Jan 2016

Millions of Teachers Minting Millionaire Teachers

Bright, Medium

Karen Jones had spent the past five years of her teaching career in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, being bounced from school to school and subject to subject like a ping-pong ball. Significant state budget cuts in 2013 that laid off teachers, increased class sizes, and cut services, coupled with Jones’s lack of seniority (she was among the newest, though she’d been at it for 12 years), meant she was among the first to be sent to fill in the staffing gaps.

Then, last spring, Jones was laid off. She was expecting to be without a job come fall, only to be called back to the classroom that same June, at the very end of the school year. Jones was somewhat relieved until the district presented her with more bad news: If she wanted to keep her job, she’d be required to move positions — again.

At that point, after talking with her husband, manager of a local business installing car locks, Jones, 34, decided enough was enough. She would take a yearlong sabbatical, which was within her rights according to her contract, to decide what she wanted to do. If she wanted to return to teaching after that, Jones knew her job would be there for her — unless they laid her off again.

She knew the loss of income wouldn’t be an issue for her family if she decided not to return. For the last three years of her unstable teaching career, Jones had been steadily growing a side business, selling curriculum units and related classroom material she created on her own for the online marketplace Teachers Pay Teachers

Of the 186 products Jones has available in her online store, her most popular is the Ultimate Printable Phonics Pack, which sells for $10, twice the amount of TpT’s average sale. Jones created it while teaching kindergarten, working nights and weekends over several months to organize the activities she was using with her students into a sellable format. She’s sold more than 8,000 units in the two years the pack has been available in her online store. The product description promises 80 pages of ready-to-print phonics activities meant to help kindergarten and first-grade students learn the sounds of alphabet letters and attach those sounds to letter names — considered one of the first and most crucial building blocks of reading.

The phonics pack has nearly 2,800 customer ratings and an overall four-star rating — TpT’s highest — with many gushing comments from teachers who used and loved it. “This pack is AWESOME! These are great for so many things! I can use them during stations, for homework, for morning work. LOVE LOVE LOVE this!” wrote Laurie S..

Jones got the idea to open a store just over three years ago. She had been moved from middle-school math to kindergarten general ed and had to begin planning lessons from scratch. She said it was like starting a brand-new job but with no training. “I was moving to a new school and didn’t know anyone. It wasn’t like I could lean on colleagues to help me out. So, kind of out of desperation, I was searching on the internet and found Teachers Pay Teachers and found a couple of units on there, and I thought, wow, this is really great for someone who is totally unfamiliar with their grade level.”

Evidently, even teachers who aren’t starting from scratch and have been teaching the same grade level for years are finding materials — lessons, task cards, activities, quizzes — on TpT. Created in 2006, TpT is the brainchild of Brooklyn middle-school teacher Paul Edelman. Today, the site has more than 1.8 million resources and 3.5 million active members — buyers and sellers mostly from the United States, but also from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

While Adam Freed (Adamfreed) CEO of TpT, wouldn’t get too specific as to how many teachers are making enough on TpT to redo their kitchen or take their family on a tropical vacation, he did say that, to date, TpT has paid out more than $175 million to its educator-sellers; 14 teachers have made more than $1 million, 300 have made more than $100,000, “and the rest,” said Freed, “just trickles down from there.”

The average sale of individual resources hovers somewhere between $4 and $5, a kind of teacher-to-teacher micropayment, making TpT a virtual life raft thrown to teachers drowning in Common Core State Standards (CCSS), often without materials to teach them with or time to create them.

Freed said it’s impossible to nail down specific demographic trends of who uses the site because the scale is so big. TpT basically looks just like U.S. classrooms: heavily female, and heavily elementary ed.

Before joining TpT in August 2014, Freed was COO of Etsy, a peer-to-peer (P2P) e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items . He bristled at a comparison between TpT and Etsy, saying he felt it was “too reductive.” But the similarities are striking: an online marketplace with a strong community element composed of mostly women selling items they created themselves.

Jenna Rayburn is an elementary speech therapist in Columbus, Ohio, who sells items in her store for kids with a variety of special needs. She was a scrapbooker in high school. Now, even though she works full-time at a school, Rayburn spends nearly all her evening hours creating items for her TpT store. “I think [my store] lets me be creative, but creative and profitable in a different way that’s within my background and knowledge,” she said. “So I think it’s the perfect storm of my personality type to work hard, and I have the creative and design skills and the knowledge of what really works in a classroom or speech office.”

Rayburn’s most popular product, “In Your Shoes,” a set of empathy-building activities for children with autism and social skills issues, sells for $5. Rayburn has sold more than 4,000 units.

Yet perhaps calling TpT “the Etsy for teachers” is too reductive a comparison. TpT has created a space — a marketplace — that has made it possible for teachers to be both seller and buyer. And while teachers do make money, TpT also does something for teachers that’s a little harder to pin down.

Blair Turner launched her TpT store in 2012 while teaching third grade in a public school in Boston. She said within two weeks of starting her store, it had done nothing less than change her life. Turner explained that while she loved her students, she was often the last car in the school’s parking lot at night, spending so much extra time hand-making activities that her kids consumed quickly. She was getting burned out. “Within the first two weeks [of selling on TpT], the biggest difference I felt was a sense of self-confidence and self-value that I hadn’t felt in a really long time,” Turner said.

