Illustration of students using grammar
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Student Engagement

Social Media’s Favorite English Teacher

‘Taking the time to be engaging’ and setting high expectations are key to good teaching, says TikTok influencer and middle school teacher Claudine James.

June 14, 2024

Claudine James, an Arkansas middle school teacher, has 5.7 million TikTok followers.

It’s an unexpected turn of events. “I never saw this coming. I never wished for this,” says James. “All I ever wanted to do was be a good teacher, and I always have that in the back of my mind.”

It all started with the goal of shoring up her students’ grammar, punctuation, spelling, and writing skills during the pandemic. She began posting short supplemental video lessons on YouTube, linked to class writing assignments. But her videos didn’t get many views, and her students kept making the same mistakes.

Claudine James headshot
Courtesy of Claudine James, pictured.

A few students suggested posting her videos to TikTok. “Kids will see them because they’ll already be on TikTok,” they told her. She had never heard of the platform but posted her first video in December 2020. In less than a week, her account @iamthatenglishteacher had nearly 10,000 followers. Comments came flooding in: Please explain how to properly use the word “myself.” Is “texted” the past tense of “text,” or can you simply say “text”? Could you do “whose” vs. “who’s”? 

A self-described overachiever who will do “whatever is necessary to get my students to learn English,” James just completed her 15th year as an English teacher at the same Arkansas middle school she attended as a student. She’s become a sought-after presenter at education and technology conferences, winning numerous awards, including LifeChanger of the Year and most recently the 2023 Adcolor Influencer award. 

I spoke with James about how she nurtures engagement, robust relationships, and academic success in her classroom—and online with the millions of students and English learners who consume her content.

Paige Tutt: What core principles guide your work as an English teacher?

Claudine James: I remember as a struggling college student, I was upset that we bought this book called Middle School Classroom Management for $65 and only opened it one time. My professor could have just skipped that because he wrote on the board, “Set high expectations.” 

I can’t remember anything else, but I remember those words. I use those words to guide me. 

You set all those expectations the first day of school. Don’t wait until the middle of the year and try to rein your students back in.

Tutt: How do you encourage kids to meet, or even exceed, high expectations? 

James: I could write a one-page essay on all of my students by the end of the first semester. I know that much about them, and I know what their potential is and how to motivate them. So when people ask, ”How’d you get them to do this?” that’s what you have to do. You can’t see a student come into your classroom and not pay attention to them, to their wants and needs. 

I have to show each student on their level why what I’m trying to get them to learn and understand is valuable.

Tutt: In your videos, we can hear your students responding to your questions, and they sound very comfortable. They’ll confidently volunteer answers to your questions, even incorrect answers, and everyone seems fine. How do you foster that sort of supportive classroom environment?

James: When I asked my students, ”Do y’all feel safe?” they said they don’t feel bad when they guess a wrong answer because I don’t make them feel bad. I keep probing to get the right answer. I think that’s key to being a successful teacher and to having an engaging classroom.

I also set an example of respect. I respect my students, and I in turn expect them to respect me. People ask, ”How do you get your kids to say, ‘No, ma’am’ and ‘Yes, ma’am’?” I explain that I’m a teacher and I deserve respect; in return, I’m going to respect you. When someone says, ”Ms. James?” I respond, ”Yes, ma’am?” 

Tutt: When the camera’s off, you must have to navigate some level of disengagement in your classroom? 

I have to show each student on their level why what I'm trying to get them to learn and understand is valuable.

claudine james

James: I try to create a space for all of them to fit in. I had one student who had a lot of energy. He became my helper: “You have to finish this work, and then I’ll let you collect the books.” So I found a niche for him. Equity is not doing the same thing for all students, because all students don’t come to the table with the same resources. 

Whether they’re an ESL [English as a second language] student, a student with an academic improvement plan, or a student who is already academically successful, I have to reach each one of those students. 

I have seen seasoned educators make this mistake—creating a “Betty Crocker” classroom. Everyone’s the same, everyone’s treated the same. If this assignment is due today, no matter who you are or what’s going on, it’s due today. But students just aren’t the same. 

Tutt: I imagine that’s difficult when you have a hundred students to differentiate for. So many kids with so many different needs. 

James: It is. I had 108 students this year. I’ve had as many as 128. And don’t get me wrong, not every student is appreciative of the gift of a passionate teacher. But I have a higher calling than just one student. That one student that isn’t appreciative, I’m so sorry, but I’m not going to turn off the faucet and stop showering everyone else with as much knowledge, inspiration, and motivation as I can. So it is hard sometimes—but oh gosh, girl, I love what I do. 

Tutt: Why do you think your TikTok grammar lessons have become so popular?

James: If you are an American student, some of the things that I teach on TikTok aren’t taught. You are expected to know those things. For example, you don’t say, ”I seen you.” You say, ”I have seen you.” I made a lesson that talked about how you have to use the word have or has before seen. Seen cannot be used alone. People were commenting, ”Wait a minute, it can’t?” 

I do always tell my students that this is not always the way I talk at home. I have a home language, but this is the language that we speak through pencil and paper at school. This is our official communication language in education and business.

Tutt: From your perspective, what’s missing in how we teach ELA [English language arts] in schools today?

James: Taking the time to be engaging. And you have to read the literature that you’re trying to sell. 

When I was in middle school, I was an Avon salesman. I was too young to sign up, so it was in my mom’s name. By age 16, I was the No. 1 Avon salesman in the county—well, my mom was. I actually used all the Avon products and could say, ”This works.” It’s the same thing with getting someone to read a book.

A teacher said to me, ”I’m having problems with the kids not reading the book. Why are your kids loving it?” I said, ”Have you read the book yet?” She said, ”I’m reading it with the students.” Well that’s probably the problem. If you haven’t used a product, you’re not going to be a very good salesman. So, I bolster the love of reading by being engaged in reading myself. You foster that engagement by being an active participant before they read so that you can sell them on the book.

Tutt: Engagement is a big priority for you as a teacher—how does that help make learning stick?

James: Find out how you can hold a student’s interest and how you can connect to them where they are. I think that’s part of leadership—actually knowing how to get people to respond.

The other day I was standing by the thermostat and I asked, ”How do you spell thermostat? It’s like, T-H-E-R-M… therm? Why do they call it a thermostat?” 

Then I said, ”I know, therm- means ‘heat.’” A couple students said, ”Oh, yeah.” I asked, ”What other words start with therm- that mean ‘heat’?” Someone said thermodynamics, and another said thermograph. We were studying root words, but they didn’t know that. 

So finding those starting points where you can teach traditional things to students in a nontraditional way, in a way that they won’t forget—that’s taking the time to be engaging.

This interview has been edited for brevity, clarity, and flow.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Classroom Management
  • New Teachers
  • Technology Integration
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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