A Lesson Earned
There’s a venerable legend about inventing the high-tech world’s Next Big Thing: All you need is to do is disappear into your garage with a computer and a really terrific idea, and what you come out with may change the world. Scaled down to the teaching world, and allowing for a few variations in time and place—it’s not the late 1970s, and New York City has few garages of the type Microsoft founder Bill Gates or Apple co-creator Steve Jobs did their fiddling in—that’s what former teacher Paul Edelman has in mind with teacherspayteachers.com.
Sitting in front of two computer screens in the one-bedroom Manhattan apartment that doubles as world headquarters for the site and its parent company, Teacher Synergy Inc., Edelman doesn’t look much like a high-tech pioneer. The trim, clean-cut 33-year-old lacks the almost requisite mussed hair and questionable clothing choices of an iconic computer genius. But then, he’s not really an inventor of the classic stripe. Fundamentally, all he’s really doing is using the Internet to bring experienced educators’ battle-tested classroom materials to other teachers willing to pay for them.
“Why reinvent the wheel every night?” Edelman says of the lesson-plan preparation ritual many teachers go through. “Why waste your time when great ideas are already out there?”
Putting course materials online isn’t a revolutionary idea—many other sites offer curriculum resources for teachers. (See "Help Menu" below.) What’s new and different is the notion, expressed in the site’s URL, that teachers can do something with their valuable materials at the end of the year besides chuck or give them away: Sell them.
It’s a sizzling New York summer day, but inside the confines of Edelman’s workspace-cum-living room in the East Village, it’s cool and quiet, with only occasional mouse clicks or muted keyboard sounds nudging the silence. Stationed next to the midrise apartment’s small galley kitchen, programmer Adil Hashem, Edelman’s sole employee, is tweaking the functionality of teacherspayteachers.com.
Sitting barefoot on his leather couch, Edelman takes a break from monitoring the screens at his own desk to rub the belly of Hershey, one of a pair of Ragdoll cats roaming the apartment, and to talk about his Web site, which he refers to as TPT. As he sees it, the site is more than just a moneymaker for him and the “teacher-authors,” or a mere conduit for lesson materials. Because buyers can customize the products, rate them on the site, and send written feedback, Edelman maintains that TPT actually encourages better teaching materials, and ultimately, better teaching.
“Giving teachers the opportunity to sell the educational products they create will lead to innovation,” he says. With the monetary incentive, he adds, “The best material will eventually rise to the top. … This is the process by which education will move forward and advance into new realms.”
Edelman has described TPT as like eBay, only without auctions, but it’s more like an electronic teachers’ lounge where the vending machines are stocked with lesson plans, study units, and quizzes instead of junk food. The mechanics of the site are about that simple: After paying an annual $29.95 fee, teacher-authors can upload as many products as they like onto the site, pricing each item as they see fit. Some sample materials are free, so that users can get a sense of an author’s goods, but most lesson plans or one-day activities cost $5 or less. Unit plans average $5 to $25, and whole courses are available for $20 to $80 and up.
The price tag on science teacher Lisa Michalek’s asexual-reproduction PowerPoint show is, at $3, fairly typical. So is her motivation for uploading many of the hundreds of presentations and hands-on activities she’s put together over the course of her five-year career. “I’ve already shared these materials with other teachers in my school,” says Michalek, who works in Rochester, New York. “I just thought it would be neat to share them nationwide, or even worldwide.”
By early August, the Joseph C. Wilson Magnet High School teacher had uploaded about 150 products, making her one of the top sellers at teacherspayteachers, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten rich from her wares. Even though teacher-authors keep 85 percent of their products’ sales, she estimates her cash clearance to be about $50.
Some teacher-authors make more. As of late summer, nine had cracked the $100 sales mark, with a few making $300 or even $600.
“It is nice to be rewarded for work that you’ve put into classroom materials,” Michalek notes. But, she adds, “I see teacherspayteachers as more of a place to share work than to make a ton of money.”
That’s a good thing, as far as buyer Michael Driskill is concerned—the teacher says he only paid “a few bucks” for some basic-math materials on TPT that saved him a good deal of class time. Although he normally teaches calculus and other high-level math at the private Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, last summer he helped economically disadvantaged students prepare for the accelerated pace of selective schools. The class was “Election Theory,” but he found that several of his charges were having trouble multiplying and dividing positive and negative integers.
“I wanted to stick with voting theory, but there were students who needed extra help with basics,” Driskill says. That’s when he turned to teacherspayteachers. Other than the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Web site, he says, TPT is the only place on the Internet from which he has been able to download usable materials.
“The [TPT] site has been a nice way to get material that I could basically hand to the kids and ask them to read it and get back to me with questions,” he adds. He calls Edelman’s creation an improvement over most other online sources of educational content, and was impressed with the background of the site’s teacher-authors, including several former state teachers of the year, as well as his own 8th grade math teacher.
