Teachers Pay Teachers Is Not the Problem

(A few disclosures: I have a Teachers Pay Teachers account. I think I have two products for sale. Last month, I made 24 cents. So this isn’t something vital to my financial survival. Second, I don’t often buy things from Teachers Pay Teachers. I’ve probably downloaded five or six freebies and purchased two or three products in all my years of teaching. I disclose these things so you know I don’t really have a vested interest in TeachersPayTeachers. But I do have opinions.)

Teachers Pay Teachers is a divisive topic in education. On the one hand, millions of actual teachers use it, not only to find materials to use with students but to make money selling their own content. On the other hand, TpT receives a fair amount of criticism from a second group of teachers and those connected to education who aren’t teaching classrooms full of kids. The following popped up in my Twitter feed a couple of days ago and it represents the general sentiment of many critics:

TpT has been on the receiving end of growing criticism like this for the last few years. There are concerns about copyright infringement. Critics contend that the available materials are worksheet heavy (‘worksheets are bad’ being a relatively recent piece of conventional wisdom promulgated by a subset of vocal teachers). Some sellers have been accused of ripping off fellow teachers by copying their freely given content and selling it on TpT. Of course, there are also teachers who don’t like that their fellow educators are engaging in capitalism and hoping to make a buck. (I imagine a Venn diagram of people who feel this way and people who believe teachers should donate hours of their time every week to their employer would only have one circle.)

But perhaps the most persistent criticism, and the one reflected in the tweet above, is that TpT is a terrible source of instructional content. Like Mrs. Boyd, some hold this view with the same certainty that they believe cigarettes are bad for your health and Howard the Duck is a shit movie. The value judgment that wafts off of so many of these folks’ criticisms is that no good teacher would use anything from Teachers Pay Teachers.

Yet many teachers do. Why? For those who believe TpT is a heaping pile of steaming instructional garbage,  the only possible answer is that teachers lack access to quality curricula. And while that may be part of the answer, the more complete answer is that many teachers simply don’t share the opinion that TpT is an educational junkyard. For teachers in actual classrooms, there are a number of reasons why TpT is a valuable resource, and there are other reasons why critics’ disdain of TpT is misguided.

Why Teachers Use Teachers Pay Teachers

They Have No Curricula

Certainly, there are teachers who have no curriculum at all but are still expected to teach the standards. The recent report on Providence schools from Johns Hopkins makes this clear. Researchers wrote:

“Teachers, principals, and even students noted the lack of an established curricula as problematic. When asked about the fact that there were supposed to be just four curricula vetted by the district, we were told about multiple impediments: in one school, the new curriculum materials did not arrive until November and included no appropriate materials for IEP students. In other cases, it was clear that ambivalence about using a particular curriculum started at the top. In one school, the principal told us that the school had purchased Eureka [a math curriculum] but that s/he was “not a fan of programs” and so ‘considers Eureka more of a resource than a curriculum.’ Nevertheless, this principal intended to purchase three new ELA curricula next year.”

The report continues:

“In one school, the principal listed almost 20 different curricula, between math and ELA, that are in use.

“We use what we can find,” said an elementary school teacher in a group interview. Teachers in several schools told the team that they would “trade autonomy for a curriculum.”

This is what teachers do. They use what they can find. And it’s really easy to find things on Teachers Pay Teachers. Something is better than nothing, and TpT offers these teachers what their employers haven’t.

They Have Poor Curricula

Like the content on Teachers Pay Teachers, not all curriculum is created equal. Some of it stinks. And some districts purchase odiferous products. Teachers are the people who have to use the smelly lessons and they quickly learn just how offensive the emissions are. If teachers are stuck with stinky curriculum, they have two options: Keep using something that isn’t working or seek out better resources. That such a high percentage of teachers search for resources on Teachers Pay Teachers says less about these teachers’ unprofessionalism and more about how deficient they find the curricula they’ve been asked to use. If anything, the use of Teachers Pay Teachers indicates teachers’ earnest desire to find resources that engage and educate, not that they’re abdicating their instructional responsibilities. The graphic above could easily be seen as a good thing.

