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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 LOVE TpT!!! I am grateful, appreciative and stand in awwww of the educators that share their time, talent and resources on their blogs and TpT. I applaud each and every one of you!! Both for sharing such wonderful ideas and making your resources available to purchase. Immediately. In the comfort of my recliner. In my pj’s! I have downloaded many free resources and have paid as much as $10.00 for a unit of study. I consider that a bargain!!! I love TpT’s slogan. As educators, we spend a small fortune in our classrooms every year and with each purchase I make I feel like I am donating to another teachers classroom. Wow… pay mortgages too? hmmmm….GO FOR IT…HOLD YOUR HEAD HIGH AND BE PROUD Let the nay sayers spend their precious time and dollars in their local teacher supply store. As for me….I will continue stalking these wonderful blogs and buying exactly what I need from creative teachers who have taken the time to make the resources available to me!!!

    1. Hi, Billie! Thank you for sharing that powerful testimony of how valuable TpT has been for you! Words like those are a huge incentive for teachers to keep selling. They believe they are truly helping teachers, and they ARE. 🙂

  2. My thoughts have shifted also. I love that teachers that work hard creating materials are able to sell them and make a little money. Like you mentioned, book publishers are a greedy bunch and they don’t care about the authors/creators. Thanks for posting such a thoughtful article on this topic!!!

    1. Hi, Cheryl! Good to know I’m not the only one whose thoughts have changed on this issue. The whole publishing industry is being turned upside right now because of eBooks. If they continue to try to charge the same prices they always have, they will lose, just like the music industry has. We all have to change with the times. And right now, the idea of a $25 teacher resource book in which the author keeps $1 is not going to fly anymore. There are too many other options for those who create teacher materials. They don’t even have to publish anymore–they can just make a PDF, upload it to TpT, and promote it themselves!

  3. I too am getting used to the idea of paying for materials on different sites. I haven’t purchased anything on TpT yet, but I have looked around. My soap box is I’m leery of posts that start off a blog, but then you realize it was just a commercial for one of their TpT products. I’m usually so put off that refuse to read more from their site. Like commercials on radio or television stations you know they are trying to sell you something. I’m totally okay with that. Just let me know from the beginning that it’s a TpT ad and I’m good to go and you haven’t lost any “brownie” points with me. Surely there are ethical boundaries that need to set up for those types of blog postsl.

    1. Hi, Michelle! I dislike that “here’s a blog post, no wait, actually it’s a sales pitch” trickery, too. I avoid those types of blogs and choose to read those that post lots of valuable information interspersed with occasional posts that clearly state right up front that they have created a new TpT product and want to let readers know about it.

  4. As a 40-something student in a school-library program, I’m new to the education world, and I was shocked at the assumption that teachers would ever give away their work product for free. Business people who post free materials online are promoting books or their services as speakers. Professional blog writers who operate “for free” are actually selling advertising (although they’re still loathe to admit that).

    I am just aghast at the number of education “reformers” who think that the future of schooling is through “collaborative” information sharing based on teachers giving away their lesson plans, materials, and professional expertise at no charge. Why would teachers so dramatically under-value their time and expertise as to price their labor at zero? It’s ridiculous.

    If the future of education is through online collaboration, then the collaborators deserve to be compensated for their work. Of course.

    1. Hi, Jody! This comment thread just gets more and more interesting. I love hearing the perspective of a person with a business background. Once again, businessmen and businesswomen would NEVER be expected to give away all their content for free! And it speaks a bit to the fact that teachers have always been expected to go above and beyond their basic duties with no overtime pay, no compensation for the materials they pay for out of pocket, etc. That needs to change.

  5. I love the idea of sharing teaching resources for free, but I’m often hesitant to share material, especially on-line because I’d hate to share something that was actually someone else’s intellectual property. Copyright is such a touchy issue, and often the material I put together for my students comes from a variety of sources. It works well for my students, and I’d love to share, but while I continue to use and adapt material created by other teachers, and especially published stuff, I’ll limit my sharing to those within my grade level at my school.

    1. Ah, yes, Karen, good point about copyright! On my Facebook post about this topic (https://www.facebook.com/TheCornerstoneForTeachers/posts/146965682095835), Jeff left this comment:

      “All teachers are going to copyright hell.” – Dr. Gayle Olsen-Raymer, Humboldt State

      We all borrow one ideas constantly and there are very few ideas that are truly original. The key is to understand how copyright works. I’m no expert, but my understanding is this: no one can trademark ideas, only the way that ideas are expressed. If you are using a basic teaching idea and put it into your own words and spin it with your unique twist, you should be fine.

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