Why I’ve Stopped Using Teachers Pay Teachers
The life of a teacher is a busy one. Every year I say to myself that I just need to get through September and things will calm down. The kids will settle into our routines we love. I will magically be ready for the inevitable roadblocks that appear. Heck, I will even anticipate them.
Then October rolls in and that “calming down” thing just isn’t true. October has its own busy and so do November, December and every other month. Teaching is a wild ride – always.
I’m seeing a lot of conversations on social media about the weight of teaching. The feeling many have in October, the October Slump. Many use the phrase “just holding my head above water” or “treading water” — this whole idea that we are just about to drown.
The tasks build up, the work piles on, time and resources are scarce. It seems like we may soon be overwhelmed with the flood of responsibilities that come with teaching.
I get it. I live it. And yet…
Does the End Justify the Means?
Earlier this week at the gym I sat down to catch up on one of my preferred podcasts. I had not heard of the latest guest, but part of the description centered on teacher resources and “equity in sharing.” That caught my eye, so I turned it on and hit the treadmill.
Much to my dismay the podcast took a turn that caused me to pause for a minute. The speaker was what some refer to as an Edu-CEO – an individual who has left the classroom to form a business with the goal of supporting teachers. This particular guest was singing the praises of the Teachers Pay Teachers education marketplace.
Having listened to this podcast series before, and knowing that many of the past guests had been victims of the copyright infringement practices that Teachers Pay Teachers seems to miss so often in the products they profit from, I was anticipating that the host would have a pointed question or two for this TPT champion. But the challenge did not come.
As the podcast continued, topics like how to promote your store, dealing with the “echo chamber” of negativity, and how Teachers Pay Teachers is a tool for equity (I pulled an eye muscle on this one) were addressed. As a recovering TPT seller I know how rampant the abuse of intellectual property rights is on the platform, so I was shocked at this clear bias for the promotion of resource creation using the intellectual work of others without permission.
As a simple sample of what I mean, I’ve just searched “The 40 Book Challenge” on Teachers Pay Teachers. This is an idea, for those who are unaware, that Donalyn Miller introduced in her fantastic book The Book Whisperer. The search returned over 1000 hits selling various graphic organizers and other creations, all sporting the 40 Book Challenge name. They often cite Donalyn herself as the creator (one even called her “Carolyn” Miller).
In attempt to combat the rampant copyright violations on websites such as Teachers Pay Teachers, Heinemann Publishing has updated its copyright language. I hope other educational material publishers follow their lead. https://t.co/CTTRNIAcdH
— Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks) December 16, 2018
Using Donalyn’s name is one of two things – a misguided attempt to give credit, somehow thinking it absolves them of any wrong regarding copyright infringement – or an attempt to get more eyes on their product by having her name in the description. Either way the practice is disheartening.
Don’t even get me started on the use and abuse on TPT of Notice and Note, a collection of works by Heinemann authors Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst. These two creators have asked that people not take their ideas and sell them on Teachers Pay Teachers. But a quick search there produces 7000+ hits.
Why are these sellers willing to ignore intellectual property rights? One TPT-participating teacher told me, “I don’t care what they say, I should get paid for my work!” The hypocrisy of this statement was both staggering and hilarious to me. In that moment I realized what I was dealing with.
Sharing Our Work Is Good
The concept of teachers paying teachers is not all bad. The argument that teachers need ways to share resources and maybe even profit off the work they are CREATING themselves is credible, even valuable.
The concern I have is that educators are looking to Teachers Pay Teachers and the somewhat affordable products offered there without giving much consideration to who created the original work – whether someone else’s genius made it possible for these TPT sellers to create packets, handouts and super cute worksheets. And what it means when we fail to support the authors and thought leaders who have put in the time – in the classroom and at the writing desk – to figure out and share what works.
The point is often raised in this discussion that teachers need support, they need resources, and there not enough time to make everything they need. I agree, and never more than this year. I am stretched pretty thin myself, and I myself am tempted at times. I have in the past hit up Teachers Pay Teachers for some quick ideas so I can just get something started tomorrow. What I have not done is kid myself that this is best for my students or my practice.
