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Edupreneur Resources, Uncategorized   |   Apr 3, 2012

Should teachers sell the materials they create?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Should teachers sell the materials they create?

By Angela Watson

It’s safe to say that the edublogosphere was completely different when I started this site in 2003. Namely, there WAS no edublogosphere  then–all I had was a collection of static pages without a commenting or sharing system. Social media had not yet been invented. Neither had Google. There was no way for my content to “go viral” and search engine optimization strategies weren’t part of my everyday lexicon.

I just wanted to share my teaching ideas, and nine years ago, that’s pretty much the only option I had, anyway. The whole thing started because I was responding to message board posts at Teachers.net and was surprised at how happy other teachers were when I answered their questions about what worked in my classroom. Even though I was still a new-ish teacher, people made me feel like I had something valuable to contribute. I started noticing that people would ask the same types of questions and I was retyping the same types of answers, all the while trying in vain to describe something that would be so much clearer with a picture. So I started my first website and shared my tips and classroom photos. When people asked questions in the message board forums, I now had a link I could share with them that contained some photographs and a carefully thought-out response.

Here’s what my site looked like in 2003. I didn’t have my own domain and used a free web server. Updating the pages was a nightmare!
Here’s what my site looked like in 2003. I didn’t have my own domain and used a free web server. Updating the pages was a nightmare!

I never for a moment thought I’d make money from sharing my resources. I spent thousands of hours adding new content simply because I loved my work as a teacher and I wanted to help other people. And I wasn’t alone in this venture–there were quite a few other educators who also slowly built out massive sites, all completely, 100% for free.

As the internet evolved, people started suggesting that I sell my materials. At first, they recommended that I put my resources behind a pay wall; later they suggested I sell them on CD-ROMs. More recently, I started hearing I should be selling on Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT).

screenshotmspowell

These people had a point: who knows how many tens of thousands of dollars I could have made over the past decade by selling what I’ve been giving away? But my original vision for the website was still firmly entrenched in those beginning days when the entire focus was simply sharing ideas. It was the spirit of teaching, I thought.

People also recommended that I write a book, and I did take that advice. I had no problem charging for my first book when it came out in 2008. After all, people are used to paying for books: they’re not free unless you borrow them from the library. Then in 2010, I created the webinarAlthough free webinars do exist, mine is the equivalent of a full day’s professional development session, so it made sense to sell that, as well. As always, my website content and downloadable resources stayed completely free.

After I published The Cornerstone book in 2008, I moved from mspowell.com to thecornerstoneforteachers.com and got a fancy flash template, which was still hard to update and is unusable through today’s mobile devices.
After I published The Cornerstone book in 2008, I moved from mspowell.com to thecornerstoneforteachers.com and got a fancy flash template, which was still hard to update and is unusable through today’s mobile devices.

Then last fall, I joined Teaching Blog Traffic School (TBTS). Almost every member of the group sells teaching materials they create…and they’re making good money at it. I mean like, GOOD money. Some make enough to cover a car payment each month; some can pay their mortgage, and often after just 12 months (or even less) in the game. The really remarkable part is that they’re getting this kind of money from selling teaching materials for around $3 a pop! With TpT and PayPal each keeping a percentage! Can you imagine?  That’s how great the demand is for high-quality teaching materials. This stuff is selling in massive quantities.

Though I never argued for or against teachers selling materials, just observing the hard work of the TBTS group changed my mind about teachers selling the products they create. I’ve heard many solid reasons for why they sell materials, starting with the fact that no one who is working legally to create high-demand products should even have to justify their work. (Sure, I’ll give you that.) Many argue that it’s common for teachers to have a part time job to supplement their income; the additional money is necessary just to put food on the table. How can anyone begrudge them for taking care of their families? (Yeah, point taken there, too.)

The world’s tiniest graph image. Sorry about that. It shows how sales on TpT have grown exponentially. The projected sales for 2012 are 900 MILLION. Paul for TpT explains: “Sales in 2011 were $3,400,000 and we are almost at the same amount for 2012 and it’s only April.”
The world’s tiniest graph image. Sorry about that. It shows how sales on TpT have grown exponentially. The projected sales for 2012 are 900 MILLION. Paul for TpT explains: “Sales in 2011 were $3,400,000 and we are almost at the same amount for 2012 and it’s only April.”

Others say they want to make money doing what they love most: something that benefits teachers and students. They see creating teaching materials as a noble profession just like teaching is–and of course, teaching is a job which they are also paid to do, and deserve to be paid to do, so this isn’t any different. Just because you’re doing something to help others doesn’t mean you yourself cannot also benefit. (Hmm, yeah, true. And hello, I create teaching materials for a living! The ideas I’m sharing on my site, in my books, and in my webinar/PD sessions are just as valuable as the work I did in the classroom. Maybe even more so because I’m able to impact education on a greater scale and make a difference in the lives of more than just 30 kids a year. So yeah, I’m on board with that point, too.)

