Let’s start with the positive.
I understand the intention behind Teachers Pay Teachers. It goes without saying that teachers are not only underpaid for their daily work, they are by-and-large not compensated for their intellectual property. We are, oftentimes, creating curriculum and content for our classrooms, and in many cases, that content manages to find its way outside of our classrooms, used in district-wide curriculum and beyond without attribution or compensation. Teachers Pay Teachers has offered a solution for this, helping teachers finally be paid for the curriculum they create.
It’s also really convenient. Using various activities or packs from Teachers Pay Teachers, educators can piece a curriculum together without doing the heavy lifting of resource creation. After all, it’s really hard work to write curriculum, and the reality is that doing so can lead to long working hours or even burnout.
But there’s more we must consider in this discussion. We must look beneath the frills and cute fonts; we must expand our perception beyond the handful of success stories of teachers who’ve managed multiply their yearly salaries two, three, or even ten times over by selling content on Teachers Pay Teachers; we must examine an education system and national culture that has made it necessary for educators to seek out such ventures in the first place. And finally, we must allow ourselves to embrace the dissonance and nuance here in this discussion on Teachers Pay Teachers. It’s not all bad, but it’s certainly not all good.
Let’s start with what I value in teaching and learning.
This clearly isn’t the same for everyone. But in my classrooms, I value real-world experiences where students are able to think critically, roll up their sleeves, and wrestle with complex ideas. I value project-based experiences that leverage open-ended questions, allowing my students to collaborate with one another and use discourse to learn together. But most of all, I value student-driven experiences where children learn to incorporate their schema and their identity into their learning.
I do my best to teach in a way that aligns with these values. I design my units using backward design. This begins with identifying desired results (i.e., competencies or standards), and then designing assessments that help me elicit information on these desired results. After clarifying the outcomes of my units and the best ways to gauge student progress in relation to those outcomes, I am able to design a scope and sequence that allows my students to explore the desired outcomes of the unit, meanwhile helping me plan lessons that will continuously enrich these learning objectives.
My lessons, generally speaking, follow some version of the workshop model, where students are all engaging with a common, open-ended provocation or minilesson (related to my desired results), which I expect them to take and apply on their own during independent and small group time. In reading, writing, and math workshop, this entails journaling.
In reading workshop, they write in their thinking journals or spend time engaging with books from their book bins. In writing workshop, students write within the genre that our class is currently exploring. They generate, organize, and develop their ideas all on the blank pages of their writer’s notebooks, slowly guided by the feedback from conferences and small-group experiences. In math workshop, we function very similarly. We use math journaling to grapple with a math task, engineered to address specific standards, but open-ended enough that students can invest in the process–as opposed to filling in boxes on a worksheet.
This even works for social studies. We can explore primary sources, videos, or even go on a field trip and then write about it in our ` afterwards. These journals not only allow my students to create more than they are consuming content, but it serves as an excellent assessment of how their unique schemas and identities merge with the curriculum to create an inherently personalized and humanized learning experience.
So where does this intersect with Teachers Pay Teachers?
Teachers Pay Teachers can’t support these kinds of learning experiences on its own. Sure, my curriculum does require some consumables, and perhaps TpT can serve a purpose here. I need math tasks for their math journals (which I retrieve from our foundational resource or from other sources like YouCubed or Illustrative Mathematics). Occasionally, I’ll ask students to glue reflection forms into their journals so that they can communicate how they’ve grown over the course of a given unit. Sometimes, I create specialized thinking journals to align with specific content, like our design books that we use for our Urban Planning project each year.
Even though it could serve some purpose here, Teachers Pay Teachers, overall, does not support learning experiences like these. While there are some great math games or even some printables that can save teachers time from reinventing the wheel, a large majority of even the best-selling items promote a brand of teaching and learning that is industrialized, intended to be mass-produced, consumed, and hung on the walls in cookie-cutter format.
These types of teaching and learning experiences do not reflect the vision that most schools put forth on their school websites or post in their vision statements. Most schools mention “experiential learning” with an emphasis on “critical thinking” and “problem-solving,” but the resources that I often find when looking on Teachers Pay Teachers have students mindlessly filling in boxes or answering universal, formulaic prompts.
It’s the mindlessness that bothers me the most.
When I say mindless, I mean it in the sense that it’s the opposite of mindful. When we are mindful, we operate with intention and acute awareness, and when we are mindless, we operate without these critical characteristics. Far too many of the activities on Teachers Pay Teachers are just that–mindless activities that lack intention. They ask our students to be objects of education, as opposed to the subjects of an educational narrative in which they play a critical role.
As a result, my largest concern about Teachers Pay Teachers is the way it contributes to a culture of mindless consumerism, convincing us that in order to be strong, successful teachers, we must rely on piles of consumable materials that only help us feel like we’re accomplishing anything in our classrooms because our kids are turning in worksheet after worksheet to us.
But it’s not just the worksheets that contribute to this mindless consumerism, it’s also the marketing of the site that incentivizes the continuous and cyclical production of worksheet-based activities. They shine the spotlight on teachers who have managed to double or triple their salaries through selling these products on the site, when the reality is that these teachers are in an incredibly small minority of teachers who are actually able to do so with such success.
It has, essentially, become a microcosm for American capitalism.
Only it’s embedded in the context of the education system. Most teachers will acknowledge that for-profit entities have the potential to be incredibly toxic in the education system. This is because for-profit entities measure their success in terms of the number of dollars made. Teachers Pay Teachers is no different. We must remember that it is a business whose primary intention is to funnel money into the pockets of those who run the company.
Their ultimate goal is to continue selling products on their site and to continue making money, regardless of the quality of the products or the efficacy of the materials–raising an important question we must ask about the ethics and morality of open platform such as these.
When the metrics are number of followers or dollars made, the efficacy of the products matters much less. I saw this first-hand working for a for-profit entity in Silicon Valley. After a certain point, it didn’t matter if our technology was actually helping us actualize personalization in the classroom; all that mattered were the usage metrics and how close we were to monetizing the tools. It wasn’t, necessarily, that the people running our company in San Francisco were bad, and likewise, it’s not necessarily that the sellers or the people who run TpT are bad people with bad intentions. The problem is that, when education is mixed with businesses like these whose success metrics are defined by dollars, it is inevitable that best practice will eventually be thrown out the window and that brand perception and volume of sales will take precedent. It’s Capitalism 101.
And what does this result in? It results in a small minority accumulating a relatively immense amount of wealth, likely jumpstarted by some sort of privilege, while the remainder of teachers are still underpaid and taken advantage of on a daily basis. To think that Teachers Pay Teachers exacerbates this by making countless teachers pay for resources from their own salaries only adds insult to injury.
TpT is not the solution.
It’s not the solution because it’s still causing teachers to take on second jobs. It’s not the solution because it’s only exacerbating challenges with teacher pay in our country. It’s not the solution because it doesn’t allow all teachers to be financially stable by working one job.
We’ll know we’ve made steps toward a solution when teachers feel less inclined to overwork themselves and when the resources on Teachers Pay Teachers reflect best practice. But most of all, we’ll know we’ve made steps towards a sustainable solution when we transition from teachers paying teachers to the education system and schools valuing teachers and paying them what they’re worth.
I’d love to hear from you.
Let me know what you think in the comments.