How this teacher uses TikTok to educate and entertain students
Some pandemic-era solutions have staying power, even as in-person classes return
One day while teaching her Grade 1 class, Sharon Saw heard a story from a student that she knew she had to share.
"He goes, 'Did you know that I can eat a whole box of popsicles all by myself?'" the Edmonton teacher recalled.
"And I said, 'That is a lot of popsicles, my friend.' And he says, 'Yeah, and then I get diarrhea.'"
Saw was "dying of laughter," but couldn't hear or see anyone else doing the same. That's because it was a pandemic-era lesson and everyone was on screen in a virtual meeting. Maybe some reactions were muted, or off-camera. Maybe some kids just didn't know what diarrhea meant.
"So I was thinking, you know what? This would make the perfect TikTok video," she told Spark.
With the username sharonbeteaching, she started a new account on the micro-vlogging platform that's hugely popular among younger audiences. She uploaded a video with herself playing both herself and the popsicle-eating student.
It took off. She's since made dozens of school-centric videos on TikTok and amassed more than 47,000 followers.
Teachers using TikTok videos exploded during the pandemic as educators searched for new — and remote — ways to educate and entertain their students. The hashtags #teacher and #teachersoftiktok together have billions views on the platform, according to Wired.
And a 20Thanksa21 post on TikTok's official blog put the spotlight on some of the most popular TikTok teachers in the U.S., some with millions of followers worldwide.
For Saw, it quickly became about more than funny jokes from the classroom — virtual or otherwise.
"I started branching out into posting like some of my lesson highlights or things that I would do in my online classroom, like the songs I would play on the ukulele, or like classroom management strategies or new technology apps that I tried with my students that were pretty effective," she said.
"And even to this day, I still use them in my classroom."
Bonnie Stewart, an associate professor and digital education expert at the University of Windsor, says educators have taken pandemic-era tools that enhance their work back into the classrooms, but stopped using other apps or platforms that were mainly substitutes for what they could do in-person.
Some of these tools "allow flexibility for students, [or] even minimize the time they're spending in class, but allow students to work together and collaborate outside class," she said.
Professors in higher learning settings, for example, are keeping virtual office hours so students don't need to visit the actual office if it's inconvenient. And many are putting their course materials online so students can review the material whether they made it to an in-person class or not.
Massive education disruption
Saw's growing audience in TikTok isn't limited to her local community, either. She's since connected with other teachers around the world, exchanging ideas for videos and lessons alike.
The collaborative efforts helped navigate the new reality Saw and her fellow teachers found themselves in during the pandemic, after lockdowns suddenly reshaped the education landscape.
"Teaching during the pandemic was very challenging.... We were navigating this unknown reality every single day, not sure what was going to happen the next day," she said.
"And so we had to reinvent the wheel with all our lessons, adapt them to online learning. And every day you're just praying and hoping your computer doesn't break down."
Prachi Srivastava, an associate professor at Western University in London, Ont., describes the pandemic as "the largest mass disruption to education in human history that we've known."
In the early days of the pandemic, Srivastava monitored UNESCO's map of school closures around the world.
She also led Ontario's COVID-19 School Dashboard, which mapped all in-school infections from 2020 until the province stopped gathering that data in January 2022.
"Roughly 1.7 billion learners were affected and 90 per cent of schools in all countries were closed. So we really are talking about a whole generation here," she said.
As a teacher of younger students, Saw never actually features kids in her TikToks or other social media skits.
According to Wired, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in the U.S. doesn't explicitly forbid uploading recordings taken during classes, as long as they don't contain information that could inadvertently identify a minor against their consent.
In Canada, guidelines for protecting student information and privacy are overseen by the province or territory.
Ontario's Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA), for example, says that when using online services in the classroom, educators "ensure that these services do not improperly collect, use or disclose students' personal information." It doesn't have specific guidelines for using social media platforms like TikTok, however, which aren't primarily used as educational tools.
Guidelines from the Ontario College of Teachers says that social media can provide "innovative opportunities for teaching and learning," but also advise educators to "keep interactions professional, as you would in the classroom, and build a positive online presence."
It's just one new question in the constantly evolving landscape of digital privacy as it relates to education.
As Stewart notes, simply turning on a webcam during virtual classes during the pandemic could raise privacy issues, as it may offer a window into the home situation of a student that would otherwise be kept private.
And that's to say nothing about the always-present question of what data the apps and platforms are using or gathering while we relied on them for communication.
Saw, however, is grateful for many of these tools — as long as they're being used consciously and responsibly for her students' benefit.
"I think about what it would have been like if I had to teach during a pandemic like, 50 or 60 years ago. And I don't think I would have survived," she said.
"The fact that we were still able to deliver a whole entire curriculum and give those students the education that they deserved during a pandemic … is pretty impressive to me."
Produced by Olsy Sorokina and Nora Young.
- This story has been updated to more accurately describe Prachi Srivastava's work monitoring global school closures, and school infections in Ontario, during the COVID-19 pandemic.Sep 27, 2022 11:37 AM ET