But the line of thinking that ultimately persuaded me to believe that teachers SHOULD sell the materials they create is this: why should corporations make all the money? Educators have no problem paying big bucks for reproducible books they get in education supply and book stores. A lot of the stuff that teachers are selling is of the same quality or higher (after all, the publishing companies are paying experienced educators to write the books for them.) Why shouldn’t teachers get the money for their ideas and their work?

TpT recently adopted this slogan. Love it.
TpT recently adopted this slogan. Love it.

Recently I found out exactly how much one education publisher paid a teacher for the materials she created for one of their books. She came up with the concept and designed every single activity from scratch; all they did was put it in print, and barely even promoted it.  The amount they paid her was disgraceful, a lump sum with no royalties and no rights to her own concept. Seriously. She could have made 100 times that amount–maybe even more–selling the exact same thing as a PDF document on TpT. Those teaching resource books aren’t cheap. Shouldn’t the person who actually came up with the idea and created the materials keep the majority of the money?

Though my perspective on teachers selling their resources has shifted in a way that I never thought it would, I have NOT changed my mind about the way I want to run my website. My content is free, period. I am, however, rethinking my books as I’ve been watching the trend of selling smaller items for less instead of larger items for more (see Seth Godin‘s post just this week). The idea for my fourth book (yes, I know, the third one’s not even done yet–I’m a planner!) involves reproducible classroom resources. I’ve kind of scrapped the book concept now in favor of dividing up the chapters and selling them separately as printable PDFs. That way teachers can buy only the exact resources they want, and I can save the time and expense that goes into publishing a book. It’s an experiment, for sure, an idea I haven’t totally fleshed out, but I thought I’d let you know how my own plans for TpT fit into this discussion.

In 2010, I switched to WordPress and have never looked back. I can add and edit content easily, and visitors can comment and share the resources in one click. I was also able to add a blog to the site so visitors can subscribe.
In 2010, I switched to WordPress and have never looked back. I can add and edit content easily, and visitors can comment and share the resources in one click. I was also able to add a blog to the site so visitors can subscribe.

Wow, this is insanely long. Thanks for hanging in there. This was really important for me to share because I often see a deeply bitter divide between those who think all resources should be shared freely in the spirit of teacher collaboration, and those who think teachers deserve to benefit financially from their hard work. Many people on both sides find the others’ opinion to be unfathomable. I hope that by sharing my shifting perspective with you, you’ll be able to understand the view that opposes yours just a little better.

Specifically, I hope I’ve helped those who support TpT understand why so many educators think the basic principle of it is wrong: it has to do with the early years of teaching websites, when none of this had yet been dreamed up, and we were just a small network of people helping one another for the sake of helping. It also goes back to a pre-internet age, in which teachers freely copied one another’s ideas and there was no thought whatsoever to making a profit from an activity you made for your students. You made stuff because you wanted your students to learn, and you shared it because you wanted your colleagues’ students to learn, too. That’s just as honorable as wanting to make money to support your family.

This is how the site looks today in 2012: a professionally-created header, social media options featured prominently, and my two book babies in the sidebar! I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.
This is how the site looks today in 2012: a professionally-created header, social media options featured prominently, and my two book babies in the sidebar! I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.

I also hope I’ve helped the anti-TpT people understand that teachers selling their products are not operating from a sense of greed. They spend countless hours creating fabulous products, and much of what they make, they give away as freebies. But they’re working on a teacher’s salary, and they see that educators are desperate for engaging, high-quality teaching materials and they’re willing to pay for them. To let big companies and publishers benefit from that demand on the backs of a select few teachers who are paid paltry sums for their ideas? It just doesn’t make sense when you’ve got great resources of your own which can pay for the things your family needs. Why shouldn’t educators be entrepreneurs?

And now, I’ll toss it over to you. Do you think teachers should sell the materials they create or give them away freely?  I’d love to hear where you stand in this whole debate.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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Discussion


  1. I don’t mind offering content for free. After all, I’m selling books, so the blog and resources might as well be free. What bothers me, though, is that my resources that I’ve created are being used by PD / consulting companies that are making money without adequately citing my free resources. The lack of attribution is illegal and unethical. Yet, it’s happened a few times already.

  2. I am glad to hear you take on it all. I’ve gone back and forth about what I thought about it. I read a blog post not long ago that upset me because it was so negative about selling items. I try to offer stuff for free most of the time but things I spend a lot of time on I try to sell on TPT or Teacher’s Notebook. I really like your point about the money going to teachers instead of a corporation. I don’t think I’ll be buying anymore books with units after I discovered TPT. I can find what I need and usually it is more relevant to my class.

