For Paul Edelman, venturing out in business on his own was just a matter of time. After teaching for four years in New York City public schools, he was struck by the concept of an open marketplace for teacher-created materials. “I knew how valuable good materials were—all teachers know this as they seek out the best stuff from their colleagues,” Paul says. “And, usually, when we value something, we are willing to trade money for it.” Though assigning monetary value to teacher-created materials hadn’t been tried before in quite the same way as Paul was envisioning, he was confident it would work. “I knew that I would have paid for materials created by great teachers if they were only made available,” he says. With the rise of the Internet and user-generated content, Paul thought it was the perfect time to give this idea a try. And now, millions of dollars in teacher-author earnings later and with an established and ever-expanding quality resource hub for teachers—he’s glad he did.
Victor: What does the name mean?
Paul: Though a few mistake it for Teacher Spay Teachers from time to time, I’m happy to report that we aren’t into peer sterilizations. In fact, it couldn’t be simpler: on TeachersPayTeachers (TpT), teachers pay other teachers for their original teaching materials, not just to save time from nonstop lesson planning—which is a significant part of the job after school hours and on weekends—but to gain inspiration and to leap ahead in effectiveness and competency.
Victor: What is it, exactly?
Paul: TpT is an open marketplace for teacher-created materials, sort of like an eBay or an Etsy for lesson plans, units, activities, projects, exams, powerpoints, smartboard activities, etc. It’s a place where teachers who love curriculum development can open up shop and sell their materials to teachers who thrive on delivery more than creation. It’s symbiotic and elegant, I think!
Victor: What does it do and what are the benefits?
Paul: It’s essentially a teacher2teacher platform for buying/selling/sharing a large catalog of resources driven by free market forces. But there is a ton of material for free! As of December 2011 out of 130,000 curriculum products, over 16,000 are free, something we highly encourage. I think the benefits on the buyer side are easy to see. They save a lot of time and discover great teacher-tested ideas that just work. But on the seller side, the benefits are even greater, and I’m not just talking about the supplemental earning possibilities which can be very significant—in fact, our best seller has earned over $400,000 thus far, 95 percent of that in the past year alone. More interesting even than that—although that is pretty darned sweet—is how it impacts one’s career. A TpT seller suddenly finds herself an educational publisher. To be successful, you have to really think hard about your own practice, your methodologies and how you present them on paper or digitally. You must be even more creative than before and you have to keep your materials fresh and highly polished. Bottom line, it makes you a far better teacher. Oh, and the extra cash makes you feel like a professional who is getting compensated appropriately. It might even keep you in the profession longer than the 5 year average exit. That’s good for everyone.
Victor: Wow. We’ll be interviewing some of those teacher-authors here—readers stay tuned. How else is it unique? Anyone doing the very same thing?
Paul: We were the first and are still the largest company offering such an open marketplace for teacher-created materials. Other places are popping up where teachers can sell their work, and all the free and open source materials on the internet are also friendly competition to our model. I think our approach is the most sustainable and will lead to the highest quality and largest quantity of materials being made available by teachers. If you spend 3 days, 3 weeks or even 3 years developing a unit plan, you don’t necessarily want to give it away to everyone for free. Yes, you share it with your local colleagues. But then you post in on TpT and sell it to the rest of the country and the world if they are willing to give you a few bucks for it. This motivates you to constantly revise and make it better, and to continue creating the best teaching resources you possibly can.
Victor: When was it developed? Any interesting story here?
Paul: I had the idea in October 2005 and launched it in April 2006. I got very lucky with an AP article about its launch a couple months later in June. Many don’t know this, but the CEO of Scholastic read that article and ended up acquiring TpT in December of that year. I signed a 3 year contract to run it for them, but in the throes of the economic recession of 2008, Scholastic made millions in budget cuts and that left TpT—which was gaining ground but slowly at the time—on the chopping block. I had to fight really hard to save it from being shuttered and ended up making a deal to buy it back completely in March 2009. Again, glad I did. Now we are cranking with millions in earnings by teachers to date, soon to be tens of millions.
Victor: How does the business model work?
Paul: We earn a commission on sales and we also have a premium subscription option for sellers.
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Paul: Buyers/browsers register for free and purchase a la carte. On the seller side there are two options. The first is a Basic Seller membership which is free. Basic Sellers keep 60 percent of their sales less 30 cents per item sold. We encourage everyone to start at this level and then when they begin to see some sales to upgrade to a Premium membership which costs $59.95 annually but enables Premium Sellers to keep a full 85 percent of their sales. It works out pretty well for the sellers.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Paul: A young teacher is exhausted and overwhelmed. She needs to start teaching The Hunger Games next week, but hasn’t been able to extensively plan for it yet.
In fact, she’s still rereading the book. She asked some veterans at her school for help and they were gracious to offer some lesson ideas, even a final exam.
But this teacher needs more.
She logs on to TpT and does a keyword search for “The Hunger Games Unit Plan” and is returned hundreds of results from great teachers across the US, Canada and Australia. She reads the product descriptions, takes a look at the preview files and thumbnails screenshots, reviews the ratings and comments left by previous teacher-buyers and then adds her choices to her shopping cart and makes the purchase. She turns that receipt into her school and gets reimbursed, ideally.
Now she has virtually everything she needs.
With a little tweaking and personalizing to meet the needs of her own students, she can focus on delivering it as best she can rather than wasting precious time recreating the wheel. This is a big win for her students, and she is grateful for that. After using the materials she purchased in her classroom, she returns to TpT to rate and comment upon them so other teachers can benefit from her evaluations. The sellers then take that feedback to heart and create even better curricular products, helping them earn ever more for the expertise and hard work.
The virtuous cycle continues.
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Paul: TpT is for all teachers inside and outside formal environments. We are open to higher education but almost all of our participants and materials are preK-12.
Victor: Any critics, what are they saying, and what’s your stance/response to them?
Paul: There are those who think everything in education should be free, but that is a fantasy. Would they ask other content creators to give away their intellectual property for free? Should J.K. Rowling not charge for her books? Or Coldplay for their music? Why should teacher-authors be treated any differently?
Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?
Paul: It’s experiencing some angst. It’s struggling in poor and rural areas because, there, it’s having a hard time attracting and retaining great educators. Conditions are tough. But it’s also better than many would let on.
There are great schools in our country, both traditional public schools as well as innovative charters. I don’t agree with a lot of the rhetoric out there that we don’t know what good schooling looks like, that we don’t know how to teach, that we need billions in research to figure it out. I don’t buy this idea that it’s stuck in some “19th-century industrial model”. Most good teachers don’t teach like that anymore.
There is no secret to a great school. Hire great teachers and administrators and let them work their magic.
Some say that’s not possible to do “at scale” so they are looking for culprits (the unions) and solutions (through technology) that I think are part of the solution, but also often just a distraction from what I think is the real solution. That is, to find, train, retain and sustain 3.2 million great teachers.
We can only do that if we made it a national priority.
Something has to be our national priority, why not this?
I’m happy to be proved wrong. If anyone has an argument that proves that finding 3.2 million great teachers is impossible, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If it’s not impossible, then let’s do it. As my dad always said, where there’s a will there’s a way.
Victor: How does TeachersPayTeachers address some of your concerns about education?
Paul: TpT helps teachers share what works and it provides a real world incentive to make that sharing particularly valuable on both sides of the transaction. What results is more effective and happier teachers.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Paul: I am optimistic. I think that what normally results from a period of deep reflection—which is where the industry is now—is something better. There will be fits and starts, returns to the good old days and surprising advances, there will be lots of disagreement and discord, but in the end, we should be better off.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com