Nitasha Ali, a physical education teacher at Garfield and Grant-White schools, is using Tik Tok videos to connect with her students. | Photo provided

There’s never been a more challenging year for teachers than 2020. District 91 teachers have been teaching remotely since March. Many have discovered innovative ways to keep their students engaged. Nitasha Ali, a physical education teacher at Garfield and Grant-White schools, is using Tik Tok videos to connect with her students. Nitasha’s teaching techniques are making her a bit of a national sensation. She has attracted 110,000 followers and was recently interviewed by a reporter from the New York Times.

Nitasha teaches kindergarten through second grade at Garfield and third through fifth grades at Grant-White. She calls her class “P.E. With Ms. Ali.” Her goal is to get her students out from behind their computers to start exercising. She uses simple household items, like a rolled-up sock, a Solo cup, or a plastic bag to develop their motor skills. She records Tik Tok videos demonstrating the activities to her students, edits them and posts them online. So far, they have received over 100 million “likes.”

Tik Tok is a platform that features short-form videos focusing on dance, comedy and education. It came to the U.S. in 2018 and has exploded in popularity. Over 2 billion Tik Tok videos have been downloaded worldwide. Nitasha began posting videos in September. They range in length from 7 seconds to one minute and have struck a chord with P.E. teachers across the U.S.

She recently received a handwritten letter from a young woman in Kansas, who said the videos had inspired her to become a P.E. teacher. The Times reporter, Natasha Singer, found her by typing in “P.E. Teachers Tik Tok” and saw Nitasha at the top of the list. Singer called her at Grant-White and interviewed her for 45 minutes. The profile, though, has not yet appeared in print.

Nitasha, who is in her 13th year of teaching at D91 said, “Everyone feels like a first-year teacher this year.” Like her colleagues, she misses seeing her students face-to-face. Still, she is able to motivate them to get up and move around for 30 minutes. She has them doing jumping jacks and other vigorous exercises to get their heart-rates up. She has also established a strong rapport with them, as an adult who listens closely to their comments.

“The students are so innocent,” Nitasha said, “They say the funniest things, without trying to be funny.” She recalled a student addressing her as “Mom” by mistake. She loves her job and looks forward to teaching her daily classes. She also finds it strenuous. Nitasha doesn’t need to work out because the classes are keeping her in shape. Teaching P.E. remotely, though, has been an adjustment.

She understands her students are exercising in confined spaces and cannot disturb other family members and uses soft objects in her lessons, so the students don’t break things in the home. She misses the excitement of being with students in the gym and leading them in group activities but is determined to make her classes work.

Nitasha wanted to become a teacher since she was a third-grader at Field-Stevenson. After she graduated from middle school, she attended Immaculate Heart of Mary High School, then went on to get her elementary education degree and P.E. degree at Eastern Illinois University.

She bought a home in Forest Park and when she sees her students on the street, she gives them “air hugs.”

Besides making educational videos, Nitasha recruits family members to make videos just for entertainment. Her mom, Brenda Ali, is a D91 health aide who is not afraid to get her freak on.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.