I Never Expected To Go Viral On TikTok For A Mistake I Made While Teaching

It turns out the content of my TikTok was apparently more than just a little notable. It was, for lack of a better word, atomic.

Teachers ― the youth of America are tired of you. To be fair, the feeling often goes both ways, but let’s focus on the feelings of the youths here because for the purpose of this article, those feelings are ultimately the ones that matter.

What are the young people tired of exactly? Well, they are tired of being asked to turn in arduous assignments. They are tired of being asked to do work that is confusing and doesn’t align with their interests. But, perhaps most of all, they are tired of being asked to be perfect by imperfect people. To be clear, teachers, those imperfect people are you and anyone who supports or helps you do your job.

Why are you imperfect? Because you raise your voice when you get frustrated with these students, and you criticise them for their shortcomings while demanding leniency and grace when you fall short yourself.

In their minds, you are very likely the greatest symbol of hypocrisy in one of the only institutions that, thus far, they have first-hand experience with, and they are done with your crap.

How do I know all of this? Well, I’m a teacher, and I recently went viral on social media for coming clean about a mistake I made while doing my job, and the children ripped me ― and all teachers ― to shreds.

My rocky road to being decimated on social media began simply. Like a lot of people looking for ways to entertain themselves during quarantine, I turned to the very popular app TikTok. I discovered it during the last year as many of my students were on it, and I noticed one particular thing about it: If you were an attractive, dancing young person, it seemed fairly easy to amass a large following and potentially make a great deal of money posting content. I also noticed that individuals that created content about cooking or raising their kids, as well as comedians who did short skits, were able to gain a lot of followers.

Not fitting into any of those categories myself, I began to post videos about my life that garnered very little interest. I had a modest amount of followers and used the app as a bit of creative therapy. Even though I was certain that I would never become part of the upper echelon of ‘TikTokkers’, I still relished the opportunity to share a bit of myself with this new world. Besides, I was just a bored teacher quarantined with her parents in Texas awaiting the end of a global pandemic. No harm could be done by me making some videos and sharing them with the world, right?

Oof ― wrong. Very wrong.

My dramatic error in judgment occurred when I decided to post a “Tok” to a popular audio that was going around the app (people on TikTok will take the same audio file and create a skit around it that applies specifically to their life). The audio in this case was a tiny voice whispering in an embarrassed and comical tone that “everybody makes mistakes,” and the idea was to think of a time in your life when you did something ridiculous and you were filled with embarrassment.

"No harm could be done by me making some videos and sharing them with the world, right? Oof ― wrong. Very wrong."
Ridofranz via Getty Images
"No harm could be done by me making some videos and sharing them with the world, right? Oof ― wrong. Very wrong."

As a teacher struggling with online learning, I had made many mistakes in the past week alone, and one in particular really made me crack up. So, I made my little “tok” and uploaded it to the platform thinking it would get, at most, a few thousand views. Again, I am not a conventionally attractive teen, or a dancer or a chef, and I don’t have cute children to show off, so I had no reason to believe I had created anything that would attract any kind of attention.

It turns out the content of my TikTok was apparently more than just a little notable. It was, for lack of a better word: atomic.

The mistake I decided to talk about was a moment during remote teaching when I was frustrated with my students for not beginning their online lesson. Flustered and fed up, I had begun to chastise them for refusing to engage in the online learning process after I put so much work into developing the lesson (which actually happens a lot). However, it turned out in this case, I had never even uploaded an assignment in the first place! No one had attempted it, because there was nothing to attempt. Whoops!

When I realised what I had done, I apologised to the students and I gave them an extension to complete the work. The teachers of Tiktok (the ones I was really making this piece of for) immediately showed their support upon viewing my little creation.

“Oh my God, this was me the other day!” one teacher commented.

“I did this with my Google forms ― I was so embarrassed!” another shared.

However, it was this comment from another teacher that turned out to be particularly ominous: “This is hilarious, but the teenagers of Tiktok will find this and demand that you be fired, and maybe even thrown off a roof... teenagers are dramatic.”

I agreed with her, but I doubted they would find it or that any of them would really care if they did.

The author's "innocent" contribution to TikTok was greeted in a way she never anticipated.
Courtesy of Stephanie Comfort
The author's "innocent" contribution to TikTok was greeted in a way she never anticipated.

