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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 have created and shared resources with my colleagues and I have purchased resources from stores, publishers, and Tpt. I believe that teachers should be able to sell their creations, since it does take time to make the products. I do look more at Tpt than I do at stores and educational supply catalogs- I like the fact that the individual teacher is profitting more on Tpt with my purchase. I like the personalization of the experience- I can leave a comment, ask a question and receive a response from the author/creator! Someday, I hope to get up my nerve and create items to sell on Tpt myself.

    1. Hi, Mary Ashley! I have never bought from TpT, but you are very right about the personalization. I didn’t think about how nice that must be for buyers, to be able to ask a question of the person who created a resource prior to purchasing. That’s pretty awesome!

  2. I too, have changed my mind about buying/selling items on places like TpT. As a purchaser (someday I wish to have enough time in the day to upload and sell some materials), I particularly like:

    1) Being able to search for exactly what I need and purchase JUST THAT, instead of buying an entire resource book and hoping that I can use at least 1/4 of the pages to make it worth my while. (It reminds me of how we all buy music online these days – often just a single song download instead of the whole album.)
    2) I also love that the $$ goes directly back to the person that created it.
    3) On TpT, the reason the top sellers are the top sellers is not necessarily due to marketing & promotion (as books often are) – it’s because they create high-quality materials. Teachers are fickle with their money and will not continue to buy from a seller if the materials aren’t up to snuff!

    I love that the teachers on TpT have gotten into the entrepreneurial spirit. I think it lifts the profession as a whole. Great post, thank you.

    1. Hi, Nancy! Your reasoning is fantastic. Though I never thought of it that way, TpT totally mirrors the shift in the music industry. I rarely buy an entire album anymore. Why pay for something I don’t want? And with teacher resource books, I usually use only a fraction of the pages.

      I also like your point about the fact that top sellers on TpT truly create spectacular resources. That is NOT the case with professionally published books. How many best sellers have you read (not necessarily education books) that left you feeling like, wow, THAT’S what all the hype was about? I get the sense that is NOT the case on TpT. If a seller’s products aren’t outstanding, they won’t be a top seller, period. There are a few people with noteriety that others would buy anything from based on name alone, but I believe that’s because everything they produce is high quality.

  3. Love your take on this subject. I have spent unheard of amounts of money on commercially produced books to use in my classroom. I too joined Teaching Blog Traffic School recently and learned about Teachers Pay Teachers. Trust me, if I had found that website before, I wouldn’t have bought several of the books I had bought. I too provide way more freebies than I do priced items. I have no problem paying for good material, and I have no problem selling some of my own products.

  4. Awesome blog post. I agree with all you have said. I started Teaching Heart in 1998 for the same reasons you did start your site. I was on Teachers Net Chatboards all the time and it was great when I could share my ideas via a link. When I started selling CDROMs in 2002, they were a hit and well excepted by the teachers who purchased. When I started selling, I felt guilty often because I truely wanted to help others and share my talents vs. sell them. But the CD’s sold also helped pay web expenses. I choose not to fill my website up with adds and the CD’s helped pay webhosting fees. In 2002 till TPT came along, I was one of the small few that sold teacher created products online. I often got emails of people being upset that what use to all be free was now sometimes not. Most of the emails were, create more emails however and I will buy more. Now I never get the emails saying, “why sell.” I have made it my goal in the years I started selling to offer many free things as well as paid items. I think SOME people do not understand that there is an expense in running a website. I look at it as a job now. TPT, I will admit has made my source of income drop when it was created (since before that I was one of the only few that sold teacher materials I created)… But Good for them for finally realizing what great resources and ideas real teachers have and for creating a site to allow everyday teachers to sell items at – why did I not think of that??? LOL!!! Now, my new question that I struggle with now is do I give in and put my items on TPT as well as my site? I only have to pay Paypal for services right now. So far, I am ok where I am. I think teachers who create quailty materials should be paid for their time and effort. It really is a book of sorts and people who have a problem with it, need not visit their site or TPT.

    I really enjoyed your blog post – always enjoy your blog. I wish you continue to share your God given gifts with the world – paid or free! Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. Hi, Colleen! Another one of my “prehistoric internet” buddies! I think of you, Amanda, and Cherry Carl as having been the greatest inspiration to me in my early days of web creation. Oh, and Michael Moore, who has strangely removed his entire digital footprint from the web, unfortunately.

      I’m glad you shared that you got some push-back in the early days for selling, but no longer do. Your experience confirms what I was thinking, which is that educators are becoming more open to the idea of teachers selling their materials. Perhaps that is why newer bloggers never worried about selling their stuff. I think of the generosity of people like Cherry who have never sold anything and how she could have seriously made a million by now with all of the fantastic stuff she has, and feel bad for not doing the same. But hers was a personal decision, and each of ours has to be the same.

      Interesting that your income dropped when TpT was started. Yes, I do think you should put some of your items there for more visibility. Charity Preston of The Organized Classroom Blog and Laura Candler of Teaching Resources do that, but only have their full product line on their own websites, and drive their traffic to their own sites where they can keep more of the money. That is my plan, as well. 🙂

      1. Hey Angela… Thanks for saying I was an inspiration for you – that is an honor! I am trying my best to change with the times. I do have stuff on Teachers Notebook now. I love that they do not profit from sales. I made the $20.00 it costs to join back in 2 days. Someday I may join TPT, but for now I am comfortable with sales on my site and Notebook. Thanks for your reply and see you around the Bloggy world! 🙂

  5. I had never really thought about teachers charging for their creations until I found TpT. The way I felt then is the way I still feel now. If someone thinks a paid item is worth enough value to them, they will pay for it. If they don’t, they won’t. Clearly there are enough people that think TpT and the units on there are useful for them in their homes and classrooms or it wouldn’t have found the success it has now. If someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to support it and don’t have to purchase anything. To each, his own.

    1. Hi, Tessa! I had never thought about it, either. Teachers are notoriously cheap and I didn’t think they would be willing to pay for lesson plans. I certainly would not have, as a teacher. I barely paid for teacher resource books. I remember buying them used from eBay, copying the reproducible pages I wanted, and re-selling them! LOL! But I think at $1-5 a pop, the amounts are small enough to justify. Like you said, it’s all about the perceived value. Obviously it’s worth it to tens of thousands of teachers.

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