The Tricky Ethics of Being a Teacher on TikTok
Some educators believe social media can help them engage with students, but the dos and don’ts of posting classes online are less clear.
In October 2020, a first-year student was learning remotely via Zoom when they found it difficult to ask questions. “Who’s…who…who…who…who…who…who,” they say, before finally trying to get it out: “Who’s turn on the letter F?” Despite this lovely interaction It happened at least 4,000 miles from my house, but I — and about 17 million other viewers — heard it because the kids’ teachers recorded their voices and uploaded it to TikTok.
I also know that in February of this year, a group of kindergarteners was sent to draw the Pixar character Luca. One draws him very small in the bottom left corner of the page, and the other gives him big round eyes and long fingers. One child drew disturbingly sharp teeth, but another expertly colored their drawing, mixing green and blue pencils to create impressive artwork.
While many of these videos feature educators simply discussing their work, others take place within the classroom and include children’s voices, faces, and homework. While many teachers on the platform are well aware of how to protect their students, the rise of these accounts does raise some ethical questions: Should educators be filming while teaching? Is it acceptable to share a child’s work with hundreds of thousands of strangers who might laugh at it, no matter how young the child is or the work doesn’t matter? Do children and their parents agree to share their voices and faces online?
In many cases, there are no specific official answers to these questions. It’s often up to individual districts and schools to decide their social media policies, and TikTok’s novelty means some institutions don’t have up-to-date policies on educators’ use of it. In the United States, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) does not completely prohibit the recording or online posting of these recordings in schools, provided they do not contain personally identifiable information (PII) about students. This often means teachers have to draw a line on what should and should not be TikToked, and figure out how to avoid crossing the line.
Many teachers use TikTok to encourage important conversations about their majors and crowdfunding for their classrooms, but the value of other videos is less clear. Meanwhile, the popularity of classroom videos means some educators are copying what other teachers are doing on the app, wrongly thinking they’re not breaking any rules.
Miss A is a Pennsylvania teacher who started using TikTok in 2020 at the request of her students. Her first video – where she danced with another teacher during her lunch break – went “moderately” and garnered tens of thousands of views. Miss A used TikTok year-round and ended up filming a skit featuring a few of her teenage students — which amassed hundreds of thousands of views. Miss A, who asked not to be named for the article, deleted her TikTok account after her school board reprimanded her for the video. She is now working at another school.
In a disciplinary meeting with the school district, Miss A was accused of endangering students (a skit involving children playfully hitting their heads); she was also accused of making the school look bad. While Miss A felt that the moderator’s attack on her character was going too far, and didn’t find her videos harmful or immoral, she understood how TikTok could be seen as unprofessional.
On TikTok, it’s mostly unclear whether teachers explicitly ask parents for permission to post their children’s videos, but some teachers do mention a waiver in the video description. In a June video featuring a word-of-mouth interview with Kim Kardashian from a teacher and five students, the teacher assured viewers that “two media release forms and a FERPA form were signed” (she did not respond to a request for comment).
However, creators often do not refer to media release forms, and it is unclear whether parents signed them. While teachers like Miss A might argue that the school’s general photography exemptions apply to individual TikTok accounts, parents who sign up for these exemptions may disagree.
A September 2021 study led by Joshua M. Rosenberg, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, found between 150,000 and 20 million photos of students on publicly accessible school Facebook pages, with at least 150,000 of them depicting people who could be identified by name. student.
“Our research suggests that student photos may be much more accessible than most parents realize,” conclude Rosenberg and his colleagues. “Underage students, in particular, may not yet fully understand how their educational institutions use and share their likeness, and adults in their lives have a responsibility to protect and care for them.”
While Miss A believes teachers have the right to post their opinions online and believes many teachers make useful educational videos, she said “it’s probably the wisest thing to keep students away from it.”
