Teachers have always had to expect a certain amount of stick from their pupils. It’s part of the job; normally we don’t grumble too much about it. Over my 14 years in the profession I’ve worked across nine secondary schools, teaching history in Wales, Blackpool, and Liverpool.
Sometimes, I encountered challenging behavioural problems. I’ve been told to “f--- off”; called an “idiot” and a “tw--”. Teenagers can be aggressive, but as a teacher you can’t take any of it to heart. We have to depersonalise the abuse, leaving it at the school gates at the end of the day. Normally, I’m fairly good at doing that. It’s an issue I discuss regularly on Teachers’ Talk Radio, an online radio station I help to direct.
But a week ago, that changed. I was labelled a paedophile by an anonymous TikTok user, presumably a pupil at my school. For the first time in my career I felt truly shocked – and afraid.
And it appears I’m not the only one. This week, the NASUWT teachers' union warned that teachers are quitting their jobs because of the latest TikTok craze, in which pupils falsely label their teachers as paedophiles or adulterers. The new phenomenon sees children posting images or videos of teachers with hashtags (a feature that lets users search for the different topics on TikTok) such as #paedo.
The tech company said it “regretted” the slurs and that it was “proactively” searching for such malicious allegations.
My own ordeal started when a senior member of staff at my school (a comprehensive in the North West) called me into a meeting, and told me that an “abusive” video about me had been posted online.
I went home, slightly confused, and opened my laptop. It took me about 30 seconds to find what my colleague had been talking about. On TikTok, I found a mysterious account with an anonymous username. They had posted three videos, one of which was critical of my school. The other two videos focused solely on me. The anonymous user had taken photographs from my professional Twitter account, and overlaid them with text.
One piece of text called me a “nonce”. Another said I “touched children”, asking: “How many children do you touch? Thousands, millions?.” With a sickening feeling, I spotted that the post had been viewed by 12,000 people. I scrolled through the comments, a sea of ‘likes’ and cry-laugh emojis, some of which were posted by pupils from my school, with usernames I recognised. One of the commenters said I “touched [their] shoulder”. It was all very jokey and light-hearted; to them, it seemed like a big laugh. To me, it was far more serious.
Nobody wants to be labelled a paedophile. But as a teacher, it can prove career-ending. I started to worry about my future. How was I going to face my pupils on Monday morning, aware that many of them were laughing at me, and spreading terrible rumours behind my back? It might sound far-fetched, but I even started to worry about being victimised by a vigilante group.
I assume the videos were posted by a pupil, but it’s hard to know for sure. I racked my brain for a motive – what would make a teenager target me like this? But I truly have no idea. I’m a relatively strict teacher, and there are any number of things that might have turned a child against me.
I immediately reported the videos to TikTok, but they didn’t act for several days, once my story had already been highlighted in the press. My school, meanwhile, reported the account to Merseyside Police, who told me the videos “do not meet the threshold for further investigation”. You can falsely call someone a paedophile online, it seems, with zero repercussions.
Friends and fellow teachers shared my horror. I’m 36 – when I started in the profession, nobody had to worry about online abuse. Bad behaviour and name-calling stayed in the classroom. Now, it can be broadcast to thousands of people within seconds.
A doctor signed me off work for stress; I haven’t been into school since. My contract with my current school finishes at the end of this term. I never imagined my time there would end this way – but I just can’t handle the fear of pupils laughing at me behind my back. In January, I start afresh, with a new job at a new school. Hopefully, things will improve.
Policymakers worry, as they are right to, about the effect of social media on the minds of our young people. Isn’t it time somebody worried about the effect it’s having on teachers, too?
As told to Luke Mintz