Education Teacher Leaders Network

Should Teachers Sell Their Class Materials?

By John Norton — November 18, 2009 10 min read
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A Sunday New York Times article raised questions about the practice of teachers selling lesson plans to others around the country. The article apparently hit a nerve in educator circles—it was the second most e-mailed Times story on Monday.

According to the article, there’s a burgeoning Internet trade in teacher-made products. Web sites are proliferating where teachers sell individual worksheets for under a dollar and elaborate lessons and units for much more. Questions have arisen, however, about who owns the materials teachers use in their classrooms and whether the profit motive will jeopardize the free exchange of ideas among educators.

The teachers in our TLN daily discussion forum had no shortage of opinions about the Times story and the pros and cons of teacher entrepreneurship. Here’s a sample.

Anthony wrote:

There have always been two conflicting impulses within a school. There are teachers who hoard resources and ideas out of fear that others will take advantage of them, or that they will somehow get slighted. And there are other teachers who share freely, in the belief that when we all pool our resources and ideas, we can all benefit—and our students most of all.

Within a school or district-wide community of teachers, it serves our students best when we all work together to develop lessons and projects. One of the fears many teachers have of merit pay is that it will undermine this culture of collaboration.

On the other hand, we want to be treated as professionals, and the way we seem to count respect these days is in dollars and cents. There are varying customs in different professions regarding pay for creative work. Musicians who want to use one another’s charts usually pay for the privilege. However, criminal defense lawyers typically share their briefs with colleagues for no charge.

So is the trend toward selling lesson plans a salutary indication that at last teachers’ original creative work is being honored? Or is it a sign that we have become craven pursuers of individual gain?

Heather defended teacher enterprise in the marketplace:

How unethical is it not to pay teachers fairly for the work that they do, and then ding them as being somehow tacky for selling what they worked so hard to perfect? Yes, collaboration is vital in our industry, but society can’t disallow or think less of teachers who are striving to blend the need to collaborate with the need to be members of the middle class. Society can’t disallow teachers access to the same rules of capitalism that every other industry exists in. People are forgetting that we exist in a system that doesn’t allow for raises based on contribution or effort, and we are still expected to sacrifice our time, our energy, and our ideas for free.

This is an antiquated philosophy that is unprofessional and one that teachers have long bought into as well. We have always existed in a system expectant of our self-sacrifice. But credential programs cost money, masters programs cost money, maintaining our professional development costs money, classroom supplies cost money. ...And yet because it’s somehow beneath the ethics of the profession, we can’t use our talents to help offset the costs of life?

Mary offered a perspective from her second career:

After teaching for four years, I worked in advertising before returning to the classroom. I was amazed at the price my work brought in the “real” world. For instance, for doing freelance editing of other people’s work (a job I do daily for my students), I earned $70 an hour (for one piece of work—imagine that multiplied by my students!).

When I went back to teaching, I was stunned to see what was given away. I confess that it was a mental adjustment for me. But, like many teachers, “borrowing” and reshaping another teacher’s shared work is something I have always been grateful to my peers for (I’ve rarely used it as found because it either wasn’t me or didn’t suit my students). I reciprocate by “giving it away” as well. Occasionally I buy work that I have no time to create on my own. And I currently have several posters for sale that I created, but my family won’t be traveling to Europe on the proceeds of those.

Imagine: teachers acting like they have something to sell. Gee, next thing you know we might actually have some opinions to share about how children should be taught. Guess the serfs are getting a little uppity.

Sherry took a different slant:

I’ve long believed and cherished the notion that teachers ought to develop their own lessons for four reasons:

1. It promotes professional growth because a teacher needs to constantly ask questions such as “How can I engage my students in this material?” and “What is the best way to assess their knowledge?”

2. The lesson is designed to meet the particular needs of the students.

3. It forces the teacher to consider content in multiple ways, deepening his/her knowledge and understanding of the material.

4. The teacher must continually reflect upon his/her core educational values and whether or not the design of the lesson supports or undermines them.

But this is what I know: I have spent years frustrated by the numerous teachers who refuse to design their own lessons and expect a “good” colleague to hand them a copy of the lesson. Most of these teachers will photocopy the handouts and walk into the room never considering items 1-4 above.

Does selling my lessons undermine great teaching? No, it merely compensates me for the endless late nights I spent designing the lessons I hand out for free to my colleagues (the same ones who rarely offer a lesson in return). Who knows, maybe selling lessons to earn extra cash will actually be the incentive needed for some teachers to design their own lessons. Guess who will really win? Their students.

The folks getting rich selling things to educators aren’t teachers, Nancy said.

