TikTok is one of the world’s fastest growing apps, with an estimated two billion total downloads since its inception, including more than 1.4 million monthly active users in Australia. Much of TikTok’s success has been attributed to its appeal among children and young people. However, during COVID-19 lockdowns, a growing number of teachers have found solace—and celebrity-status—through the app.
One teacher who has regularly utilised TikTok’s capabilities during the disruptions of 2020 is South Australian primary school teacher, ‘Mr Luke’ (handle: iam.mrluke). Most of Mr Luke’s TikTok videos are recorded in his classroom (sans students) and often involve him excitedly sharing an anecdote from a lesson or his reflections on what it means to be a teacher.
In the last year, Mr Luke has accrued a following of 277 thousand people and over seven million likes for his short clips. Many of his videos are set to pop music and involve him enthusiastically dancing and jumping around his empty classroom.
In an interview with Swinburne teaching student Jessica McGough, Mr Luke described his use of social media as a “juggling game” and TikTok in particular as a “really cool”, “engaging”, and “fun” platform. But he was also quick to mention that he has guidelines for using TikTok in terms of his choice of language and music, aware that his videos are viewed by his students and their parents.
TikTok’s emphasis on music and dance is especially useful for teachers seeking to playfully connect with their students and school community during lockdown.
Earlier this year, teachers at Terrigal Public School (TPS) in New South Wales created TikTok dance videos as a fun end-of-term send off for their students. The videos received thousands of views and a local news outlet picked up the story, interviewing teacher Tayla Lythall who said:
“Due to the virus, teachers have been asked to come up with ideas for online content that kids want to connect and engage with on a totally new level. The feedback has been so positive. Both students and parents have been commenting how much they enjoyed watching it, and for the teachers, it’s been nice to show everyone that we’re normal people just like them”.
These TikTok teachers challenge the one-dimensional and sometimes even patronising stereotypes of teachers as faultless saints or hapless victims.
Viral TikTok teachers of North America
The attention given to Australian teachers pales in comparison to attention received by teachers in the much larger market of the United States, where the app is used by an estimated 100 million Americans every month.
Washington kindergarten teacher Mackenzie Adams recently went viral when she posted a TikTok video of herself delivering a lesson to her kindergarten students over Zoom. With more than 10 million views in less than a week, the video shows a highly animated and energetic Adams teaching her young students online, remaining ever-so-patient as a student grapples with the mute button.
Reflecting on her rationale for posting the video to TikTok, Adams subsequently said in an interview:
“I honestly just wanted to see what I looked like while teaching, kind of as a reflection tool. I wanted to see: am I being energetic enough for them? Am I engaging enough? And I was like, ‘I’ll just take a quick video and watch it back later, probably delete it.’ And about an hour later I got a text from a friend and she said, ‘you know you’re viral, right?’”
Social media commentators and news reporters were quick to praise the video, waxing lyrical about Adams’ energy and patience with her students. For many commentators, Adams’ video was more than just a snapshot into her daily life; the video represented the work of countless teachers around the world trying to make the best of a challenging situation. Adams shared a similar sentiment about the profession:
“I really hope that teachers are getting the recognition they deserve right now … the outpouring of love has been great”.
A booming new genre
Adams and Mr Luke are not the only ones receiving the love. A growing number of teachers are taking to TikTok to share their experiences during the pandemic. The “booming new genre” of Teacher TikTok has even led some websites to compile lists of the ‘top teachers’ to follow.
For some teachers, it is about connecting with their students and incorporating TikTok into class activities. For others, it is about connecting with a teaching community, sharing tips, celebrating successes, laughing at themselves, or venting frustration – all vital under lockdown and COVID-related restrictions.
Teachers’ TikTok videos under hashtags such as #teachersoftiktok #teacherlife #teacherproblems have views in the billions and capture the everyday, funny, and perplexing moments that speak to the rarely seen chaos, charm, and complexity of teaching at the ‘screen face’ during a pandemic.
The good and the bad of TikTok for teachers
Of course, not all have embraced TikTok’s potential during the pandemic, with recent calls from US President Donald Trump to ban downloads of the app over its questionable use of user data.
Concerns about problematic or harmful content circulating on TikTok have also made news headlines.
When TikTok merged with Musical.ly in 2018, the marketing for the app cleverly side-stepped parental concerns about the potential harms of social media and distinguished itself from apps like Instagram by emphasising TikTok’s focus on safe and child-friendly play and creativity. Yet, recent reports have challenged the ‘child-friendliness’ of the app, including alarm about a video of a suicide that was circulating on the platform.
Many schools sent warnings to parents about the video, however, in one reported case a group of students in a Western Australian school watched the video during class and their teacher was subsequently stood down. This is not the first case of an educator losing their job over a TikTok controversy, and students have also been at the receiving end of vitriol for their use of the platform. Such controversy only furthers the evidence for those who wish to see mobile phones banned and ICT policies tightened in schools.
TikTok is not the first social media app to appeal to teachers. Teacher TikTok reflects a broader growth in the number of teachers using social media platforms, as well as websites including Teachers Pay Teachers, to enhance their professional work and reach. Known as ‘teacher influencers’, ‘teacherpreneurs’ or ‘edupreneurs’, these teachers use social media to craft and promote a particular professional identity, often teaming up with companies to support their work, starting their own education resource businesses, and accruing a significant following: fellow teachers, students, and members of the public.
While some view the increased visibility of teachers online as a form of innovative leadership built on mutually-beneficial commercial relationships, others contend that such practices may intensify neoliberal competition between educators, privileging those who are comfortable juggling the personal and professional online and have the means to create a marketable image. For Mr Luke, his position on this juggle was clear:
“Social media is going to happen, we’re all a part of it. … I know I am. So I think it’s important to distinguish your professional life and personal life and try and not get those two things confused.”
Social media is a significant global force for teachers during and beyond the current pandemic. Platforms such as TikTok are increasingly shaping professional practices, as well as the perceptions of the profession. And this raises important questions about the future of initial teacher education in a post-COVID-19 landscape.
Dr Catherine Hartung is Senior Lecturer in Education in the Department of Education at Swinburne University of Technology. Catherine’s teaching and research explores the educational and political institutions that govern young people’s lives, and the ways that young people negotiate and resist this governance. Connect on Twitter: @catharty
Dr Natalie Hendry is Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT. Natalie’s research explores everyday social media and digital technology practices in the context of critical approaches to education, mental health, media, wellbeing, youth studies, and policy. Connect on Twitter: @projectnat
Dr Rosie Welch is Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Rosie’s teaching and research engages with the socio-cultural complexities of health education across school, teacher education, institutional, government and community settings. Connect on Twitter: @rosiewelch