When Dr. Neil Gupta published Flipping the Script on the TikTok Challenge, it got my wheels turning. Spend enough time in middle school, and you will see your fair share of adolescent fads: fidget spinners, bottle flipping, the mannequin challenge, and many others.
When this one came along, it seemed different. It felt different. This was more than just "kids being kids".
In 2021,coming out of two uniquely challenging years of school and life, adolescents reunited, with their classmates, in their schools. As we watched. marveling at the reunions that unfolded, the common refrain of, "Give them a chance; they'll remember how school works" could be heard frequently from many a nervous/cautiously optimistic sounding adult.
Learning long ago never to doubt the potential of an adolescent, I reflected, remembering how staggered arrival times, teachers traveled from class to class rather than students, kids eating lunches in classrooms, and teachers traveling from class to class, impacted our days. Juggled three groups of students: one in front of them, one "remote", who they'd see the next day, and a last, learning remotely (those they'd wished to see again that school year) became parts of a teacher's "normal" workday routine. "Exploring outdoor learning spaces" became normal. And kids seeing adults learn, "pivot", and learn again, became the norm. A successful day was sometimes defined by not having to be a part of contact tracing, or worse, quarantining.
As the administrator, I look back and realize how grateful I am for being one of the lucky ones. Clear, consistent, transparent, and optimistic, that was the norm for communication. Supportive of health, wellness, safety, and teamwork, as I looked around, I realized how much we did not represent "the norm". Rarely easy, we remained hopeful of better days.
And here we are, living those better days.
Enter: TikTok challenges.
Bathroom antics have been happening in and around schools since, well, school itself. When you think about it, you realize how, the bathroom is really the one of the few places where a student or group of students can go to regroup. And while vandalism is not the most appropriate of outlets for stress, I'm guessing it's got something to do with why it happens.
But maybe, just maybe, there's another reason. Maybe, it's a place of expression, of voice.
Hear me out.
Schools have worked a certain way for a very long time. Teacher makes the rules, and the students follow. Students break a rule, and the teacher responds. Teacher asks a question, and the student answers. Student answers the question correctly, and gets praised. Student gets praised for other things as well; attendance and punctuality, compliance, being prepared, being helpful, being...right. And doing as the adult asks...or often, tells.
Over the last two years of a global pandemic, combined with the last two months of "getting back to normal", where is the room for student expression, student voice, student feedback?
Where are the student's being asked for input, on where and how circumstances can be improved, done differently, and in a way that puts the student more in the center of the learning, rather than on the outskirts of teaching, and the periphery of what we call school?
Maybe that place, for those students, is social media, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram? Maybe that place, if they're lucky, is a team, organization, sport, or activity. And maybe it's their dinner table, surrounded by loving and caring family. But what about the kids who don't feel like they belong, who don't feel like they're being heard, who no one is listening to, or asking the question of, "So...how are you?"
Maybe there's more to "those kids" in bathrooms, removing soap dispensers, flushing paper towel rolls, damaging faucets. Maybe this is where they are searching for and are convinced, they're finding...they're voice. Do what's on the challenge. Record it and post it. And gain (albeit negative) attention, but nonetheless, infamous notoriety. Could this be true?
This is something for us to pay attention to, to watch for, and take action on.
Here are five action steps, in response to TikTok Challenges.
Assemble a small group of students. Ask what's going well, what needs attention, and what needs improvement in our school.
Visit their spaces, in classrooms, clubs, and ball fields. Let them see you, seeing them.
Persist in greeting them, by name. Be playful, checking up about a common interest.
Invite, recruit, and encourage student leaders, emphasizing that leadership comes in all forms, shapes, and sizes. Leaders need not be extroverts, as many believe, they just need to want to contribute to improving something for others.
Teach them appropriate ways to advocate for their beliefs. Show them how civics are alive and well in everyday life. Encourage them, if they disagree with something, the steps to take to voice that disagreement. Show them that you are serious by honoring the process when they follow it.
And most importantly, commit to listening, learning, and taking action, together. Pull in those outliers. Focus on self-empowerment. Invest in and build up individuals each day.
As you might imagine, I speak from some very specific, personalized experience. And while I could have told that story, that's not my story to tell, it's theirs. My story is the one about the principal who is learning more from kids, about kids this year, than he's ever learned before. And every day, I'm grateful for that, looking forward to tomorrow's lessons that await.
My story is the one I've written here, and the one I'm writing, every day.
Click here to visit the Learning Leadership 365 site, where you may read all posts I've written.