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How TikTok and Snapchat Became the Surveillance State in the Classroom

Does video recording in the classroom keep teachers accountable, or just keep them in fear?

Earlier this year, Hanna, a 30-year-old high school teacher in Florida took off her mask for a moment to help a child with “severe behavioral issues” settle down from a panic attack. It was around this time that another of her students hit the red record button on his phone. She’d had issues with this student in the past — for showing up 30 to 45 minutes late, for bringing food into the classroom, for walking in without a mask and demanding to know what he’d missed. The problem was, none of that was on video.

“He sent all this to my admin and his mom claiming I don’t enforce rules to my students fairly, I’m accosting his girlfriend and him and I never wear my mask,” Hanna writes in a Reddit post. “I didn’t even realize I had been recorded at that moment and was taken aback.”

Hanna admits that a lot was going on that day — other kids were eating in class, too, and that the “out-of-context nature of the video is damning.” In fact, according to the administrators who saw the video, it looked like Hanna didn’t know how to run a classroom. “So I now have to sit with mom, student and admin as they berate me,” she continues. 

The incident was hardly the first of its kind. Hanna tells me about another example in which a teacher was recorded by a student saying the n-word, but which turned out to be dubbed and not real. “I’ve been recorded just standing behind my desk or talking to another student — not maliciously, just regular Snapchat stuff,” she says. But even the “regular Snapchat stuff” has made it so that Hanna is “hyper-aware” of the fact that at any given moment, anything she says or does can — and most likely will be — posted online. Or in the worst-case scenario, as with the no-mask video, used to get her in trouble. 

Billy, a 15-year-old high school student in California, agrees that these days it’s very normal to record her teachers. “Depends on the teacher,” she says. “But honestly, it happens a lot.” She tells me that just earlier in the day, one of her friends recorded her teacher scolding a student who was requesting that the teacher sign a form to excuse them from the course. “Some teachers are fine with being recorded,” Billy says, although they typically insist that they don’t want the video to be posted online. Of course, Billy adds, “no one listens.”

To that end, TikTok is awash in videos of teachers doing everything from berating students to losing their cool during class. In fairness, though, most of the videos are pretty benign — just young people laughing at their teachers for being old. But videos like the one of Hanna taking off her mask, according to Billy, are used to prove a point — it’s a way of students telling their teachers “just so you know.” 

For her part, Billy says she’s been recording her teachers since middle school. “If I hear a teacher saying anything in class about an assignment, I record them so I have proof,” she says. She knows it’s illegal to record anyone without their consent in California — just as it is in Florida and 10 other states — but she does it anyway. “What’s the worst that could happen?” Billy asks. “They make you delete the video?”

Isabella, a 32-year-old science teacher in California, is of two minds about this new normal. On the one hand, she understands why a student might pull out their phone if their teacher is being a racist, bully or conspiracy theorist — last month, for example, a high school math teacher from Riverside, California, was placed on leave after a student video went viral showing them mocking Indigenous cultures during a class. “Documenting that in some way could change their classroom for the better,” she says. On the other hand, students haphazardly recording their teachers anytime they feel uncomfortable isn’t exactly a recipe for emotional growth. 

“I don’t want students to think that’s always the best way to address issues they see in the world without first considering other alternatives,” Isabella says. “That should be the third or fourth avenue.”

Which is to say that recording one’s teacher without them knowing sets a troubling precedent, per Daniel Trottier, an associate professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam whose research focuses on the use of digital media for the purposes of scrutiny and denunciation. “Not just in terms of how we hold institutions accountable,” he says. “But also teaching future generations how to interact with colleagues and cope with potential conflicts.”

And for students, at least according to one of Billy’s classmates, it’s definitely a matter of gaining leverage. “There’s no other way of winning anymore,” says Justin. “They’re never going to believe a student over a teacher.” Recently, he was in a situation where a teacher said that students who don’t want to wear masks in the classroom can take them off (which was against school policy). “So I recorded it,” he says. “When teachers say stuff like that, they’re just asking for it.”

To be fair to the students, this line is a tenuous one for adults, too. But what Trottier finds so interesting about most of these examples is how often students are “being instructed by politicians, parents and media figures to ‘make teachers accountable.’” “It often seems like people outside the classroom are pushing students to do this in the context of the ‘culture wars,’’ he says. 

But parents and students alike might be surprised to find that based on Trottier’s research, this gotcha approach for administering accountability won’t necessarily “level the playing field,” the way that some students and their parents might hope. Quite the opposite. In the larger context of surveillance in society, what Trottier and his colleagues have found in example after example is that “those who traditionally held power continued to do so, and those at the margins remained marginalized,” he says.

In other words, there’s little doubt in Trottier’s mind that student-recorded viral videos are more likely to upend the lives of teachers in more precarious positions.

Despite Isabella’s discomfort with the situation, she says that she hasn’t changed the way she teaches — “not yet at least.” But she’s certainly more aware of how her split-second reactions — the kind that teachers are forced to make hundreds of times a day — are going to appear outside the context of a classroom. “That makes me anxious,” she says. “Situations come up all the time that I wish I’d dealt with differently. But when you watch a video recording, you’re not getting any context or nuance.” Teaching, she continues, “is scary enough without having to worry about a camera recording you. You’re reacting to things in the moment, and sometimes you miss the mark.”

The same, however, doesn’t hold true for Hanna. “I find myself being more lenient on my students,” she says. “I don’t want to be the teacher who loses her cool and is suddenly all over the internet.” 

That, of course, is a lesson no one wants to learn.

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