UPDATE (July 6): After this story was published, Teachers Pay Teachers removed 20 of the 24 resources referred to in this article, including the three described in detail. “We investigated the resources described in the article and immediately removed the content that violated our Inappropriate Content Guidelines,” the company said, in a statement. “We take violations very seriously, and promptly review and remove these types of resources once they are brought to our attention.”
Last month, the lesson-sharing site Teachers Pay Teachers was one of the many education companies that put out a statement about combatting systemic racism, amid ongoing protests in response to police brutality against Black people.
The statement, from TpT CEO Joe Holland, called for the organization to support educators teaching about racism and social justice. He pledged to highlight the work created by Black teachers on the site, provide free anti-racist professional development, and start a grant program to support the creation of anti-racist and social justice educational resources.
But the statement didn’t address one of the concerns that teachers have long raised about the site: TpT’s content moderation policy doesn’t catch racist or insensitive lessons.
The site hosts third-party content, like a social media platform, rather than publishing content itself the way a curriculum company would. That means that any teacher-seller can post resources to the site without prior review by members of the company’s team. TpT relies on user reports to flag inappropriate content.
A search of lessons on the site in late June found at least two dozen lessons that discuss slavery that involve simulation or reenactment, which experts agree can minimize horrific events and cause emotional hurt to Black students.
Among those lessons on the TpT site were:
- an activity designed to have students “experience” the conditions during the Middle Passage,
- a journaling exercise asking students to imagine why formerly enslaved people might be nostalgic for slavery, and
- an activity designed to have students create their own version of the Three-Fifths Compromise.
These kinds of activities humanize enslavers and recreate racist power dynamics in the classroom, said LaGarrett King, an associate professor of social studies at the University of Missouri’s College of Education.
“Teachers believe that these games help facilitate learning, when all they’re doing is enacting psychological violence on your students—both white and Black, but particularly your Black students, because that history connects to who they are as people,” he said.
And while these lessons remain on the site, others—including at least one aimed at teaching about police brutality—have been removed. Ashley Tucker, a Black special education teacher in New York City, had her lesson about the killing of George Floyd taken down after users filed reports saying that it violated the site’s content guidelines.
A back-and-forth with a moderator left Tucker, who has facilitated training on anti-racist pedagogy at her school, unsatisfied with the site’s rationale for requiring changes to her lesson. The incident, she said, made her “think more critically about sharing my resources that way.”
Lesson-sharing sites have their benefits, King said. “If you have wonderful lessons, teachers can share their lessons and get paid,” he said. But he added that there should probably be a broader vetting process on the site.
Holland, TpT’s CEO, said that the company is continuing to invest in content moderation, and that racist material and offensive content aren’t tolerated on the platform. The company provides an educational video series about their policies for teachers to consult, and a list of “3 Questions to Ask Yourself” for teachers who aren’t sure if their resources follow the guidelines.
But the company doesn’t plan to start reviewing content ahead of publication on the site. “For us to do that, we would essentially take on the role of a publisher,” which the company is not equipped to do, said Holland.
“We have a huge volume of content on Teachers Pay Teachers, and we recognize that even with the best reporting tools, there is inappropriate content. And that’s as frustrating to us as it is to our educators and our community,” said Michelle Cummings, TpT’s vice president of content.
Curating Resources: Whose Role?
Last month, TpT announced its three new initiatives, committing to “speak up, take action, and partner with educators to work for change in the wake of recent tragedies and injustices against Black people in America.”
“I think like most companies, we are reflecting and saying, how can we be part of change in this moment? How can we work towards a better place in our society? And we don’t have all the answers,” Holland said, in an interview with Education Week.
In the past few weeks, the company has featured Black creators on its social media pages and blog and launched a free professional-development series. The first webinar convened sellers to discuss their experiences as Black teachers and strategies for anti-racist teaching.
TpT also created a grant program, offering creators up to $1,000 each to develop resources related to anti-racism and social justice. The application process will be judged by a panel of TpT staff as well as outside experts, who are yet to be announced, and will take into account "[p]revious experience in teaching, facilitating, or creating content about anti-racism and/or social justice topics ... as well as lived experience.”
Tanya Marshall, an elementary multilingual teacher and a TpT author who spoke on the PD webinar last month, said she applauds the company’s effort to highlight resources created by Black teachers.
