Sean Connolly’s Bethlehem Area colleagues playfully call him famous, a nod to his recent TikTok success. And though Connolly always pushes back, his fellow educators have a point.
The gifted and learning support teacher at Hanover Elementary School started posting short educational videos on TikTok, a social media app, in early 2023. In the months since, he has gained 130,000 followers, accumulated more than 5 million total likes and even attracted the attention of music icon Taylor Swift.
Connolly’s videos, posted under the handle @teachwithmrc, feature reimagined pop songs to help students learn various skills and content, such as skip counting, reading time on a clock and memorizing the water cycle.
“I have so many kids and people writing to me all the time, like, ‘I wish you were my teacher. This is so fun,’ ” Connolly said, adding parents of special education students have found his songs particularly helpful.
Connolly’s first TikTok videos show him guiding viewers through the use of graphic organizers to teach math skills, such as long division and multiplication. He then began recording skip counting songs with his students, who can be heard singing off camera as Connolly points to lyrics on his whiteboard.
“No one expected this to be what it is,” said Jayme Gassler, a special education instructional assistant who co-teaches in the same classroom as Connolly. “He just found a way to engage the children with music and on a social platform. He disguised teaching as fun.”
During the academic year, Connolly brings students down to his classroom during the last few minutes of the school day to record TikToks. He demonstrates how to sing educational lyrics to the beat of famous songs and students then copy him to prepare for their performances.
Throughout the summer, he meets up with a core group of fourth and fifth grade students who are particularly passionate about creating TikToks. Their parents drop them off at a local community center and Connolly leads the children through whichever song they’re working on. Some students even write their own educational lyrics to sing with Connolly and their peers.
“He’s really patient, even if we mess up a song 20 times,” Natalie Georges, a rising fifth grader, said of Connolly, adding he’s a “creative” and “fun” teacher.
Connolly’s first TikTok video that gained traction online featured Bethlehem students counting by nine to the tune of “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, gaining more than 26,000 likes since it was first posted in March. Only days later, Connolly outdid himself with a TikTok featuring Swift’s hit song “Anti-Hero” to help students count by three.
“It’s me. Hi. Let’s count by three,” students start singing, slightly altering Swift’s original lyrics.
Within 24 hours, the video received 1 million likes, including one from Swift herself, who keeps her TikTok likes public. It has since been viewed more than 10 million times.
“We recorded it, and the kids were so hyped about that,” Connolly said. “And then the next day I woke up and all these comments were like, ‘Taylor liked it. Taylor liked it.’ And she did.”
The news that the video got Swift’s attention was especially exciting for some of Connolly’s students who are big fans of the singer and songwriter.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s crazy,’ ” Natalie said. “We never thought it would blow up like that.”
“I was just really surprised and happy,” Ava Makos, an upcoming fourth grader, added. “I’ve actually wanted to be a singer since I was a little kid so that was the first step to getting out there.”
Students also recorded a version of Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” to demonstrate how to count by seven. At 1.9 million likes and more than 20 million views, it’s Connolly’s most popular upload.
“I was happy because I knew that it probably wouldn’t end up being like this,” Micah Garcia, a rising fifth grader, said of the group’s TikTok fame. “I never thought it would be a big thing.”
In another well-received video, Connolly goes so far as to don a blonde wig and denim get-up to impersonate Justin Timberlake as students count by five and sing to the NSYNC’s hit, “Bye Bye Bye.”
His videos even caught the attention of radio host Ryan Seacrest, who had Connolly on his show twice. Connolly created a math video about the order of operations to the tune of “Step by Step” by New Kids On The Block at the urging of Seacrest, who promised to have one of the band members record Connolly’s rendition. (Connolly is still waiting to hear back from Seacrest’s team on the recording.)
Connolly couldn’t have anticipated the reaction he and students have gotten online, he said. Though he understands critiques of social media, he’s found a community of educators on TikTok to learn from as a way to hone his craft.
“Once I started getting all these followers, I met people through TikTok or social media that have really good stuff up there,” he said.
After 15 years in education, Connolly shares his own teaching resources on TikTok and his website, Intervention Station, for others to use. These include worksheets to supplement a district’s curriculum for students who are either ahead of their peers or who may need extra support.
“He just has a genuine enthusiasm and love of teaching,” Gassler said.
While the likes, views and celebrity attention are all fun and exciting, Connolly remembers why he’s truly lucky — he gets to spend each day finding creative ways to help students learn.
“I always say, ‘I have the best job in the Lehigh Valley,’ ” Connolly said. “I don’t think anyone has a better job than me.”
Story by Morning Call