To Break the Monotony

While the above graphic was a lamentation for Mrs. Boyd, she ignored the stat on the top line: 83% of teachers use their district-adopted curriculum. My assumption about the 17% who don’t is that they may not even have a district-adopted curriculum. That means most teachers are willing to use the curriculum provided to them and do so regularly. That many of them also use Teachers Pay Teachers and Pinterest suggests that they sometimes find those curriculums lacking. How might they lack? In my experience, the programs can get monotonous over the course of a 180-day school year. Also, some lessons are boring. Sometimes, teachers feel the need to change things up and make lessons more engaging.

I teach bar graphs to my third graders. To understand them better, we create them. The way this is done in the Go Math! program is boring and it’s not a skill that students learn with one lesson. So I have a choice: Keep teaching students how to make bar graphs using the district-adopted curriculum, which is unengaging, or come up with something a little more exciting. If I’m feeling creative that day — a likelihood that becomes less and less so with each passing school day — I might come up with an original idea. More often, I google something like “Fun bar graph lesson for third graders.”

Guess which two websites show up at the top of the search results.

To Reteach or Extend

Some programs are good but don’t have enough. I may need to teach students how to create bar graphs three times but the program may only have one lesson and some remediation and enrichment ideas. Sometimes, students just need to do the same thing a few times in slightly different ways. Since my program doesn’t provide these additional opportunities, I have to look elsewhere. Twenty years ago, I would have made a trip down the hall and asked the old veteran in her swivel chair to check her file cabinet. These days, the Internet is faster and its file cabinet is larger.

To Have a Life

Some critics of Teachers Pay Teachers bemoan the fact that teachers aren’t designing their own lessons. They make the specious claim that teachers should be customizing lessons because each class is different and only a teacher who knows her students well can design an optimal lesson for those students’ particular needs. This argument is usually self-serving and detached from reality. People are far more alike than they are different. Third graders sitting in a Montana classroom are not different enough from third graders sitting in a Michigan classroom to justify the creation of customized lessons. Most teachers know this, which is why they’re perfectly fine using lessons created by other people, whether those people work for Pearson or are teachers in a neighboring state.

While I have argued that canned programs and easily available Common Core-aligned lessons have destroyed teacher motivation by removing autonomy from the classroom and robbing teachers of one of the more enjoyable aspects of the job (the creation of materials), I’m also a realist who knows that we would quickly accelerate the pace at which teachers are quitting if we expected them to still create all their own materials with all of the other expectations we’ve placed on them in the last 20 years. Most teachers have zero training in curriculum design, and for the sake of their own energy and mental health, they should take advantage of the fact that there are hundreds of lessons on nearly every topic at the click of a mouse. Chances are strong you’re not going to create the best bar graph lesson on the planet. Hundreds of better ones already exist; teachers should use them and save their time for the ridiculous number of other things they’re expected to do. 

Returning to the bar graph example, once I’ve decided I want to teach students how to make bar graphs in a more engaging way than that offered by my district-adopted curriculum, I now have a second choice:  I can create my own more exciting bar graph lesson or I can save my time for other things, especially since I know full well that there are probably hundreds of more exciting bar graph lessons on the Internet. I might even have an idea. I want students to graph the colors of Skittles in those little fun-size packets you get at Halloween. I could create my own bar graph template thing or I could click a few times, maybe spend a buck, and print out 25 of them in about two minutes. As someone who has to teach reading, writing, science, social studies, and math lessons every day, I can tell you that this is no choice at all. When I google “Skittles bar graph lesson,” guess which website shows up first? Why in the world would I spend my most precious resource making something that already exists and that’s probably better than anything I’m going to design? (And if you think you can make a better lesson than the hundreds already out there, then I invite you to read The IKEA Effect of Lesson Creation.)