Turner’s store, which specializes in elementary-level interactive math notebooks, yearlong packets of activities that help teach and reinforce the Common Core math standards and sell for $39, helped pay off her husband’s student loan debt — something Turner said makes her so happy that “I have a stupid grin on my face just thinking about it. We thought we’d be 80 years old and still chipping away at them.”

Now that Turner is making more money selling her content on TpT than she earned as a teacher, she has decided to leave the classroom to concentrate on her store full-time. She says she knows it was the right decision to leave, but she’s not sure she’s entirely proud of it.

Ofcourse TpT is not without its critics. Some teachers take issue on principle (teachers should share their work for free), others critique the “shoddy” quality (one foreign language teacher called TpT material “long on cutesy and short on content,” for example), but it’s hard to argue with the fact that a million-plus teachers are buying TpT items every day and thousands engaging in its online forums.

In 2010, the National Education Association (NEA) issued a warning reminding teachers that selling lesson plans they created in their classrooms may not be legal — it’s a question as to who owns the copyright to the classroom materials produced. Cynthia Chmielewski, from the NEA’s Office of General Counsel, requested that teachers look at their contract. “Absent any written agreement,” reads the NEA website, “the Copyright Act of 1976 stipulates that materials created by teachers in the scope of their employment are deemed ‘works for hire’ and therefore the school owns them.”

But the NEA’s contract warning hasn’t stopped millions of teachers from buying materials on TpT, even though many lessons and units are available elsewhere on the internet, often free and often from teachers who have gone through a vetting process. Teacher/blogger Larry Ferlazzo posted “The Best Places to Find Good and Free Lesson Plans on the Internet,” which include the New York Times Learning Network and PBS Teachers, among many others. Sites like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and TES Connect’s Share My Lesson and BetterLesson also offer free, Common Core–aligned lessons.

Alex Grodd, a former teacher and co-founder and CEO of the Boston-based 2008 startup BetterLesson, was given $11 million from the Gates Foundation, the NEA, and the Learning Accelerator to start the Master Teacher Project, in which seasoned-pro teachers provide lessons specifically designed to build into units and full curriculums. BetterLesson “Master Teachers”—Grodd refers to them as “lesson artists” because, he says, “An amazing lesson is a work of art”—go through a rigorous selection process, including a written application and Google Hangout interview. They are also required to provide samples of their students’ growth. Once selected, the teachers are given $15,000 to write lessons for the site.

The Master Teacher Project has 240 teachers who have written 18,000 free lessons, all interconnected and building on one another. More than 400,000 teachers visit the site each month. BetterLesson works directly with districts, providing personalized professional development and coaching for teachers. Grodd says he has “nothing but respect” for TpT and that there’s a place for both kinds of lesson websites in teachers’ lives. He says BetterLesson is striving to do something fundamentally different: It wants to help teachers get better at what they do.

According to Grodd, The Master Teacher Project, as well as its personalized professional development, is more focused on the big picture, creating effective teaching practice, not individual activities. “We’re really trying to capture effective teaching practice in a way that could change adult behavior and help teachers create better student experiences.”

It’s not clear if TpT is changing anyone’s teaching, or if it even needs to. But it feels like TpT has answered some kind of simmering call, tapping into something bigger than task cards and cute fonts. Something that over the past decade—with the rise of No Child Left Behind [NCLB] and Common Core, test scores linked to job security, shrinking budgets, and increasing demands made on America’s teachers—has become deeply ingrained into the educator zeitgeist: a teacher’s need for recognition for the time and energy they put into their students. And that recognition seems most significant when it comes from fellow educators.

Being successful on TpT demands even more time from teachers in their already demanding schedules. The five TpT teachers interviewed for this story said that, on average, each piece of material (whether an actual lesson, task card or interactive notebook) requires between 40 and 60 hours to create, a figure Freed backed up. Then there’s all the marketing: keeping up multiple social media profiles to market their store, doing bookkeeping, coming up with ideas for new materials, and responding to teachers who have questions or need extra help teaching the materials they purchased online. Yet each maintained that the hard work was worth it, and that other educators aren’t interested in fancy marketing materials but are looking for quality, Common Core–aligned material they can rely on.

Four of the five teachers interviewed for this story have left the classroom in the past year to focus solely on their TpT stores. Each have their own reasons, of course. Two middle-school science teachers in Atlanta, Melissa Zaher and Gretchen Vikingson, are thrilled to run their TpT store, Getting Nerdy with Mel and Gerdy, from home so they can be with their young children. Blair Turner left because TpT helped her discover what she feels is her real talent, curriculum design. And then there’s ping-ponging teacher Karen Jones, who hasn’t decided if she’ll return to her job, if it’s even offered to her, next spring.

Jones didn’t feel comfortable revealing how much income she’s making from her TpT store, only saying that 2015 was her biggest year yet and swearing not even her family knows how much she’s making. But she does say it was enough to help buy a home in a beautiful suburb with nice public schools that provide great therapies for one of her children, who has special needs.

“I have to be honest and tell you that I do get a little nervous about putting [financial] numbers out there without explanation. [My lessons] are not just cute clipart, but knowing and understanding child development and how to engage young students enough to teach them a vital skill such as reading,” Jones said. “It’s not easy.”

Article written by Holly Korbey, Bright.