Former educator Paul Edelman’s site, www.teacherspayteachers.com, isn’t the only place on the Web to find downloadable lesson plans and related classroom resources. None of the resources below are equipped with rating or feedback systems that allow publicly viewable comments on posted items, but each offers searching and browsing capabilities, and all are free.
This offshoot of cable TV’s Discovery Channel hosts hundreds of K-12 lesson plans, all written by teachers. There’s a general feedback field for comments on the site, but no rating system.
The Educator’s Reference Desk
Operated by the Information Institute of Syracuse, this nonprofit site lets teachers download and add to more than 2,000 lesson plans, from art history to vocational education, at all grade levels. No rating system is available, but users can e-mail teacher-authors with comments.
Privately owned and supported by advertising, the 10-year-old site has 3,000-plus lesson plans available. Teachers can also upload their own lesson plans and e-mail the teacher-authors of posted materials, but the lesson plans aren’t rated.
The online arm of the well-known magazine offers thousands of lesson plans, including many maps and other extras. Teachers can e-mail National Geographic’s education staff with feedback, and the site features “editor’s picks” and “most popular” lesson plans broken down by grade, but they do not have individual ratings.
Best known for “Sesame Street” and other TV fare, this branch of the nonprofit Public Broadcasting Service hosts more than 3,000 free lesson plans and activities. The site has a general feedback mechanism, but no rating system.
As intuitive as the site’s premise seems, Edelman says the idea came to him not in a flash, but via the same long and winding road his life had taken since college. After growing up in suburbs of New York and Boston, Edelman attended the University of Massachusetts, Amherst as a marketing major.
But, he says, “I found my business classes dry and boring. On the other hand, the English electives were about ideas, imagination, and expression—all of life, rather than just one corner of it. Writing a paper about one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays was far more interesting than preparing a marketing report for IBM.”
He finished the degree, but stayed away from the corporate world, spending a few years drifting between seasonal jobs on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer and Colorado in the winter. Then, during a monthlong trek in Nepal, Edelman struck up a friendship with a German hiker who’d just earned her education degree. Their conversations changed his life.
“The desire to become a teacher must have already been there, even though it had not yet dawned upon me,” he recalls. “As soon as she mentioned that she had just finished student teaching and obtained her teacher education certification, I was filled with curiosity and envy.” After peppering her with questions about the profession, Edelman says, “It simply became clear to me that I would become a teacher too.”
With his imagination fired, he cut his trip short, walking 10 days to the nearest airport, then flying to Kathmandu and back home, where he enrolled once again at his alma mater, this time earning English credits en route to a master’s in education. Soon after he’d graduated, Edelman found himself teaching 7th grade literacy at Walt Whitman Middle School in Brooklyn. Where another revelation struck.
Although he enjoyed the challenge, he was surprised to find that “one of the things that I enjoyed most was developing curricula,” he says. “I would do it after school and on the weekends, developing my own lesson plans and unit plans, then sharing them with my colleagues.”
After three years at Whitman, Edelman felt much closer to finding what he wanted to do with his life, but something was still missing. Following another season of travel, he returned to teaching in Brooklyn, this time at Canarsie High School. Diving in mid-year to teach English to 11th and 12th graders—an age group he had no experience with—he quickly found himself scrambling to prepare for classes.
“This is when I really reached out to find quality teaching materials developed by veterans,” Edelman remembers. “It helped me immeasurably and benefited my students even more.”
Other factors were beginning to weigh on him, however. He enjoyed teaching, but he was making plans to marry his girlfriend, and looking down the road, he didn’t want to earn teacher-level wages forever.
“I needed a change,” he recalls. “Partly because of typical teacher burnout, and partly because of the money thing. I didn’t feel like I could provide for a family the way I wanted to on a meager teaching salary.”
Still enthused about producing lesson materials, he tried to get a foothold in educational publishing, but couldn’t find a job. He and his then-roommates briefly considered opening a café. Then he co-started a company to crate and transport artworks, but pulled out only five weeks later.
“Art handling had no meaning to me,” he recalls. “I began seriously thinking about what I loved, knew, and cared about. That brought me back to educational curricula.”
He knew he didn’t have enough experience or materials to make a go of selling them to teachers by himself, he says. “But what if I had thousands of classroom teachers writing curricula, too? Then—boom—the idea for an online open marketplace for original teacher-created curricula hit me. Millions of teachers could certainly compete with—if not outright beat—established educational publishing companies. In fact, they’re the ones who actually know how to teach from actually doing it!”
Excited, Edelman bounced the idea off the nearest focus group—his girlfriend, Lola, who was in the bathroom at the time, but told him through the door she thought it was a great idea. He also got good feedback from 10 veteran teachers, some of whom said they’d be interested in selling materials online.
“It was the perfect idea that brought everything together,” Edelman says. “Five months later, I launched the Web site.”