Why Teachers Pay Teachers Is Not the Problem

It’s important to remember that Teachers Pay Teachers is a marketplace. As such, it’s no different from a Moroccan bazaar or a supermarket. Just like Amazon and your local Piggly Wiggly, there are some shady players operating within the marketplace and not everything available is of high quality. You can buy fresh fruit or a box of donuts. A good pillow or a flat P.O.S. A standards-aligned, high-engagement lesson on reducing fractions or a fluffy waste of time with lots of cutting and coloring. It’s up to the consumer to find what they need.  Any criticism of Teachers Pay Teachers is almost always a criticism of the buyers and sellers using Teachers Pay Teachers. The solution is not to remove all the junk but to educate consumers on junk’s identifying characteristics.

Some TpT and Pinterest critics lament that teachers are neglecting better resources for the ease of TpT. They point to excellent content on other websites. They share links and try to convince teachers that this site over here has excellent NGSS resources, and they’re free! This blog over here written by this high-performing math teacher is excellent and she shares free resources that align tightly with the standards. The state of Florida has links to standards-aligned content that’s been rated by some other website as high-quality.

But that’s the problem! TpT is like Amazon for many teachers: it’s the first place they check and it often shows up at the top of Google’s search results.

My local hardware store might be selling better nails at a lower price, but I’m still probably going to get my nails from Amazon because it’s faster, I’ve purchased other things from them before and been pleased with the results, and I don’t have to search high and low for the nails.

If there are people out there creating great stuff for teachers, they should be selling or giving away that stuff on Teachers Pay Teachers, just like brick and mortar stores list their products on Amazon. Content creators must go where the customers are, not expect the customers to find them, no matter how good (or inexpensive) their stuff is. That’s why my books are available on Amazon and I don’t sell them out of my garage. If Teachers Pay Teachers is where teachers are going to look for resources, then people who make excellent resources should offer their content there, not try to convince millions of people to visit thirty different websites which are always changing.

Inconsistent Arguments

Finally, every criticism of teachers who use Teachers Pay Teachers runs into a logical consistency problem.

If you think teachers should collaborate with colleagues in their building or via social media and share materials they’ve used successfully with students, then why would you have a problem with Teachers Pay Teachers, where teachers do the exact same thing but on a larger scale? Why would the size of the user pool change the quality of the lesson? Why would the fact that the products cost money negatively affect their quality?

If you believe teachers are, in fact, capable of creating excellent lessons, then why would you assume teachers are not offering excellent lessons on Teachers Pay Teachers?

If you think teachers are only buying garbage from Teachers Pay Teachers, then how can you have any confidence that they will be able to distinguish garbage from high-quality materials outside of Teachers Pay Teachers?

If you believe teachers should create their own lessons instead of downloading them, then why would you have confidence that teachers who can’t recognize quality content on Teachers Pay Teachers would be able to create quality content on their own? That’s like expecting a person who doesn’t know how to assess the quality of a car to be able to build a good one on their own.

There are many problems with education today. Too many students receive low-quality instruction. We would be better off if districts ensured their teachers knew the standards, provided those teachers with high-quality, standards-aligned curricula, and trained their teachers in its effective use. But blaming Teachers Pay Teachers for providing a marketplace where well-meaning teachers do what they’ve been doing since the beginning of formal education is directing your ire in the wrong direction. Teachers, almost all of them, want their students to learn and they do what they can to provide the best education within limits that are usually beyond their ability to control. Teachers Pay Teachers does nothing more than provide these teachers with a place to find materials other teachers have used. That some of those materials are good and some are bad doesn’t make Teachers Pay Teachers a problem; it makes it the same as every other marketplace.


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23 Replies to “Teachers Pay Teachers Is Not the Problem”

  1. Another excellent article, Murph! Thank you for putting the truth out there. I couldn’t agree more with trusting teachers to find good lessons on TPT or anywhere. Why can’t people just trust teachers to be the professionals that they are? There are bad apples in every profession, but most teachers are truly trying to educate their students with whatever resources they can find.

  2. They assume that a teacher goes on TpT and just picks the first thing that pops up. I put in a search and look through 20 or more products to find the one that is JUST right for what I need. I appreciate your article and wish more people understood your point.

