The online math teacher community[1] has I have a problem with Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT) and I intend to explain my own understanding of why.

First, a disclaimer: The MTBoS is a loose confederation of teachers all around the world. I don’t even know it’s fair to say “we” share beliefs and practices. However, I think our community has come to rally around this one idea probably more than any other single idea: we share freely. We share freely to help other teachers out, we share freely because we know we get more than we take, we share freely because we understand more users help make a better product.

Those ideas are more than a grand altruistic vision. It’s not about all the feels we get from sharing, at least not for me.

Part I: Why Share Freely?


If I offer a resource for sale on TpT, I get an immediate benefit. What’s the benefit in sharing freely? There’s a great parallel in the world of software — a group that figured a lot of this stuff out before we hit the scene. Before I became a teacher 10 years ago, I worked in/around the free & open source software (FOSS) movement. Many around us wondered why anyone would spend their time crafting something just to give it away. These doubters also wondered about the quality of work that’s ultimately given away.

I think in our school buildings, plenty of us encounter territorial teachers. Those who feel like if they created it, they’re not gonna just give it to you. The MTBoS is completely opposite that mentality. We don’t even know you, but we’ll share with you our best lessons.

What benefit do I get from that sharing? Oh dear, this is where I’m going to come off to y’all as an egotistical jerk: I the ego boost of “Hey, I used your rational equations project. Thanks!” I like that someone trusted my work enough to put it in front of their kids and then found value in it. Am I circling back around and saying it really is all about the feels? Not quite. Have you heard of the gift culture? If not, go now and read Kate Nowak’s inspired words describing ours as a gift culture. I benefit from the gift culture — more on that later.

While I’m busy being an egotistical jerk over here, here’s another reason I like to share freely — y’all proofread my stuff and let me know about errors. Not to mention, if I share a half-baked idea with the MTBoS, y’all will help me brainstorm it into a complete idea. I definitely get more than I give from this community.

As a user of other teachers’ materials, I love that I can adapt your stuff to fit my classroom. Kindergarten teacher Matt Gomez has issues with TpT because he can’t adapt lessons (it’s mostly distributed in PDF). In the best applications of sharing, the user shares back with the developer ways the resource might be improved for all or mentioned as an offshoot at the source.

Part II: How TpT Subverts

So, let’s turn the corner now and look at Teachers Pay Teachers. TpT treats lesson materials as scarce commodities and therefore something of monetary value.

Teachers who participate in TpT see the immediate benefit of getting paid for their hard work whereas in the gift culture, the payoff is further out. Hey, I’ve been a single mom on just a teacher’s salary — getting paid is valuable. About getting paid through a store on Teachers Pay Teachers, my good friend @approx_normal says

I get that teachers don’t make a lot of money and this is a way to supplement that income. But we didn’t go into education thinking it would pay for luxury cars and vacations in the Bahamas. We went into education to make a difference in the lives of students and no one outside education really gets the trials and challenges of what we do everyday. We have to look out for each other because no one else will.

(she’s one of those altruistic types)

What does getting paid look like over at TpT? Approximately 2400 teachers made between $1000 and $5000 on Teachers Pay Teachers last year.[2] That’s nice money. Not as nice as this, though: my participation in the gift culture is 100% responsible for my current job. It came with a substantial raise from the job before. That raise was way more than I could’ve expected to earn on TpT last year. See what I mean about waiting for the long-term gains?

When you participate in TpT, you give up citizenship in the MTBoS gift culture.

Oh, we’ll still let you visit us (use our resources, read our blogs, and build upon our ideas) but what you lose out on are those long-term benefits of participating fully in the gift culture.

I have other concerns about the TpT gig, ways in which it subverts the whole gift culture because

  • TpT has no method of ensuring the seller has the rights to sell the product they’re offering. Several MTBoS’ers have seen their own creations go up on TpT without their permission.
  • Resources sold as PDFs (as I believe the majority of TpT stuff is) can’t be adapted for the purchaser’s classroom. Adapting and extending on another’s work is an important element in the gift culture.
  • “TpT is making money off of the teachers who use their services, so they’re using the teachers who sell things through them. It’s just another company taking advantage by making a buck off of education.” — @approx_normal

Part III: Why MTBoS Me and TpT Sellers Will Never Reconcile

Two words: culture clash.

