Houston Area Teacher Uses TikTok Cameos to Open Doors for Spiritual Conversations
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
Tricia Zinnecker’s 6th grade students aren’t surprised to see her singing along to a popular tune or being silly in a short video. In fact, she’s become their own TikTok sensation. This teacher, a member of Kingwood UMC, believes in meeting people where they are. And, she is opening doors for deeper conversations about the smart use of social media.
COVID-19 emptied Zinnecker’s middle school classroom. “When we left for spring break, we had no idea that we were saying goodbye,” she recalled. “We kept thinking maybe it would just last a while. Of course, it’s still going on now.”
Luckily, Zinnecker already knew her students, how to communicate with them and which ones needed extra help. “The timing, in that sense, was perfect,” she said.
Still, moving online had its challenges – and was a major adjustment for both students and their teacher. “It was definitely a bit change,” Zinnecker said. “As a teacher, you spend the day with these people. You get to be creative, come up with lessons and hope they stick. All of that was ripped away.”
That’s when TikTok came in. At first, Zinnecker resisted the popular, social networking service that shares short videos of individuals dancing or lip-synching along to music.
“I would tell my students, ‘You’re not TikTok-ing in here,” Zinnecker said with a laugh.
During the quarantine, however, her two teenage daughters started to share their videos on the site and started to realize its potential. She saw some of her students on the app as well.
“Some, who were super quiet and shy in the classroom, were actually really funny on TikTok,” Zinnecker said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to make one.’”
Before long, her students started to find her on TikTok. Those who complained that they did not have Wi-Fi for class were connecting with her on the app.
Zinnecker was surprised that her TikTok cameos started to spark some in-depth conversations. For example, she was able to discuss what her parameters to post something should be. She likes to tell students that if their grandmother could not watch a video, they should not post it.
Zinnecker can also talk about other concerns that social media raise. Students might compare themselves too much to others or feel like they do not have enough friends or followers.
“Jesus only had 12 followers; that’s okay,” she said.
In a way, social media can magnify issues already present in middle school – making friends, popularity and feeling left out.
“This is all so new to them, the whole social media world,” Zinnecker said. “As an adult, we have life experience, but they don’t. It can weigh on them so heavily.”
Zinnecker shows her students how she can be funny and still be true to herself. She doesn’t mind being silly with her students. “It just comes down to laughing at yourself and being a dork,” she said.
Understanding how to use social media to stay connected and have fun responsibly – and establish good online habits – is also a topic of conversation for the teacher and her students.
“As a mom, I know that we don’t have very many resources to teach this,” Zinnecker said. “You’re basically branding yourself.”
And you’re establishing that image at a young age. “As a Christian, at a public school, I can’t always say what I want, but I can show them through my actions,” Zinnecker explained.
Most of all, this teacher enjoys staying connected to her class – especially at a time when becoming isolated is the norm.
“It’s made our time together more fun,” Zinnecker said. “Instead of remembering this as, ‘My classes were canceled, and I had so much work online, my dad lost his job and my grandmother was sick,’ I hope they can look back at this time and say, ‘I had so much fun, and my teacher was a total dork.’”
Clint Willie, associate pastor for student ministry at Zinnecker’s church, has also started using TikTok.
“Tricia doing it and stepping up in a positive way was really an influence on us,” he said.
Kingwood UMC wanted to use TikTok as a tool to build relationships and stay connected with students in this time, when isolation seems to be the norm.
“As student ministers, our greatest hope and desire is to transform lives for the transformation of the world, that they know and love Jesus,” Willie said. “The natural way to do that is put out devotional content. But I’ve realized more and more that students aren’t connecting to those things.”
He believes that building a balance between content and relationship is key. “That’s what happens when we meet together,” he said. “The relational is what encourages you to log-in to the spiritual. As many things that we can do to stay relational in this space – that’s good.”
Next year, Zinnecker’s classes will be smaller and schedules will change to allow for social distancing. Nothing is completely certain yet – except that she will be posting more TikTok videos.
She also knows that leaning of faith will continue to be crucial in the upcoming year, facing so many unknowns.
“I don’t know how people who don’t have faith do this,” Zinnecker said. “In isolation, I felt like God was teaching me. I was learning so much. God wanted me to lean on him for a while.”
When she could no longer attend worship in person or meet with her small group, she realized what remained. “The only consistent thing was God,” she said. “It was very eye-opening.”