The site went live with little hullabaloo this past April—a month when teachers tend to think more about summer break than restructuring lesson plans. But after an Associated Press story about the site was published nationwide in June, interest spiked dramatically. Edelman says he registered 1,200 new users and 56 teacher-authors in 48 hours. A Los Angeles Times piece and radio and local TV interviews soon followed, further stoking the numbers. At last count, teacherspayteachers had more than 4,500 registered users, more than 400 teacher-authors, and about 3,000 lesson materials available.
That’s not to say that Edelman’s rolling in dough, however. Thus far, he’s financed teacherspayteachers with credit card and bank-loan debt; by selling his car, motorcycle, and mountain bike; and by cashing in his savings. His fiancée, Lola, a critical-care nurse at New York’s Weill Cornell Medical Center, has meanwhile covered their living expenses.
“I would not have been able to start this business without her,” he says. TPT has yet to make a profit, though Edelman expects it to by the end of its first year. And he doesn’t plan to stop there. By his count, there are about 4 million teachers in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia—all populations to which he could market his site without encountering major language barriers.
Within the next five years, Edelman hopes to make 100,000 of those educators teacher-authors. To spur enrollment, teacherspayteachers plans to offer a $10 referral bonus to teacher-authors who bring others into the system. And, as the site grows in depth, Edelman wants to widen its breadth. An online classified section is in the works for those seeking to advertise educational products. Not far behind, he says, will be a marketplace—inspired by Amazon.com’s—where teachers can buy and sell used books and other classroom aids. On the distant horizon, Edelman envisions teacher-author curriculum development conferences and awards to honor top sellers.
The plan is admittedly ambitious—almost audacious. But that doesn’t mean it’s preposterous, one e-commerce expert says.
“I think that [teacherspayteachers.com] is an excellent idea: It addresses a need and creates an opportunity for the exchange of intellectual property,” says Warren Keegan, a professor of marketing and international business at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York City. “If a market materializes, everyone is a winner: the teachers—as authors and as buyers—and, of course, their students.”
As any veteran investor can attest, however, not every good idea succeeds financially, and Keegan cautions that it’s still too early to say how TPT will fare. “If the site takes off with viral marketing and word of mouth, of course it will be a success,” he notes. “But if it doesn’t find a market, success will depend on sponsors. It will take a creative marketing strategy and a sustained effort to succeed.”
Bill Bruck, an online education expert and founder of Q2Learning, LLC, thinks it’ll take much more than that for TPT to succeed in the long term. He applauds the notion of a site that rewards quality, but says online trends are not in Edelman’s favor. Quoting technology guru and author Stewart Brand’s maxim that “information wants to be free,” Bruck points to projects by MIT and other universities to put entire college courses online gratis. It’s only a matter of time, he says, before philanthropic organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provide similar material for free to K-12 teachers.
Even if teacherspayteachers begins to taste some commercial success, Bruck believes, bloggers will soon pounce and provide similar teacher-resource services for free. “The best bloggers consider themselves to be lenses,” he opines. “If you come to their blog, they will give you everything on their radar screen for free in exchange for the social capital that comes from being thought of as a subject-matter expert. If demand does rise for quality online classroom materials, you will wind up having free sites where people will act as lenses to point the way toward the best science or history curriculum. Teacherspayteachers may be a great idea, but I wouldn’t invest in it.”
Edelman says there’s plenty of precedent for the eventual success of his business plan.
“iTunes proved that people are willing to pay reasonable prices for materials they can alternatively get for free if they really wanted to,” he notes, referring to the successful Apple Web site where songs can be legally downloaded for 99 cents. “The trick is having a great service and a great selection. We have the former, and we’re developing the latter.”
He draws a parallel with the convenience of one-stop shopping. “Let’s say a person needs something quite specific for their home, like a certain kind of kitchen utensil,” he says. “He only has a limited amount of time to find what he needs—something typically true for teachers. He has a choice of driving to all of the yard sales around his county to find this kitchen utensil for a really cheap price, or he can just go to Home Depot and buy it right quick. I mean, they have everything you can imagine there, and most of it is … of good quality. And if Home Depot were owned by its employees—that is, if a large portion of the profits were being redistributed to its workers—even more would go there instead of the yard sales.”
Teacher-authors sold more than $5,000 worth of products in just the first eight weeks following the AP story, he points out, noting, “That’s during the summer with a product catalog of 2,800 products. … TPT will someday have millions of products.”
Even if not all his dreams for the site come true, Edelman says it’s gratifying to provide a little money to teacher-leaders and a valuable service to the profession—especially to the kind of young teacher he was.
If something like TPT had been up and running when he was teaching, he says, “I would have certainly been a buyer and a seller on the site.” What’s more, he adds: “I would have spent more time developing my original materials, making them better and more publishable, so that I could share them with teachers around the country and around the world. It would have been terrific to have access to that material.”
Vol. 18, Issue 02, Pages 37-40Published in Print: October 1, 2006, as A Lesson Earned