.

“The word ‘MATH’ is on the door to my classroom, but math is just the vessel,” Smith said. “I teach students and young people, and should never forget what that means.”

For Smith, the key to classroom success begins with understanding and respecting students for who they are, where they live, what they like.

“From the very beginning I knew I wanted  reach out and meet my students where they are,” Smith said. “They all operate from different starting points, struggles, traumas, family dynamics. . . the list goes on and on.  Reaching out to them and their interests served me well early and has served me well now.

Smith credits his instructors at IU Southeast’s School of Education for providing the conceptual and practical tools for a career in teaching. From Dr. Alan Zollman, he learned to keep the focus on the student. From Dr. Bradford Griggs, he learned to be adaptable and take creative risks. From Dr. Kevin Sue Bailey, he learned the universal importance of reading. And from Dr. David Sullivan-Losey, he learned the importance of building relationships.

“I never forget his talk about telling students he loved them,” Smith said. “I do that  quite a bit and it has always served me well.”

Caring for students isn’t incidental to Smith’s story. Several years ago, while volunteer-tutoring at his daughter’s elementary school, he was working with a third grader when she told him that learning to read was pointless.

“After many attempts I tried to get her to read by telling her she would not get to middle school or high school with her friends,” Smith said. “She responded by telling me she was not going to high school–everyone in her family had dropped out, and so would she.”

Shocked and shaken, Smith embarked on a life-change. At age 44 he enrolled at IU Southeast with the intention of becoming a middle school math teacher–then finding that girl, and getting her into high school.

He never found that girl, but he did find the tools to help others.

“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t use or mention something that I took away from my time at IU Southeast,” Smith says.

Along the way, he left a deep impression on his instructors, who have followed his career with interest.

“Craig is one of the best teachers that IU Southeast has ever graduated,” said Zollman, professor of mathematics education. “He took the little seeds we planted in our classes with him and grew them into a lifelong philosophy of teaching students–except for the dancing.”

TAGS: , , , , ,