“There are white teachers who undervalue the contributions of their Black colleagues, and they see our work as being of less quality,” said Marshall, who is Black. She sees this dynamic play out in schools, and she has wondered whether it also exists on the lesson-sharing site.
“With our seller community, you notice some pockets of sellers collaborating and pushing their resources forward. But their collaborative groups are segregated,” she said.
Many white teachers who are new to anti-racist pedagogy are looking for resources now, and it’s important that they turn to educators with a background and experience in those topics, Marshall said. She would be wary, she said, of teacher-authors who are addressing race in their lessons for the first time this month.
Alicia Discepola, a white educator from New Jersey, has seen a lot of this new content on TpT recently, and in other venues for lesson-sharing.
“All these edu-influencers are creating new content, but if you look before May 2020 you can’t see anything [on anti-racist teaching] from these educators,” she said. It makes her worry that teachers searching for resources might think they’ve done enough to teach about racism by adding a worksheet.
“We have to hold ourselves accountable, and that includes companies that profit off of education. So there has to be more of an investment,” she said, in curating resources.
Hosting reenactment lessons on the site could make teachers think that this kind of activity is acceptable, said King, the University of Missouri professor. But he added that racist lessons are hardly a problem unique to TpT.
“Curriculum violence is everywhere,” he said. “These teachers are being taught in a system that enacts curriculum violence. They had curriculum violence enacted on them, so they’re regurgitating that.”
An Evolving Moderation Process
Tucker, the New York City teacher whose lessons were removed, said she aimed to tell the human stories of Black people who had been killed by police.
Tucker has created lessons over the past few months that memorialize Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and most recently, George Floyd. She taught the lessons with her students, who are teenagers with special needs, and then posted them to her TpT store.
In late May, about a week after Floyd was killed, Tucker got a notice from the company that her lessons had been removed from the site after TpT had received a number of reports that her resources violated content guidelines. The guidelines prohibit discriminatory content, or content that trivializes traumatic experiences.
After Tucker responded, asking why the resources were taken down, a member of TpT’s Marketplace Integrity Team replied that upon further review, the lessons “generally do not violate our Inappropriate Content Guidelines.” The team member added that the decision was in part responding to “concerns about allowing TpT Sellers to profit from the memory of murdered individuals.”
Tucker was told that she could put the lessons back up if she made some changes. She would need to remove a screen grab she had included in the original resource. The image, cropped from the video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, showed Chauvin but not Floyd. Tucker was also asked to include detailed instructions for how the lessons should be used, and to add credits for the photos and art she had included.
Tucker felt that the resources were appropriate as-is, and she worried that the reporting tool was too blunt an instrument—while TpT community members could use it to report racist resources, it’s also possible that some could try to censor work about difficult topics.
TpT’s moderators use rubrics developed by the Marketplace Integrity Team and a group of former K-12 teachers to evaluate reported content.
Cummings, TpT’s vice president of content, said that Tucker’s experience highlights the complex dynamic involved in moderating, but also demonstrates that the company does take reports seriously.
The company is “constantly in dialogue with the community” about the moderation process, said Holland, TpT’s CEO. “We’re never going to get it perfect, but we’re constantly improving,” he said.
‘They Weren’t Doing This Before’
Though TpT gave her the option to put her resources back up on the site, Tucker decided not to do so. Instead, she bought the domain name for TeachersPayBlackTeachers.com, where she and a friend plan to host their lessons.
She thinks the company should be revising how they review content on the site, perhaps in partnership with an organization that has expertise in anti-bias and anti-racist instruction.
“They weren’t doing this before. And now, of course they have to. There have been a lot of companies putting out statements,” Tucker said. “And [Teachers Pay Teachers] can make money by saying, ‘Click here, this was made by a Black educator.’ ”
Marshall hopes that the work TpT is doing helps teachers develop a deeper understanding of the systemic inequities facing students and teachers of color. And she’s glad to be a part of that work. But she wants her fellow teachers to recognize her content-area expertise, too.
“Even though I’m a Black woman who works in education, I don’t want my colleagues to think, ‘Well, for anything that has to do about race, we’ll go to her,’ ” Marshall said.
“Yes, I’m here, and I’m willing to talk about race. I’m willing to share anti-racist teaching ideas,” she continued. “But I’m also a literacy expert. I hope going forward, we can collaborate on all efforts. Not just, let’s go to the Black sellers when we need to talk about race."
A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as Teachers Pay Teachers Works Toward Anti-Racism