The term “influencer” has risen to new heights in the past decade, trending alongside the rapid expansion of social media in all our daily lives. In this new world of dance challenges and viral trends, the top influencers of today are on platforms such as TikTok, and they know that engagement is the key metric when trying to capture the attention of an often disparate, inattentive mass audience.
That kind of sounds like the description of a teacher too, doesn’t it?
“It has always been my philosophy as a teacher that engagement is THE metric,” said Risha Allen, a music teacher at both Roosevelt and John Hoeven Elementary Schools in Minot. “I think, sometimes, people are worried about noise. If we make too much noise in here, then it looks like I don’t have control of my classroom or it looks like we’re not doing the thing. … I am going with the culture that’s already established, which is we have fun. We want students to be engaged. We’re not afraid to make some noise.”
Her philosophy for teaching is evident both in Allen’s classroom and online. Her TikTok profile, @rishdishfish, has made a lot of noise on the platform, to the tune of 239,500 followers and over 8.3 million likes. Reaching that level of influence on social media doesn’t happen overnight. Allen’s traces the start of her digital journey back to humble roots in the South.
Originally from southeastern Kentucky, Allen said she grew up in a family of both musicians and educators. “My mom was actually my first-grade teacher,” she said, “ and this was in the ’80s, they didn’t have music teachers then. But my mom is a pianist and a singer, and so she had a piano in the back of her room. I don’t remember much about first grade, but I remember the music. … She would play from songbooks, ‘Mary Poppins’ and all those things. And we started the day with music. I know I’ve carried that into my life as a music teacher, starting the day with happy, positive music.”
Allen started taking piano lessons at the age of seven, and she continued those studies for 12 years and learned to play by ear. In high school, she discovered another key influencer in her path to becoming an educator in her choir instructor. “He showed me how accessible music was,” Allen said. “It doesn’t have to be black-and-white notes on a page. … Just watching him move and work, I learned so much. And then I thought, maybe I can do that.”
While she originally went to Union College in Barbourville, Ky., on a vocal music scholarship, she changed her tune – and major – toward writing and teaching, with a minor in music. She got a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and communication and a Bachelor of Science in secondary education, with a Master’s of Education in literacy K-12 from Eastern Kentucky University. This slight change in direction didn’t represent a total 180, she said, because writing and creating was always central to her love for music. “I’ve always been very quick with words,” Allen said. “Kind of a wordsmith, (I) can turn something funny real quick, something rhyming or using some other device. That’s always been a strong suit.”
She spent 14 years teaching high school English, starting in her home state of Kentucky and ending up in North Dakota, for the first time, in 2012 to teach 11th and 12th grade English at Magic City Campus in Minot. She and her family had to move around a lot in the next few years, but when her life came to a crossroads a few years ago, she looked back at Minot as the time she was happiest as a teacher.
“I moved back to North Dakota to be an English teacher,” she said.
“I loved it here. So, when I got divorced I was like, I want to go back to where I was the happiest because this is going to be my career and this is going to be how I bring my kids up on my own.”
She moved back to Minot initially as a Title I English instructor, again at Magic City, when the opportunity presented itself for her to teach music for the first time in her professional career. “2021 was my first year as a music teacher,” she said. “This is a complete career shift. I was the English department chair, wrote all the English language arts curriculum for the last school I was at. I had created this big program to increase A.C.T. scores. My school district that I left in Kentucky, they still use it. That was my intellectual pursuit. And I will never go away from music now. This is too fun.”
Allen said she knows that the correct key for reaching an audience of elementary school students is to the catchy hook that’ll attract the attention of an audience in music or on social media: engaging their interests and meeting them where they are.
“I was trying to learn their names at my other school,” she said. “So, I got the guitar out, and I was rhyming with their names, and they just thought it was absolutely amazing. And I was like, huh, they like it. From there, it actually just became kind of a buy-in thing. Like, if you like it when I write silly songs, you act better, you’re more engaged, you’re ready to learn.”
That steady focus on engagement has also led to her success in the realm of social media. When she started, she mostly used Facebook and Instagram stories to share the “adorable life” moments she experienced as an elementary school teacher. But everything changed less than two years ago, shortly after she started her current position.
“I’ve been on TikTok as long as I’ve been a music teacher, pretty much,” Allen said. “I’ve had an account for a while but never did anything with it. One of my good girlfriends back home had been like, ‘Risha, you need to be on TikTok. This is your platform. … The way you sing and write music, you need to be on here.’ But the music I used to write is like Heartbreak City. I don’t want to be putting misery out into the world. There’s enough of that.
“I started to put on my Instagram and Facebook story, just some of the cute little moments, I would snap a picture or something like that. And then in November of 2021 with my ‘Hello, Ms. Allen’ song, I put it on my Facebook, and it really kind of blew up on Facebook. And my friend who had been pushing TikTok was like, ‘Put it on TikTok! I’m done with you. Put it on TikTok!’ So, I put it on TikTok, and it just instantly went viral. And I’ve just kept going viral ever since.’”
As her follower list exploded following her first viral post, her influence and reach in that arena has expanded alongside those numbers. This has allowed Risha to do some pretty amazing things, both for her and her students. In early 2022, she had her students write songs about their favorite football teams. By tagging the accounts of these teams on posts of the songs, several of them collected comments of encouragement for the students from NFL teams, including the Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings. When the Green Bay Packers didn’t comment, one of their star players, AJ Dillon, did.
“The NFL was fighting over us last year because I let kids write their own songs,” she said. “They’ll do a rough draft, and then I’ll let them color it in however they want. Then they’ll put some words on it. And so, last year I put a couple of these on my TikTok and … there was several people that would like and comment on them. So, they write their own music and they write it about what they want it to be about. They put it all together and help each other and revise. It’s just so much fun.”
A Christmas song she wrote and performed in the classroom for her kids, titled “Teacher’s Christmas Wish,” was posted on TikTok, and collected an enormous amount of comments and likes. This allowed her the opportunity to record the song and release it to streaming services online.
“I think that is my best moment ever as a teacher,” she said. “That one went to the Today Show. Jamie Lee Curtis shared it. One of the Kardashians liked it, and now it’s anywhere you can find music. So, my songwriting now is on Apple Music, Spotify, all of that. I took students into a studio with me, like a handful of students whose parents are friends, and I felt comfortable with the moms coming in with me and stuff. … That’s been on Cincinnati News twice, Minot News a couple of times, and then was just viral. I was on UpWorthy. … That’s one of the reasons I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. I’m bringing a lifetime of songwriting and music into this pure love and joy for these little kids. It’s life-changing.”
In April, Allen spoke to aspiring educators at our Student-North Dakota United (SNDU) conference in Bismarck about how they can responsibly utilize social media to both add value to their instruction and advocate for their profession.
“When I spoke to the NDU students, I think my main focus with them was don’t be afraid of social media,” she said. “Be smart. … You can get in trouble as a teacher for a lot of things, not just social media. Does social media increase the risk? It sure does. And so, I talked with them about, if you’re going to use it, know your persona, know what you stand for and put out that content. Be positive. There’s enough negativity in the world. People need to see teachers happy and doing a good job and enjoying their lives.”
In summation, Allen said that her sudden success on TikTok has given her more opportunities than she’d ever dreamed possible, and that it aligns with her parallel passion for educating students is the best bonus possible. “I feel like what I’m doing perfectly lines up with what my philosophy has always been,” Allen said. “If you engage kids, if you meet them where they are and you give them fodder that is at their interest level, not yours, then they will learn at high levels. They’ll let you teach them anything and they’ll enjoy it.”