Scroll through TikTok long enough, and you’re bound to see a teacher showing off their classroom, performing comedy skits based off interactions with students or administrators, or just sharing a peek inside their daily routines.
The popular video-sharing platform is almost an obsession for many teenagers, but there’s a growing number of educators on the app, too. Joe Harmon, a 8th and 10th grade social studies teacher at Redbank Valley High School in New Bethlehem, Pa., is one such teacher who enjoys making funny and satirical videos about the classroom. He has nearly 110,000 followers, and his videos have been liked 13.6 million times.
His bio? “Here for the: ‘Ugh, my teacher came up on my For You page!’”
Harmon has been able to monetize his account by joining the TikTok Creator Fund, which pays content creators based on how their videos perform. And he’s also gotten some freebies from brands who follow his account.
Education Week spoke to Harmon about his experience on the app, and how his students and administrators feel about his TikTok fame. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you become so popular on TikTok?
It started in April 2020, when everyone was home. One of the people that worked at iCivics [a civics education nonprofit and curriculum group], Amber Coleman-Mortley, is big into social media. She sent out a dance challenge about the coronavirus pandemic—like, wash your hands, wear a mask. It was kind of centered on how to keep safe. I told my daughter, who at the time was 14 years old, “Let’s do this dance challenge, and we’ll put it on TikTok.” She’s a 14-year-old girl—she’s like, “I really don’t want it on my TikTok, why don’t you create an account?”
I knew about TikTok, but at the time, I thought it was just dance challenges or dance things. When you teach 8th grade, that’s all you see—8th grade girls during study hall or at the back of the class, doing dances that everyone does. So I made a TikTok, and then I’m stuck at home during the pandemic, so I’m scrolling through TikTok, and I’m like, oh my goodness, this is funny stuff. ... I started dabbling and making some from home.
I started getting some followers, but once I started going back to school and doing more school-related [content] and using that as my niche—using [TikTok] sounds connected to funny things that happened in the classroom or just things that I observed as a teacher—it started taking off. By that fall, I surpassed 10,000 followers, which allowed me to get on the Creator Fund, so I started making money off of some of the videos.
Most of the time, it’s fractions of a cent—you don’t make a whole heck of a lot. With videos like the BeReal one, that had 500,000-some views—a video like that makes like $18.
But here we are almost three years later, [I have] 109,000 followers. I’ve made $2,600 in about two years. I turned 50 a few weeks ago, and I told my wife, “I want to take my TikTok money and do something fun.” So for my 50th birthday, we flew to Iceland, and spent five days in Iceland using my TikTok money.
Have you found the formula of what makes a TikTok do well?
I can sometimes predict what’s going to do well. Sometimes it’s hard—sometimes I’ll think this is going to be great, and it’s not. What seems to do well are ones that generate a lot of comments. Anything I do about teaching civics or politics, that always causes comments.
I don’t take sides—I’m not on there saying, “Vote for this or that.” But if I do anything at all that shows anything about politics or voting, that seems to generate comments.
And just being funny. A lot of students will share [my videos] saying, “That’s just like our teacher.” It’s one of those things where if you can connect, and they’re like, “Oh, we see that all the time,” that seems to do really well.
I’m not proud—I’ll be a goofball. And a lot of it is taken from what happens in class. Not everything. I’m not saying everything I do on there is exactly what happens in class. I’ll give you one example.
My daughter got a 49 out of 50 on an assignment, and she had no idea why. [Her teacher] didn’t explain the loss of the point. I said, “Oh, that stinks, I hate when teachers do that.” ... So I made a video with that concept—when a teacher gives a student 49 out of 50 but doesn’t explain why, and had this ominous music in the background and had this evil smile as a teacher.
Boy, did people get upset with me thinking that I did that. It got 14 million views—it’s the most viral video I’ve ever had. But I didn’t do that [in real life]. I would never do that. I had somebody who duetted me and flipped me off. [Editor’s note: A user can “duet” someone else’s video by posting their reaction or response alongside the original TikTok.] It was so terrible. People were really like, “You’re a horrible teacher, I hope you get fired.”
