If you ever imagined living through a dystopian crisis, you probably didn’t think about teachers. You maybe thought the heroes would be fit men in futuristic armor, or tense, high-cheekboned scientists in lab coats, or a gritty survivalist who takes a spunky young orphan under her wing.
Nope, it’s teachers.
Teachers, particularly those who are young, tech-savvy, and extroverted, have been going viral on TikTok and social media. Their videos, which show snippets of remote and distanced teaching, aren’t just watchable, but blindsiding. In the moments you are watching the videos, you are seeing the act of teaching not as it is usually treated—as an unremarkable career dominated by women—but as highly skilled work, deserving of praise and even fandom. During the pandemic, the clips take the notion of teaching out of the realm of a vaguely nice abstraction and turn it into a feat of science, engineering, and grit—like an Olympic gold medal routine or a leader’s historic speech.
It’s also important to note that the TikTok algorithm rewards whiteness. These (very charming!) videos inaccurately present the idea that most great teachers are young and white. But all the same, TikTok video of a young woman sitting in an empty room, teaching kindergarteners through a computer screen, accomplishes in 60 seconds what big-budget movies struggle to do in two hours. The TikTok user, a teacher named MacKenzie, is separated from her students, limited by what she can show on a screen, and stymied by technology. But she conveys the meaning of the number four with the purposefulness of a NASA ground engineer communicating with an astronaut midflight. Her video, which has been viewed more than 9 million times, makes watching a professional educator teach basic arithmetic feel high stakes. And it is.
These videos are deeply moving—and a little bit depressing. Everyone who has been a student, or the parent of a student, knows exactly how important teachers like Mackenzie are. Why should teachers have to make videos during a pandemic to prove their worth? Why are Americans so insistent that things must be seen to be believed?
Haven’t teachers already done enough—educating an entire society, working unforgiving hours for low pay, paying for their own education and supplies, timing their bathroom breaks for five-minute passing periods, and now, in some cases, risking their health—without also having to be their own hype-people? Social media marketing is a full-time job, one that often pays better than teaching, by the way. Teachers have a vital job. They deserve to be praised and thanked even when they are not adorable, TikTok-proficient, and teaching through a pandemic. Must we make teachers ask—politely, creatively, in shareable clips—for praise?
Teachers cannot pay for mortgages or vacations in faves and retweets, the same way nurses and frontline workers cannot spend applause. Even viewing teachers as “heroes” instead of highly skilled professionals is problematic, some argue. “This search for superhuman lifesavers in a crisis short-circuits the ordinary processes of accountability and reform,” writes Dahlia Lithwick in Slate, of “America’s heroism trap.” Think about the firefighters and emergency workers who saved lives on 9/11, only to have to beg Congress for health care funding in the years since.
On the other hand, come on! Using your heart and mind and body and Zoom skills to teach children to love learning under excruciating circumstances? If heroic isn’t the right word, we can try: hopeful, inspiring, a reason to consider getting a teaching degree, a glimpse of the best kind of humanity. Or maybe, just: deserving of ample compensation.
May our hearts be warmed by these videos—and our plans to support teachers through political advocacy strengthened.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.