By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Reading intervention teacher Justin Lim at Rosemead High School.
When she began teaching six years ago, Kristen Bowers found it extremely challenging to cover the state standards, teach literature required by her district, and also prepare her students for the state’s exit exam and standardized tests.
“I was under a lot of pressure,” recalls Bowers, a teacher at South Hills High School and a member of the Covina Unified Education Association, “and there was a disconnect between the materials that I used to prepare my students for tests and the materials I needed to teach literature.”
Unable to find resources integrating content standards with literature, she created her own literary guides and essay writing guides. She shared them with colleagues, who loved the materials. She created her own company, Secondary Solutions, in 2005, and one year later began selling materials online via www.teacherspayteachers.com (TPT), boosting her sales and recognition. Last year she earned $40,000 from TPT, making her the top-selling teacher in the nation.
Bowers is a new breed of educator that some call a “teacherpreneur.” Thanks to the Internet, teachers can now sell materials that previously could only be shared with a few colleagues. While the practice has raised some eyebrows, teacherpreneurs say the advantages go beyond monetary value.
“It has definitely made me a better teacher,” says Justin Lim, a reading intervention teacher at Rosemead High School, who sells materials on the TPT site. That’s because, as a seller, he has received a lot of feedback from teachers who have purchased or previewed his materials.
“Others critiqued my materials on the website and said my questions didn’t encourage critical thinking skills. So I took a look at how I asked questions of my students, and then went back and tweaked my materials. For me, it was a learning experience as well as a sharing experience.”
He decided to become a seller after purchasing materials on TPT from others. “What I found was much better than some of the materials I had seen from professional curriculum writers,” Lim comments. “Often those materials were tough to implement or unrealistic. What teachers wrote and sold was much more practical.”
He now sells products on TPT including worksheets and PowerPoint presentations pertaining to short stories commonly assigned in English classes. He earns about $300 a month and uses the extra cash to buy classroom supplies he previously paid for with his salary.
“It’s not easy money,” he says. “It takes a lot of time to do this. You have to look at materials from a teacher’s point of view in addition to the point of view of the students in your class. But I would definitely encourage others to try it. There are a lot of rewards.”
TPT was created in 2006 by Paul Edelman, a former middle school teacher in New York City. The idea took hold because he was always surfing the Web looking for new ideas to try in his classroom.
“It was mind-numbing because there was so much online, and also so little,” says Edelman. “But I knew there were millions of teachers creating lesson plans every day and that very few of these were on the Web. Most were just sharing with local colleagues. They didn’t have much incentive to post them, and that’s where the idea of TPT came from.”
TPT handles all transactions, for a fee, and pay sellers on a quarterly basis. Presently 10,000 teachers from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Britain have seller accounts, with 6,000 of them considered active contributors. Most materials are cheap (under $5), while a few sell for as high as $50.
In addition to offering potential buyers a preview of materials and the opportunity to post reviews and ratings, buyers can also ask the seller questions via e-mail.
“It’s truly an open market place with quality controlled by user ratings and comments,” says Edelman. “But we do give enough tools for buyers to make good purchasing decisions, so in that way the best materials and best teacher authors rise to the top.”
“It’s added a whole new dimension to teaching careers,” continues Edelman. “Teachers have always been focused on creating the best curriculum they can. But now they are spending more time on lesson planning because they are offering it to the world and putting a price tag on it.”
The ethics of selling
Because the teaching profession has always been known for sharing and collaboration, there are bound to be some who feel that selling materials “cheapens” the profession. However, it was difficult to find any CTA members who agreed with that sentiment.
Susan Mercer, Santa Ana Educators Association president, has been selling on TPT since 2006. Her products, identified by a frog logo, introduce pre-algebra concepts, provide an alternative to rote memorization in textbooks, and address the needs of all students, including English learners and those in special education.
“I believe it is entirely ethical to sell teacher-generated materials on the Internet,” says Mercer, a curriculum math specialist. “I have spent countless hours developing and writing the units. I did this on my own time and used my own computer. Teachers don’t have the time to reinvent the wheel. If they can buy a product that has been successfully used by others, why not? This is no different from attending a professional conference or workshop to get ideas and materials.”
Her district adopted her curriculum as supplemental materials, and teachers have been using them for more than five years in nine middle schools. Mercer allows her district to share them with teachers for free, but requires those outside her district to purchase them.
“Teachers are not highly paid,” says Bowers. “This is a great opportunity for them to be valued for their extra work. In other professions, if someone works overtime, they get paid for it. But teachers don’t. We’re just asking for a little compensation.”