  3. Thank you for this. I am an RTI teacher. We are given very few resources for our intervention groups. TpT products have helped so many of my students make great gains because they target specific needs and are engaging. I shop for the fruit and skip the donuts.

  4. Yes, yes, yes – even from here in Australia. I pick and choose what I need for my students because I know their needs. Why should I reinvent the wheel when someone else has already created it? My skill comes in knowing what my students need and knowing how to teach what they need in the most appropriate manner. Loved your post.

  5. This article is spot on in so many ways. I have purchased materials from TpT on several occasions. When I first started teaching an abridged edition of Les Miserables, I had trouble finding any materials that were consistent with that specific edition. Enter TpT and a former teacher turned home-schooling mom who had prepared unit plans that correlated with that edition of the novel. For $2.00 I received some relevant and insightful materials that I could revise/alter as needed, which I’ve done. Rarely do I use TpT materials (or any other resource for that matter) without personalizing it to my own personality, students, and classroom situation. So much is asked of teachers these days that anything we can do to help one another out in planning is worth the cost and/or the criticism. And with salary not being commensurate with what is expected of teachers (in Indiana at least), I see nothing wrong with making an extra buck or two for a good idea. Keep the excellent articles coming!!

  6. Everything you said was spot-on!!!!! In our building and our district, teachers often collaborate — but we also google to find new ways to approach the same stuff! And, as was said repeatedly above, one of the first sites that pop up is TpT. Not everything is what I’m looking for, and some days I have to look and look to find something that will work for my particular needs/students. However, it’s almost always better than starting from scratch every time!!! (Hate re-inventing the wheel!!!) 🙂

  7. As a TPT Seller, I was so incredibly impressed and grateful for your article. I have 32 years of teaching experience, a Masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction, Science Endorsements, etc. I make high quality resources and I am really proud of the work I do. There are good quality resources on TPT and teachers are bright enough to select the best fit for their class. Also, there is a rating system. If you get a bad lesson, you can leave a review and hopefully this will help the teach author to revise and make the lesson better. I think the people that really hate TPT are the publishing companies that are seeing a cut in their profits. Spot on article!

  8. I retired from public school in California after 43 years of teaching. It is my firm belief that TPT is used to the degree it is because teachers were required to have Common Core lessons in place almost overnight. No one can flip all of their curricular areas with such speed. In California, CC was left to districts to figure out. I looked at the standards, and developed the best lessons I could, using TPT as one of my resources. When my district began to buy “CC aligned” programs, they were inadequate at the K level and not appropriate for my students. I continued to create lessons and units aligned with CC, using some items from TPT, since they were so much more engaging and on target than anything else I was given.

  9. Excellent, on point, and very well stated. Just another example of how teachers are not given credit but in fact are made to feel incompetent. As a teacher I should be trusted to be able to decipher a good lesson from a poor lesson. Thank you for speaking up on behalf of teachers!

  10. What’s sad is that we have to pay for these materials with our OWN money!!! It’s so true…if they want us to do something specific, in a specific way, with supplemental materials for differentiation and on and on, then they should supply these super brilliant, engaging materials. If we have to come up with them in addition to all the grading that we have to do, they should really up the pay or provide an additional allotment for materials.

    Just a teacher, sitting here on a Sunday, procrastinating and lamenting about all the work I have to do. I know it was my choice, and I love my interactions with the kids, BUT I am drowning here.

  11. Finding full color, fun games that match standard is what I look for on TPT. I couldn’t create that- but I can teach it and make it my own.
    Those parts of the wheel I don’t want to recreate.

  12. I loved your article. One point you didn’t touch on was the sharing that goes on among teachers. I pay money for the clip art and fonts that I use. I have to pay for a license to use some of those things. I have to pay a license to sell on TPT.

    When teachers purchase one of my products, and then freely share it with others, it violates the licenses, clip art and fonts terms of use. Plus, I’m losing money when others make copies of my products and share with teammates.

    And finally some teachers and districts are placing our products on their webpages for the whole world to download. That’s not allowed in most cases.

    So teachers may think it’s no big deal to share with their friends and give them a copy of my product….but it really is a big deal. It’s very disrespectful to me.