So that’s the problem with TikTok—people think that’s who you are sometimes. Sometimes it’s parody, sometimes I’m showing what really happens, but it’s always in a satirical, funny way. It’s a platform to show an exaggerated version of what happens in the classroom.
Are your administrators on board with your TikTok presence?
Oh my gosh, they love it. It’s weird. My principal’s been in one of my videos. My super hasn’t, but I’ve referenced her in a funny way, and she thinks it’s hilarious. Not making fun of her, but in every school, there is a dynamic between the boss and the teacher. Like when the boss walks in, and you’re at your worst moment teaching—that always happens! Just that type of stuff.
I think it’s ‘cause they get it. They know I’m not trying to be controversial. I’m not trying to get the school in trouble. I’m not filming during class. I’m not even including students—I don’t have students in my videos. When I film, it’s either during my lunch break or after school. I’m not doing it to disrupt school whatsoever.
And they realized, it’s used as such a connecting point with the kids. The kids have asked me to be in their TikToks, which I will be in theirs anytime, [within] limits. I’m not gonna do certain things or certain music. But this one girl, she’s like, “I want you to be in one of my videos sometime.” I said, “Listen, I’ll make you a deal. You get an A on the next test, and I’ll be in your video.” She studied for the test so I would be in her video—she got an A.
Even the 6th graders who come into our building, it’s like they already know me. They’ll come up to me like, “Oh, you’re the TikTok teacher. You’re that guy, you’re so funny.” There’s already this immediate connection and this realization that yes, I’m the authority, and if I have to get after you, I have to get after you. But that’s me—what they see on the videos. That’s who I am, I’m kind of a goofball.
Do your students like being featured in your videos?
It’s funny because I’ve had students that are older that go to other schools, and they’ll see students who are like, “Oh my gosh, your teacher is TikTok famous, how does that feel?” And they’ll say they’re used to it—they don’t even bat an eye.
I tell the students, “Listen, if you inspire something, ... and I make a video about it, and it gets a million views, I’m buying your class donuts.” I had to do that last year. One girl said, “Do you want a piece of candy?” I’m like, “Yeah, I want candy!” And it was pickle candy. It was so gross, I wasn’t expecting that. I made a TikTok making fun of that situation. It got 1.4 million views, and I had to buy them donuts because [their] inspiration made me money.
I’ve definitely had instances where I’ve had a kid say something, and she’s like, “Ah, that’s going to be a TikTok, isn’t it?” It might be! If it’s making fun of them, I won’t. Of course, I’m not going to poke fun and mock them.
What is your advice for other teachers who want to monetize their TikTok account?
Really be careful with how your administration and the school views it. Keep it extremely non-controversial. The fact that I’m throwing myself out there as a teacher, I’ve got to be careful. I view it as an extension of my classroom almost. I gotta be careful that I wouldn’t put anything out there that I don’t want my administration not to see, because I know they’re seeing it. I don’t want to have to defend something that I say or embarrass them or embarrass the school. I’ve seen several teachers who have done that, and they’ve gotten in trouble. They’ve had to take their TikTok down, [or] maybe got fired or been let go because of it.
And be unique. I try not to copy what everybody else is doing. I try to find a unique spin to everything, and that’s when the views come. People seem to laugh at that. They say, “Oh my gosh, that’s funny. I’ve never thought of that.”
A little over a year ago, T-Mobile started following me, and they sent me a message that they wanted to send me a box of goodies to start my school year and thank me for my TikTok platform. So I get this giant box, and there’s this brand-new iPad in there and all this cool stuff.
I’ve been to teacher events, and they’re like, “Oh, you make TikToks?” and they kind of furrow their brow and cringe a little bit. I’m like, “Dude, I went to Iceland. You do your thing, and I’ll keep being an idiot and going to Iceland and getting free iPads.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2022 edition of Education Week as How This Teacher Builds Relationships, Has Fun, and Makes Money on TikTok