The Heinemann Blog post about copyright language revisions, mentioned in Donalyn Miller’s tweet above, specifically mentions Teachers Pay Teachers as a cause for concern. This passage is highlighted in the post:
Heinemann’s authors have devoted their entire careers to developing the unique content in their works, and their written expression is protected by copyright law. We respectfully ask that you do not adapt, reuse, or copy anything on third-party (whether for-profit or not-for-profit) lesson sharing websites. (An Update to Our Copyright Language, Heinemann Blog, 12/10/18)
My outlook on this: If I buy Notice and Note, if I read it, if I use the materials that come with the book (inside the covers or online) – which are shared by the authors with me for the price of the book – and if I then take their ideas and templates and adapt them for my needs in my classes, this is appropriate use, part of my “license” which I gained by buying and absorbing their work.
If I develop some of my own original materials, inspired by my study of Beers and Probst in the most general sense, and offer them online, that may be okay, too. But the minute I connect their titles, special language, books and materials to my items for sale – I’m very likely infringing on their intellectual property. If so, then I’m taking unfair advantage of the large investment they and their publishers have made to create, publish and promote what they have created.
I understand that costs of professional resources can be high. But these texts provide a long term learning tool. If a school division or school presents us with funds to improve our classroom and pedagogy, our first moves should not be to type in Teachers Pay Teachers to build a curriculum. We should be building professional libraries. We should be creating a strong foundation of instruction that does not rely on clip art, fancy fonts and chevron borders to catch our students attention.
While Teachers Pay Teachers is affordable and yes, you can probably get all the handouts you need there for around the same cost as a few professional teaching resources, which is going to provide the better long term educational growth for both you and your students?
The Question of Equity
I have spent the week pondering how to address the claims that Teachers Pay Teachers is an equity tool, that it evens the playing field and provides resources to those who have less access due to geographic isolation or fewer financial resources.
While I can see that these issues are significant, I would suggest there are better ways to gain access than to buy what some might say is stolen property. In this day and age we have connections to amazing educators at our finger tips. I live in rural Alberta, Canada. The excuse of isolation only goes as far as our connection to the internet.
Lack of available funds is a real problem, but if you have funds to purchase a few canned resources from TPT, you likely have the means to invest in some professional resource that will build your practice. Check the library, often there is a resource section with support funds. I also see crowd-funded resource requests all the time – try one in your community. Perhaps the #clearthelists movement would be a great way to get those resources to support your teaching (while we also support #fundourschools).
The idea of a school division or district giving teachers money for resources, and instead of investing in the learning of teachers we invest in workbooks and worksheets, saddens me. As I was discussing this concept on Twitter, a friend said in a moment of desperation they turned to TPT because they were teaching a new course and just felt like they were drowning.
In that moment, I thought about the story Refugee by Alan Gratz that my grade 8 class is currently loving. There is a scene where Mahmoud is in the Mediterranean sea, on the verge of drowning, and his life jacket is not helping him stay afloat. The life jackets his family had purchased seemed great. They looked like the real deal, but alas they were fakes. Their sense of safety and security was false. (Mahmoud and his family do survive the ordeal, finding a functioning life jacket to keep them alive.) I thought about that and how Teachers Pay Teachers is sometimes that fake life jacket. It looks good, makes us feel okay, like we’re able to float, but in the end it does nothing to really buoy us up.
My Greatest Concerns
Ultimately, my primary concern with the products on Teachers Pay Teachers revolves around the legalities of copyright infringement and the morality of teachers repackaging the ideas of others by throwing some shiny clip art on the authors’ work and claiming it as their own. What is the message we are sending? What is the example we are showing?
Beyond that, I think the appeal of quick and easy handouts and half-understood tools will distract too many teachers from our true purpose. Notice and Note again provides a good example. Having some handouts with those words on them that we can show to the principal is a whole lot different than really understanding at a deep level what Beers and Probst are trying to help us accomplish with our kids – and really learning to use their strategies.
Teach and learn. That’s our true purpose. Teach and learn.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Readers may be interested in this story that appeared at Education Week in July 2020: Teachers Pay Teachers Has a New Anti-Racist Initiative. But There’s Still Racist Content on the Site.
AND this EdSurge article from February 2021:
What Teachers Pay Teachers Is Learning From Bad Lessons and Upset Teachers – More than two-thirds of teachers are estimated to have used Teachers Pay Teachers to access lessons and other resources. Yet, a review of materials on the site by The Thomas B. Fordham Institute found many may not be “worth using,” and the company appears to be reacting to some concerns, including a need for more anti-racist and culturally responsive materials. (Summary from Accomplished Teacher SmartBrief)