  13. Well written evaluation of TPT and the needs of teachers across the country. You were spot on. I myself have used my limited “free” time to hunt for standard-aligned activities that are more engaging than what the textbook offers. During my summers and holiday breaks, I create activities and write lesson plans for 3 different levels of Geometry and Math Models. Next semester, I’ll get to add Algebraic Reasoning to that list! Time is more valuable than the textbook adopted.

    My only critique of your posting is your comment “reducing fractions.” One does not reduce a fraction; one SIMPLIFIES a fraction. A reduction in math shrinks an image. A reduction of liquid is something you do to wine to make a gravy. For the sake of the math teachers who receive your students later, please amend your terminology to refer to creating equivalent fractions as simplifying.

    Thank you so much!
    High School Math Teacher

    1. I don’t teach reducing fractions. But if we’re making semantic arguments, who’s to say what’s “simplified?” What makes one-half “simpler” than two-fourths?

  14. I have a TpT account. I have purchased some material. I have been teaching for twenty-one years. Good teachers make resources and seek out resources to support their curriculum and their students. It’s a tool. It’s not my go to resource, but I have found some valuable pieces that save me time because someone has done the work. I redirect that time saved back into my classroom. Still, it’s one tool used minimally for me. When I use my text and it’s resources, I break those things down and reinvent them. I do the same with TpT resources. Teachers need toolboxes full of dynamic content. We work very hard to find and create resources for our lessons and that’s just one part of the job. Most teachers I know put their heart and soul into teaching because they are dedicated to supporting the children they teach. I probably have a thousand documents that I have created on my own, but I still like to peak and see how someone else does it. I am truly impressed with what I see. Good job teachers!

  15. I have a question in regards to materials purchased by an individual teacher. Well, maybe a few questions. 🙂
    1. Should a teacher share materials they have purchased with one license with a colleague? (I really know this answer)
    2. Is it appropriate for a district to ask said teacher to share all the resources she has purchased for the intent of the school district to purchase the same materials for colleagues? (They will not be reimbursing the “said teacher”)
    3. Should said teacher be forced to add all titles of purchases and where they were purchased to a shared grade level google doc for each content area? Again, with no reimbursement for hours spent putting lessons together, creating, laminating, cutting and storing materials on their own time and money? But wait…….here’s the good part. They will be buying all curriculum, materials, and storage, as well as paying them for their time to put this curriculum together. Again, NO said teacher will not be reimbursed for anything.
    4. Yes. Said teacher did ask for monies several years ago to purchase materials for the areas of our curriculum that were lacking/ not meeting the standards. Said teacher was told to find the materials and do the best they could with what they had. This issue was brought up yearly 3 years straight. Said teacher bought all her own materials and prepared them on her own time during the summer months.
    Thoughts and problem solving ideas?

    1. 1. No.
      2. I have less of a problem with this. If the district wants to take a look at something a teacher is using for the purpose of evaluating it and then possibly purchasing it for more teachers to use, then that seems to be a responsible thing for the district to do (and a boon to the TpT seller). I don’t think the original buyer of the material has any real complaint here and I think withholding it is unprofessional. I understand the frustration that other teachers will not be purchasing out of pocket and will instead have the district buying the material for them, but if such a thing is a precedent in the teacher’s district, she should ask for the money ahead of time, not try to recoup in afterward.
      3. I suppose a district has some responsibility to make sure teachers are using quality materials and that they’re getting them legally, so they could technically ask teachers where they got their lessons from and ask for documentation. As far as adopting those materials later on, that’s the district’s prerogative.
      4. As for reimbursement, I would not rely on ever being paid after the fact for work already done. I would only do the work if payment was arranged ahead of time or, if I thought the work was important enough, I’d do it knowing full well I’d never see any money for it.
      5. It sounds like said teacher has been used by her district, which, I would imagine, makes said teacher extremely reluctant to do any similar work in the future. Said teacher may want to spread the word about this treatment so that other teachers know what they’re potentially getting into working for these kinds of people.

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