Kerry Dunigan, a teacher at Marin Elementary School, was so incensed by the thought of districts claiming ownership rights — or forbidding teachers from selling curriculum — that she wrote a scathing letter to the New York Times on the subject.
“Try as I might, I cannot recall taking a vow of poverty when I became a teacher,” writes Dunigan, a member of the Albany Teachers Association, who does not sell lessons herself. “Nor can I remember ever being compensated for the hundreds — perhaps thousands — of hours I’ve put in on weekends, evenings and vacations. Teachers continually develop and tweak lessons, often on their own time and without the use of district resources, to reach an increasingly diverse and sophisticated population of learners. The fact that we are willing to pay for lessons superior to the curriculum bought by our school districts doesn’t cheapen what we do; it raises it to a new level of commitment.”
A question of ownership
Beth Decker, an English teacher at Liberty High School in Brentwood, was asked to teach a class designed to help freshmen transfer into high school. She agreed, despite a lack of curriculum. Outside of the school day she developed lesson plans that incorporate real-world concepts — including career and college planning, self-awareness and finances — to help foster success in high school and adulthood, titled Get Real! A Reality Project for Teenagers. Her work has been recognized by George Washington University’s Freshman Transition Initiative as a curriculum that correlates with their standards designed to assess freshmen transition programs. Decker shared her curriculum with district colleagues teaching the class for free.
“Everything had to be photocopied, which presented problems,” says Decker, a member of the Liberty Education Association. “Students don’t see it as a legitimate class when they don’t have a book. They take it more lightly, often losing assignments, and part of the value of the class is having the materials to reflect on later.”
After comparing the cost of self-publishing with the cost of photocopying, she decided to self-publish because it was cheaper and more convenient. Instead of appreciation, her district refused to buy the materials, implying that it would be a conflict of interest. To date the district has still not purchased sufficient materials for the course. At one point, her administrators questioned Decker’s ownership of Get Real!, but now acknowledge that Decker does, in fact, own the materials.
Historically, teachers have always owned the rights to their own curriculum, says Elizabeth Townsend-Gard, associate professor and co-director of the Center for Intellectual Property Law and Culture at Tulane Law School in New Orleans and legal adviser for TPT and Edelman.
The law states that anything created within the “scope of employment” at one’s job is owned by the employer. For example, if an accountant writes a novel after hours, it is not within the scope of employment, but if that accountant creates an accounting software program for use at work, it could be considered the property of the firm where that accountant is employed. However, says Townsend-Gard, there has traditionally “been an exception for teachers.”
“Nobody cared before because teachers weren’t making money. But now, because of the Internet, they can. The law is blurrier now, and the court hasn’t established whether the teacher exception still exists. But it’s important that the teacher exception survive. If schools own teacher-created curriculum, it will mean less autonomy for teachers.” Townsend-Gard adds that any materials created outside of the scope of employment by teachers — or others — are automatically the creator’s copyright.
NEA’s Office of General Counsel warns that the Copyright Act of 1976 stipulates that materials created by teachers in the scope of their employment are “works for hire” and owned by the school — and that this could also include materials created by teachers on their own time and equipment, since it falls under the category of “job duties.” For this reason, NEA supports amending the Copyright Act of 1976 to officially recognize the teacher exemption.
Edelman believes the teacher exception will eventually be tested in court, and that the ruling will be in teachers’ favor. “When teachers change jobs or go from one district to another, they take their lesson plans with them,” he reasons. “That’s a pretty good measure of who owns the materials.”
However, this is not always the case. When a teacher recently transferred to a different school within the San Jose Unified School District, administrators demanded that the teacher leave behind all lesson plans and materials. The teacher refused and sought advice from CTA’s legal staff. As a result, new contract language was negotiated. Bargaining such language is always advisable, notes NEA.
“We came to an informal understanding with our district about how situations like this should be handled,” says Patrick Bernhardt, a member of the San Jose Teachers Association’s bargaining team. “The district wanted certain specific things to remain behind, and we decided that if there was a legitimate need for these things to remain, they would.”
But SJTA members saw the possibility for future disputes and decided to bargain for “intellectual property” rights. SJTA members studied a similar provision in the contract for United Teachers Los Angeles members and came up with their own version for their contract. (To view SJTA’s contract language, visit us online at www.cta.org/Professional-Development/Publications/Educator-May-10/
“Having that contract language clarifies things,” says Bernhardt, a math and history teacher at Pioneer High School. “It helps, because there is some ambiguity in existing law about teacher rights and matters of intellectual property. Many teachers generate work products that may not be explicitly required by their job, but they create them because they are invested in their students.”
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