But find it, they did. Suddenly my comment section transformed from one of supportive educators empathising with me about the struggles of responding to students during a time when stress makes one prone to gaffes and mishaps, to one of traumatised students burned and bitter about their history with hypocritical teachers who attack them for their shortcomings and make their learning experiences unbearable.

“This was my professor with my final ― he lost it and I failed the class,” one student wrote.

“This is why we hate teachers,” another student noted.

My personal favourite was, “Oh, so when a teacher does it, it’s a ‘mistake,’ but when a student does it, it’s ‘poor work ethic.’”

Before I turned my comments off to catch my breath (I reinstated them shortly afterward), this was the top response, and I can see why. Many students can only interpret a teacher’s response from their side of the situation, and therefore they translate our reactions to their behaviour in a limited, one-dimensional way. But as someone who has been a teacher and a student, I know this comment is far from accurate.

I know that in the educational process, the stress to reach academic goals is heavily felt on both sides. From the teacher’s perspective, if students don’t respond to and complete their lessons, they won’t show mastery of that information on their tests. If they don’t demonstrate that they’re ready to move forward to the next grade or to graduate, the teacher’s professional reputation and livelihood can be at stake. Therefore, the teacher must be a constant interpreter of educational standards, an expert at diagnosing learning and emotional disabilities, a flexible and determined classroom manager, and, especially these days, a technological Svengali.

It is said that in one day, teachers do the job of seven different professionals, and they must do so while working with the most sensitive and malleable materials: children. I have found this statement to be absolutely true and understand firsthand the overwhelming and superhuman nature of our job. But we are only human and we will make mistakes. In fact, they should be expected, acknowledged, learned from, and used to grow.

Still, I understand the student perspective as well. I know that they have been forced to attend their classes ― often when it’s the last thing in the world they want to be do ― by their parents, by their cultures, and by their governments. I know that they are being asked to respond, to perform and to stay focused, which can be difficult in “normal times,” but is even harder during a pandemic.

Many times, the demands our students face are downright overwhelming. For these reasons, I know that they do not always understand that a frustrated teacher is a human being who can be just as overwhelmed. I myself have been angry at a teacher for what I felt was undue criticism and dramatic overreaction. I remember what it was like to resent my instructors with every fiber of my being.

“We are only human and we will make mistakes. In fact, they should be expected, acknowledged, learned from, and used to grow.”

So, when I saw that comment about work ethic, I responded in another TikTok, simply saying, As a student and as a teacher... we are both allowed to be human. There is a difference between a mistake and poor work ethic ― you owe it yourself to discern between the two. In my case, I have no problem apologising for my mistakes and correcting and adjusting the learning process when the situation requires.”

That response video garnered a lot of positive comments, but it was too late, the damage had been done. Students from all corners of the internet continued to find my initial video and they used it as a platform to air out their frustrations with all “teachers like you.”

They also used the comments section to argue with each other about whether these adults who were so hard on them and often caused them so much pain and stress should be allowed to be lighthearted about their own human failings. As a sensitive person who was new to this platform ― and had never experienced this kind of attention or public scrutiny before ― my first impulse was to take down my video. But the teacher in me wouldnt allow it.

As educators, we are often told that sometimes the best teacher for students is the students themselves, and as I watched the conversations unfolding in the comment section of my little six-second video, I realised these kids were being given a place to scream, to vent, to comfort each other, and to let each other know they were not alone in the educational process. They had found a place to challenge one another’s views on the humanity of those entrusted to provide them with an education.

Some were just happy to see a teacher ― that dark cloud of bureaucratic power they were forced to contend with on a daily basis ― finally admit to messing up. For many of them, it was probably the first time they saw an authority figure not only fail, but admit to a mistake ― and make a joke about it. By leaving the video up, I committed to allowing whoever views it to create their relationship with it, as well as a place to share, to shriek and, ultimately I hope, to learn something about me, their teachers, and themselves.

Over a million people have seen the video and it has become bigger than I ever expected. This experience has given me a lot to unpack, and I hope that in the end, my creation served as a place for conversation and, if nothing else, it made some people smile or think.

Now, if you asked me at the beginning of quarantine if Id ever go massively viral on a site infamous for teens showing off their latest choreography skills, I would have said no. I dont really have anything of merit to add to a place like that. Im just a bored teacher, who likes to make a joke or two at her own expense.

But boy, was I ever wrong. I guess everybody makes mistakes.

Stephanie Comfort is an English and media teacher based in Los Angeles. This article first appeared on HuffPost Personal.