What a surprise—teachers are capitalists, too. It’s beyond ironic to be told repeatedly that schools need to seek economic efficiency in hiring the “most effective” teachers—then watch as people criticize those teachers for selling the fruits of their own intellect and rich experience to supplement their meager salaries.

Did you notice how many of the teachers interviewed in the article mentioned that they turned the profits back into classroom supplies or sabbatical-type travel or other experiences to further enrich their teaching and their students’ learning? Nobody’s getting rich in these little home-based businesses selling teacher-friendly materials. The same can’t be said for textbook publishers and the folks now writing our common core standards and the (expensive) accompanying tests.

I’m all for dedication in the profession and free exchange and cross-fertilization of ideas in teacher networks, but I have had the experience of going to a workshop, and finding a presenter using a handout that I created with her own name on it. Arrgh. It doesn’t “cheapen” good materials to attach proper attribution or accept modest compensation. In fact, it adds value.

Vicky wondered how teachers would sort out their original work from ideas and materials borrowed from others.

I will admit that I prefer the communal exchange of information from experienced teachers without a price. I like discussing how other teachers modified certain lessons or assessments to meet their needs. However, teachers spend hours of unpaid time to prepare for their classes: creating lessons, expending non-budgeted personal funds on classroom supplies, and dedicating themselves to researching potential classroom resources. Why shouldn’t a teacher be able to sell his or her activities?

My fear is that this could grow to a point where teachers will no longer share methods in a spirit of community: teachers will be forced into a mindset that they should not assist their colleagues without being paid. Also, I was taught that teaching is an act of borrowing and refining others’ materials to fit one’s needs. I would be hard-pressed to sell many of my own lessons, as they are composed of many elements discovered from colleagues, my own strategies, educational courses, professional development, and other research. I would not be able to justify selling these lessons without citing multiple sources. And would—or should—those sources receive part of the profits? In all fairness, they probably should.

Joe distinguished between ethical behavior and entrepreneurial spirit.

In my opinion, there is nothing unethical about a teacher being compensated for his work outside of the classroom. I do agree with Robert Lowry, the deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents (who is quoted in the Times story), that districts should be compensated when their resources and materials are used. Likewise, teachers shouldn’t be uploading materials to eBay during class time. It is important as educators to maintain the integrity of our profession. Teachers teach, and that should be our sole focus throughout the school day. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot to offer the rest of the world after the final bell rings.

The material I create belongs to me. Contractually, I never signed a disclaimer where I waved personal ownership of my intellectual property. The article claimed, “The marketplace for educational tips and tricks is too new to have generated policies or guidelines in most places.” I don’t agree. For decades, professors from around the country have made a living off of the work they have published while employed on university time.

Joseph McDonald, a professor at New York University, was quoted by the Times as saying, “The online selling cheapens what teachers do and undermines efforts to build sites where educators freely exchange ideas and lessons.” A quick Google of Professor McDonald unveils that he has authored several publications…available online on Amazon. New York University is one of the most prestigious schools in the country. I hardly think his writing has cheapened the school’s reputation. I am disappointed that he feels it is wrong for others to share their work and be compensated for it, and yet at the same time, believes it is appropriate for him to do so in the same online environment that he condemned in the article.

Teachers who publish can provide meaningful content to help improve the learning process in classrooms and communities all across the nation. It concerns me that someone could find fault with that.

Bob followed up:

When the article mentioned a teacher who sold over $30,000 worth of lessons, I thought, “Good for her.” The district ownership issue is quite clear. The key term Joe used was “contractually.” Districts do not have intellectual property rights to teacher’s work unless it is a part of a contractual agreement.

That said, isolation is the disease that our profession is continuously battling. I strongly believe in freely sharing with colleagues in my school and my lateral support network. Collaboration is very powerful. Our profession will die without it. I would hope that lessons and assessments would be shared within departments and grade levels at all schools. Opening up our practice and allowing transparency is liberating and leads to professional growth.

Anthony concluded:

There are two ways to look at the effect of the marketplace. On the one hand, it would be nice if teachers everywhere had free access to the best and latest curriculum resources. But when they are all offered for free, it actually may be harder to locate the best ideas. The banquet table seems covered with mediocre food. Perhaps a marketplace where lessons are shared and reviewed by users will allow really excellent lesson ideas to emerge and be recognized and rewarded—and this will encourage more teachers to refine their work and offer it to their peers. If they have spent 40 hours of work developing a set of plans, creating assignments, worksheets, assessments and a guiding plan for me, I think they have earned my ten dollars—and I have saved myself a lot of time.

I would hate to see the day when teachers within a school or district cease to support one another, or peddle lessons to one another across the hallway. But I think teachers ought to be able to sell their creative work on the internet, and to enjoy the rewards and recognition that our school systems so rarely offer.


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