    1. Hi, Kerri! I remember that blog post well, and that’s what initially got me thinking about this topic. Honestly, I am surprised there was not more backlash on this post from people who think like that. I posted this question on my FB wall about a year ago and there was a definite 50/50 split and some not-so-nice comments. Times are changing. More and more people are receptive and supportive of the idea of teachers selling their materials, it seems.

      1. Not sure which blog post you are referring to, but a good ‘blog friend’ of mine recently posted one out of frustration, and she was SLAMMED by so many people that she disabled the comments. Her thoughts were simply these—it saddened her that there were SO MANY things being shared a year ago, without thought of selling those ideas. Perusing blogs was so much fun–like gathering wildflowers—free, and you ended up with a plethora of ideas to use in the classroom. Now, it seems that most blogs only offer links to things that the author is selling–the freebies are few and far between. My friend offers all of her things (and AMAZING things to boot) for free, and she simply was saying that she felt saddened by the change. People were angry at her comments, and instead of supporting her right to feel that way, they criticized, ridiculed and berated her. Not at all what I expected from the kindergarten online community. While I have bought MORE than my share of things from TPT (I purposely am not adding up the amount I spent on the 160 items…yes, you read that correctly…from TPT over the past year and a half), I still am overjoyed when my friend posts–I get to see exactly what it is I will be downloading before I download (one of the biggest drawbacks to TPT) , and they are always free. I have used much more of her things than I have the TPT items. Just a thought….

        1. Kerri, it might have been the same post. What you described is exactly what I saw. Many of the commenters say the post as an attack on TpTers, but I didn’t see it that way at all. I really hope my post helped some people understand why not everyone is on board with the idea of selling teaching materials. Each person needs to make their own decision about whether to give everything away or give away some things and sell others, and respect the decisions of others in that regard, too.

  3. Interesting post, Angela! I started my website back in what seems like prehistoric times (1997) so I can relate to a lot of what you said. Of course, I also remember your participation at the A to Z Teacher Stuff Forums and the early days of your awesome website. 🙂 My focus has always been on free materials, and I found by chance that advertising by the big school supply companies, publishers, universities, etc. can allow teachers who share materials to do it for free and still get paid(!) That’s a source I don’t think the edublogosphere has tapped into yet. A crash in early 2001 caused advertising to dry up for a season and rather than develop a subscription model like other sites were doing, I started selling PDF teaching materials as a way to support my site. By 2002, I had other teachers signing on to sell in my store and those with the highest demand materials were (and are) making good money, too. I never got any flack for running a business, but maybe people kept their thoughts to themselves. I think offering a balance of free and paid materials is nice because it really is possible to do both and still get paid for doing what you love.

    1. Amanda! It’s so great to see you here!! I so looked up to you when I first starting out as a webmaster and still do. You have a wonderful business sense as well as a heart for the Lord.

      I agree that advertising/sponsors is a great way to make money that most edubloggers are not yet cashing in on. I think there is a fear of “selling out” by having ads. I certainly felt that when I added Google Adsense and definitely worried about it when I decided to start accepting sponsored posts two months ago. I guard my content very, very, carefully, but I see sponsorship as a way to “share free materials and still get paid”…I love the way you worded that!

      I do find that there is a lack of education-related sponsors out there, though. There are mommy bloggers with a fraction of my page views who have 10+ sponsors. A much smaller percentage of companies seem interested in advertising on education blogs, and I think that’s a big part of the problem. If more edubloggers were getting approached with decent ad rates, I think they’d be open to doing it.

      Your site is a great example of how to balance free resources and paid. There is plenty of great stuff there for those who don’t want to spend a dime, and I think that’s crucial.

      Please stay in touch! I emailed you probably two years ago to check in and see how you were doing, but I bet that email address is no longer valid. 🙂

  4. I am a teacher in China. It is almost impossible to get resources here in English that go with my American curriculum (yes I am from the states). TpT and your website have been a Godsend. I don’t mind paying for the resources, because I need them desperately. It also makes me feel that I am not out of touch with the education world. I recently started selling on TPT and I have been amazed at the success I have seen so far. I am not making enough money for a car or anything. It is nice to have a little extra spending money.

  5. Being a teacher who hasn’t had a raise in 5 years due to budget cuts, and being a single mom trying to put a kid through college and paying more than the average amount of medical bills, charging or not charging wasn’t really an option. I share most of my knowledge and experience freely on my blog, with lots of freebies at Teachers Pay Teachers, but I really had to start charging so that I could make ends meet! It’s a tough economy and I’m struggling right now, but I know I’ll make it thanks to my teacher friends! That’s how teachers support each other in the 21st century!

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