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.
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).
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 webinar. Although 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.
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.)
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?
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.
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.
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.