Monday, July 4, 2016

Teachers Shouldn't Be Expected to Share Everything for Free

In the wake of the announcement of the new Amazon Inspire, and the scandal that emerged upon its roll-out, the debate has once again emerged over whether teachers should share everything freely or whether it's ok for teachers to sell the materials they create. I feel it's important to add my voice to this debate- after I've had a little time to calm down and clearly state my ideas.

Who owns what teachers create?
The fact is, that varies by district and state based on the language in the teacher's contract. In some districts, the district owns whatever a teacher creates in the course of his or her job. In others, a teacher retains all rights to their IP. Still other districts have a joint-ownership philosophy. However, such contractual clauses apply to what teachers create in the course of their employment, presumably using district provided equipment and software.

What about TpTers who are revising and selling curriculum created in the course of a previous job? What about those who are creating simply what they see a need for, with no relation to their own jobs? Or those teachers who are retired, or out of the classroom to raise a family or care for an ailing spouse?

The vast majority of TpTers I know are creating on their own time, outside school hours, with materials and equipment and software they've purchased on their own. They are using expertise gained through the education they paid for, experience in the classroom, and their own research. They're using their own time to create, market and sell materials- why shouldn't they be compensated?

Teachers have a "moral obligation" to share freely with other teachers.

I don't even know where to start with this one. I feel that teachers are underpaid and underappreciated as it is. They already spend hundreds of hours outside of contracted time completing their duties. Why shouldn't the be compensated in some form for their expertise? Especially if they're creating stuff to do their job effectively outside of contract time? If I buy a rug and bring it to school to use in my classroom, the school wouldn't expect to keep that when I leave. Why should they retain ownership of intellectual property that I create on my own time?

Most TpT teacher-authors I know share what they create freely with their own colleagues and others in their district. Many use a portion of their TpT profits to "give back"- supporting classrooms by buying materials, making donations on DonorsChoose, or donating products and hard goods to help teachers who lost their clasrooms in a natural disaster.

Most TpT teacher-authors also have around 10% of the items in their store for free, and give still more away on their blogs or websites.

But teachers shouldn't have to pay for materials to do their jobs.
Well, this is one that i really can't argue with. It's true, we shouldn't have to spend SO MUCH of our own money to buy materials. It's true, many of us spend a month's rent or more throughout the school year to decorate and supply our classrooms. It shouldn't be that way.

However, many professions have to buy some basic materials in order to do their jobs, so to expect teachers not to have to spend ANY money is a bit unreasonable. Especially considering the REALITY of the underfunded American education system. Until something systemic changes, teachers will continue to need to supplement their classrooms.

Why not buy high-quality materials that have been classroom tested in real clasrooms, and created by real teachers at better prices than you can get from Scholastic or Pearson? As a teacher, I would rather throw money at a fellow teacher to save a little time and effort for grading or planning or- heck- to have a little social life (gasp!)- than at big publisher who already makes too much money off our students. I can't tell you how much less stressful my first few years teaching would have been! Yes, I know that not all materials on TpT are high quality, but let's be fair- not everything you get from the big-name publishers or the "everything free" folks is either!

Also, let's be real. I know that MANY of the educational publishing companies, Scholastic excluded, will sell ONLY to school districts, not to individual practitioners. So, if Scholastic (or a similar company) doesn't have what they need, they can't find it for free, and they can't buy it from a big publisher, they either create their own or look for other options- like paying fellow teacher.

I also can't help but think, if I had been able to purchase a few high-quality resources from a more experienced teacher when I was just starting out- my practice might have improved far more quickly than it did! What about a teacher whose strength might be teaching math, but as an elementary teacher must also teach RELA? They can benefit from purchasing some ready-to-go, high-quality lessons from a colleague with more expertise in that area.

Free is free for a reason.
I started this whole curriculum-writing and materials-creating journey because as a new teacher, who was teaching Language Arts and ESOL to newcomer and intermediate ESOL students, I did not have appropriate materials to teach my students. I had some that taught basic language skills, but nothing that met the state standards I needed to meet with my ELLs except what was available in the mainstream classroom. So, I set out for the inter-webs.

I often found free stuff to supplement the lessons I was planning, and essentially, the lesson curriculum I was slowly writing, one day and one lesson at a time. But, most of the free stuff I found was not high-quality, and I never found more than bits-and-pieces, never anything I could take and use long-term. Further, even the high-quality stuff was bland and not visually attractive- hardly engaging to me as an adult, and certainly not to adolescent students. This is because some teacher out there created something they needed quickly and then shared with others. It's like a cake mix at that point- it's a great starting point, but you need to add the eggs and milk to make it palatable.

The teachers who are selling their resources are not only investing their time in the creation of these materials, but they're often spending their money to purchase special fonts, clipart, and software to make their creations look professional to teachers and appealing to students. Why shouldn't they be compensated for adding these extra touches? Most even do this on their free resources, because these are a reflection of the work they sell- so they want it to carry the same quality. The last time I was on a website full of only free resources, they all had plain fonts, Googled graphics, and often were in formats that caused formatting difficulties after download. Free is free for a reason.

But....what I do is different!
When one particular proponent of "free for all" was questioned about why she felt it was ok to sell her books or consulting services, and how that was different than selling resources- she couldn't come up a valid argument- other than she does that on her own time. Hello, so do I. The fact is, there is no difference between the teacher trying to sell their book and the teacher trying to sell their teaching resource. You offer books and consulting services, I offer PD and teaching materials. We're really splitting hairs there to insist that what you do is different or better. We're both hoping to help teachers and make some money off this expertise that we've got; we both give away some of our expertise freely, and charge for some of it. Bottom line- you are no different than me.

Couldn't you share your materials and do something else to make money?
I could absolutely find another way to supplement my teaching income. I was a bartender and server for years, and could easily work part time doing that in the evenings. But, the fact is, that would decrease the amount of time I have to spend grading and planning, allow no time for creating the materials I need, and make me feel far more exhausted physically. If I had to do that to make ends meet, I'd quickly have burnt out and probably would have left teaching years ago. Fortunately, selling my materials allows me to help other teachers while making ends meet so I can still do what I love- teaching!

Creating materials that help other teachers is inspiring to me, and has improved my professional practice as well. The enthusiasm and passion for creating high-quality materials has driven me to seek out new methods and strategies which have also been implemented into my instructional habits. My students get the benefit through the lessons I plan and materials I create for them as well!

It takes all kinds. Can't we all just get along?
If you feel that you should share for free- go for it! I love sharing free things too, and it is totally your prerogative. Just as it is my prerogative to sell materials I see fit. However, please examine your own practice- if you say that teachers are morally obligated to share their materials and knowledge for free- are you truly sharing your "everything" for free? Because you can't have it both ways- selling books and consulting services, but making a clamor because I choose to sell lesson plans or task cards.

And, how about we all just stop judging each other? I don't judge you for sharing freely, so please don't judge me for my choices!

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