Colin Sharkey, executive director of the American Association of Educators (AAE), said teachers who want to create TikToks should “exercise caution” and “seek permission, not forgiveness.” Educators should familiarize themselves with their district and school policies, as well as AAE’s own Code of Ethics for Educators, which encourages safe and healthy learning environments for students and responsible educator behavior, Sharkey said. Social media is not a necessity for a learning environment, so the first rule should be that it doesn’t cause harm and danger- Sharkey said. “Practice with caution is critical.”
Sharkey said the posting of students’ faces, voices, jobs, and personal information – must be following the school’s or district’s policy that informs parents. He added that teachers should post professionally and respectfully, and monetizing an account featuring student-generated content could be problematic. Due to the uncontrolled and sometimes borderless nature of social media, even well-meaning educators can find themselves in legal situations- he warned.
Beyond that, finding the line between what’s right and what’s not is complicated. Is there a problem when teachers reenact classroom interactions outside of class, joking about funny things students say? Is it crossing the line when teachers specifically ask the class questions so they can film their responses to TikTok? What happens when teachers and their students choreograph dances to popular songs on the app?
It depends a lot on what’s shown and why- Sharkey said. If the content is not helpful and productive for student engagement or content, it should probably be discouraged or banned due to potential risks to students.
The first-grade teacher who photographed the students struggling with an issue could not be identified or contacted; the teacher who photographed the student Luca’s paintings overlaid the children’s names on their work and did not respond to requests for comment sent to their private Instagram accounts. Wired interviewed 10 famous TikTok teachers about their videos and practices; the smallest profile has 30,000 followers, and the largest has over 4 million. The only teacher who responded was Miss P, a middle school teacher with nearly 600,000 followers on her account. For the safety of herself and the children she teaches, Miss P did not reveal her full name or location.
Miss P did however admit to making a mistake. A stranger in another state emailed Miss P’s principal complaining about her TikTok account – after which Miss P deleted the video where her school’s logo could be seen and banned mentions in her comments section The name of the school. “I studied hard,” Miss P said. Back when she only had a few dozen followers, Miss P also included students in skits — which she re-evaluated after some videos garnered more than a million views.
“I don’t want any students on my videos right now, absolutely not,” she said. “Whether you have 10 followers or 100,000 followers, a geek is a geek who can find you.” Miss P’s student Pleas appear in her video, but she refuses to photograph their faces for safety reasons.
However, Miss P occasionally recorded students’ voices. She conducts a monthly “Rose and Thorns” with her class, each anonymously sharing the good and bad in their lives on a piece of paper; she sometimes uses TikToks to read the notes herself in class. If students’ voices can be heard in the background, Ms. P asks if they wish to have them removed from the video; she also asks the class for permission before recording.
While individual students cannot be identified in the “Rose and Thorns” video, when I stumbled across one for the first time, I felt weird. Should the world know that one student self-harms and another is addicted to porn? Shouldn’t this information be kept class-wide? Miss P understands the criticism, but says her classroom is a safe space: “You’ll see a small but heart-wrenching stuff and conversation between us that I won’t post.”
Miss P said it was often the students themselves who wanted her to document their activities. “They’re very proud and it’s their roses and thorns on TikTok,” she said. Roses and thorns are not mandatory activities either – Miss P has classes she has never attended and individual members of the class don’t have to write anything down. Her videos are filled with supportive comments such as “You’re that teacher who makes a difference” (14,000 likes) and “My school needs you” (2,000 likes).
Miss P’s school has some teachers who disapprove of her TikTok account, but her principal and the superintendent of her school district are supportive. Like Miss A, Miss P believes schools need to start clearer conversations with teachers about social media, with strict rules around TikTok use.
While browsing my teacher’s TikTok, I saw a kid in a polka dot coat clapping to rhythm in class, while another group of younger students danced choreographed dances to Disney songs. There’s room for debate about the benefits and pitfalls of all of these videos, although no one knows yet how the students in these videos will feel as they get older.
In April, TikTok overtook Instagram as the most downloaded app of the year; it was the fifth app to reach 3.5 billion downloads. Institutions should provide clear guidance for their educators as the service grows. Meanwhile, the new school year has begun — and with it comes a new wave of TikTok.