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Saturday, Dec 20, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: St. Pete math teacher's classroom is the world

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You hear a lot about teacher burnout these days because even the brightest and most dedicated among public school instructors can buckle under the relentless demands of the job. Teaching is not for the fragile.

And then there is Rob Tarrou.

For 18 years he has been teaching various mathematics courses at St. Petersburg High School. Many teachers would find the task of helping about 150 students a year understand the principles of courses such as Algebra 2, geometry, trigonometry and calculus to be more than enough challenge. But Tarrou needed more.

"I love teaching," he said. "I went to school to teach math. I am not jaded."

So Tarrou has made the world his classroom. Using a video camera at his house and a chalkboard he salvaged from the trash, he began to record full lessons and post them on YouTube. Just type "ProfRobBob" into the search window, and there it is. He is up to 423 lessons with many more planned, and it's fair to say he is an international sensation.

"It started because I just wanted to help people," he said. "I had a student near the end of a year tell me he was using the Internet to get help with my math class. I didn't know that stuff was available on the Internet. I was already available after school three days a week, but I thought this could be something that might help. This is just me doing something I love."

I saw his story earlier this week on NBC Nightly News. The reporter said he was a teacher from "Tampa," so that threw me a bit. But even with the geographical misdirection play, Tarrou was pretty easy to find. I reached him just a few minutes after the NBC segment aired; his voice was a little shaky with excitement from seeing himself on national news.

As he told me his story, it became clear that this man was born to be a teacher and is something special even in an already dignified profession.

His videos have followers in 140 countries, and he said YouTube figures show that since January his lessons have attracted more than 4 million minutes of viewing time. Because of the traffic he generates, Tarrou makes a small percentage of money from ads associated with his videos from YouTube and Google, but he laughed when I asked how much that is.

"Very, very little," he said.

The real reward is the feedback he gets from around the world. His videos generate about 1,000 comments a month.

A teacher in Indonesia wrote to tell him how much his videos helped her understand math terms. Another viewer wrote to say the lessons inspired him to apply to Oxford and Cambridge to study math.

After viewing a calculus lesson, another viewer wrote, "I find myself watching these videos with a renewed interest and passion for mathematics. Whatever you do, please continue to do these videos. Your reach is global and your impact monumental. The mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superior teacher demonstrates, the great teacher inspires. YOU SIR ARE INDEED AMONGST THE GREATS!! Salute."

"Reading those comments was powerful," Tarrou said. "A guy from Canada told me on the phone I was his hero. I don't really feel comfortable with that. It made me cry."

I have first-person experience with how baffling higher math can be, but the testimonies about his videos show that Tarrou has a way of simplifying the complex. If he was football coach, he would probably be the kind who would say, "Yes you can run over that 300-pound guy!" And pretty soon you'd actually believe you could.

But then, that's what teaching is - making the light bulb go off inside the student's head. Thanks to these videos and a teacher who took the time to care and share, there are a lot of light bulbs shining in the world today that otherwise might have gone dark.

"I'm putting full lessons out there, not just short videos," he said. "I do the work, prepare the plan, and out of that comes the video. It's how I teach.

"I know that's my reputation that I'm putting out there for the whole world, and the reaction I've gotten is really mind-blowing. I'm so grateful I could help."

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