Hundreds of Missouri teachers create their own lesson materials, and make money doing so
Missouri music teacher Tracy King’s second job began about two decades ago with one problem: She couldn’t find any useful educational materials to put on her classroom bulletin board.
So she started making her own. After a few years doing that, other teachers started asking her to make some for them, too.
Then, in 2006, an online marketplace called Teachers Pay Teachers launched, allowing teachers like King to sell resources they make to teachers anywhere.
Through the website and by using social media, King has sold hundreds of thousands of classroom resources she made herself under the brand name "The Bulletin Board Lady." She makes bulletin board decorations, lesson materials, worksheets and games in different shapes, colors and fonts to teach children about music.
King, who teaches at Fredericktown Intermediate School in Madison County, Mo., has made so much money doing this that she was able to take a year off from teaching to take care of her husband as he was dealing with health problems, while covering his medical expenses.
Teachers Pay Teachers, the biggest teacher-based online marketplace of its kind, has become so popular that four million teachers from around the world have used resources from the site in the past year, while 80,000 teachers sell — including more than 2,500 in Missouri. The site boasts a library of more than 2.7 million educator-created resources. In 2016 alone, teachers collectively earned $100 million selling on the site.
But teachers say this isn’t just a side hustle.
They say it’s the bedrock of a movement that seeks to put teachers in charge of what they use to teach in their classrooms. It’s about believing that teachers are the authority on what works in the classroom, not textbook publishing companies nor district administrators.
“When I’m looking for resources, I trust what teachers use in the classroom more than I would a publisher,” King said. “Teacher-authors really have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in education. They just know what teachers need.”
Here’s how Teachers Pay Teachers works: first, a teacher searches the website for whatever resource they need.
Teachers have made their own guides, bulletin board cutouts, units of lessons, books, and even yearlong curricula complete with quizzes, vocabulary cards and more that are available. There are resources for all kinds of subjects, from Native American history to Greek and Latin word roots to how to write a college essay. There are resources for all grade levels, groups of students and state learning standards.
Before buying the resource, teachers can preview it and read reviews by teachers who already used it.
Teachers say this is a key difference between Teachers Pay Teachers and curricula produced by big-name publishing houses: it’s easier to see whether the resource actually worked well, says Sara Peters, a Columbia, Mo., resident who makes and sells teacher resources for a living through her brand, Grade School Cool. She estimates she earns $80,000 a year doing so.
Some resources cost as little as $1 for a pack of activity sheets. Another may cost $57 for a pack of 472 pages. Thousands of resources are free to download — every teacher-author who joins the site is required to post a free one.
The teacher-produced materials don’t go through any formal screening for quality or accuracy. But Adam Freed, the CEO of Teachers Pay Teachers, and teachers say that popular, highly reviewed resources have already been tested and proven to work in classrooms.
“Really, the teachers are the judge of whether or not they’re right for our students,” Peters said.
In public schools, it’s normal for teachers to be ordered to use certain curricula, textbooks and other learning resources by their school board, superintendent or district academic officers.
But teachers, and even school administrators, say that curriculum materials from a big-name publisher don’t always provide what a teacher needs.
“There’s no one cookie-cutter way to help every student be successful,” said Ron Farrow, principal at Athena Elementary School in the De Soto School District. “We deal with thousands of kids, and out of those thousands of kids, they all learn so differently that you can’t rely on one resource to meet every single need.”
The site is popular because teachers say they have always spent hours of their free time making their own resources.
“I will pay two, three bucks to save a few hours every single opportunity,” King said. “Teachers are so busy.”
Athena Elementary and Eagleview Elementary of the Columbia School District in the Metro East area are two schools that have signed onto a new Teachers Pay Teachers program that allows entire schools to buy materials from the website. The two schools will also give teachers money to buy resources from the site.
Farrow said he had noticed at his previous school in Cape Girardeau, Mo., that teachers were already spending a lot of their own money on resources made by teachers. As a principal in Cape Girardeau, he gave each of his teachers a $100 allowance to buy Teachers Pay Teachers resources.
He said he likes teacher-made resources partly because they often simply look more appealing and fun than materials from publishers.
“Even if it’s just a border, that can make a difference in that kid taking a second look at what they’re working on,” Farrow said.