The MTBoS is based on I believe in the gift culture while TpT is based on a capitalist culture. We have entirely different cultural norms and expectations. And excluding individual members being swayed by a blog post, people aren’t likely to change their minds. The comments on this post by Darren Draper illustrate how entrenched in our own cultures we all are.

So if we won’t move and the TpT’ers won’t move, is there any common ground? Andrew Rotherham, in Time’s School of Thought column had this to say:

Regardless of who foots the bill for more-effective lesson plans, this sort of professional sharing is long overdue. Too many teachers are on their own. It’s a sink-or-swim system, as [AFT president] Weingarten has often noted, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

I believe we’re all working to be our best in front of the children. Let’s keep that in mind next time we argue.[3]

Highlights from the Comments

  • Mary Dooms: “Teachers selling on TpT may be violating their teacher contract. If the lessons, activities, etc. are, “prepared by an employee within the scope of his/her employment” it is considered a work made for hire.” It’s a concern others have, but I’m giving TpT’ers the benefit of the doubt that they’ve already checked their contracts and are in the clear.
  • Moniki: “I just lurk in the shadows and learn as much I can, adapt these wonderful resources to suit my kids and teach and reflect in the hope that I suck less than yesterday. But if I got paid for sharing, I might share more easily – a sort of you get what you pay for mentality. Like “it’s only 5 bucks” or whatever, so this will do. Whereas now I prefer to wait until I can really contribute something valuable.” Not the only one to express this to me. Mind blown.
  • Cathy Yeneca: ““Freely sharing” and selling on TpT aren’t mutually exclusive. Presented as an “us” versus “them” issue, should any teacher who wants to be involved in “MTBoS” who happens to have items for sale on TpT just politely step away now, per your post?” She made me think, which is why I replaced MTBoS with me where appropriate above. I can’t speak for an entire community.
  • Sam Shah: “The MTBoS is big and doesn’t have a single philosophy or ethos. However there are a lot of people who do converge on a few key points — Megan hitting on what I think is one of them. It isn’t everyone, and I’m happy that not everyone agrees with everything…I don’t see it as an “us” versus “them” thing. I think if people find good resources on TpT and find it valuable and useful, awesome! Buy them. If people want to make money on stuff they create on TpT, cool! Sell them. We all have to do what works for us as teachers.”
  • cheesemonkeysf: “I think there’s just a cultural mismatch and a skew of beliefs about means and ends. Someone who sells on TpT is probably not going to post a lot in a community where the cultural norm is to share and share alike because they are trying to protect the value of their own materials that they sell. Similarly, I think that someone who posts/shares their materials via the #MTBoS is unlikely to participate much in the TpT world because we simply value materials differently…The reason I share materials and lessons and strategies via the #MTBoS is that I do so in order to improve my practice as a teacher.”
  • algebrasfriend: “But today, I asked myself the same question you did, should I just quietly quit that community. It’s clear they don’t want me. I participate in TpT. I’m not going to defend my choice.” At first glance, there’s conundrum here because I very clearly said there’s little overlap between my gift culture and your capitalist culture. Similarly, there’s little overlap between my religious beliefs and yours, I bet, too. Doesn’t mean I don’t want you around. Just that we don’t talk religion. Please stay. Contribute. Let’s just be aware that we have different motivations.
  • I Speak Math (Julie): “My main worry with TPT is not stolen lessons but it is that the “lure of the money” for underpaid teachers will entice amazing new teacher bloggers to save their best work to sale, instead of sharing for free…Some great bloggers are using TPT, many of them before they even started blogging. This is not a blog against you. I admire how hard you work. However, I would like all NEW math teacher bloggers to realize that TPT is a business. In contrast, what I would like for our community is not more business people, but more volunteers, who freely share their time and work. I would like to encourage new math teacher bloggers who benefit from our gift community to freely give back as well.” There’s that culture clash again. Folks, if you’re considering participating in Teachers Pay Teachers, realize it’s a business making money by offering you a marketplace, be hyper-aware that ideas and materials you download from the Gifters cannot be incorporated into something you sell (without express permission), and the Gifters hope you’ll share freely in addition to selling.

[1] also referred to as #MTBoS as an acronym for mathtwitterblogosphere.

[2] Source: I refuse to link to them.

[3] Want to start a firestorm? Tweet this: “I love Teachers Pay Teachers! #MTBoS”. I’ve been meaning to check back in on Chris Robinson since he decided to monetize his sharing on Twitter.