is the founder and chief evangelist of TeachersPayTeachers, an eBay-esque start-up that hopes to re-write the rules for how curriculum is developed and shared. And who profits from such a transaction. [image from AP/Dina Gavrysh]
The core premise is called out in the org's title -- no hinting around there, right Paul? (he smiles) By creating a virtual tool that allows passionate -- and expert (8 former state teachers of the year have already joined up with free lifetime memberships)-- teachers to profit off of sharing their self-created lesson plans, programs, curriculum, and projects with other interested educators, it is Paul's belief that the quality of offerings will not only create profit for those very teachers but also inspire better and better work in the process.
With that in mind, "think:lab" grabbed a few minutes of Paul's time recently out of a desire to better understand the driving engine behind Paul's vision and also make good on a promise to re-visit my original post earlier this summer when I first criticized the firm's premise.
Here is what Paul offered in response to my questions:
What is the very first thing – at the gut level – you want people to come away with when they first visit your site and begin to explore the possibilities, offerings, etc.?
Paul: On a gut level, I want visitors to feel excited about the potential and optimistic about the benefits that such a marketplace for teachers provides for the entire field of education. I want visitors to think, “YES, this makes perfect sense. This is a great idea.” There are literally millions of teachers who know how to teach from actually DOING it, whereas those who write materials for the educational publishers probably number in the thousands. TpT creates a forum for those millions to enter the market by valuing what they create and saying to them, “What you toil over after school and on weekends and over vacations and in August is worth something and you have the right to attempt to market it to other teachers who may be very happy to trade a few dollars for it.” The whole web is moving towards content created by everyday people as opposed to corporations. This is the impulse behind your medium, the blog. It’s happening in television, film, radio, journalism and you-name-it. It was bound to happen in education, too. So I want people to feel in their gut, ‘YES.’
5 years from now, what is your vision for how Teachers Pay Teachers will not only have made a financial difference for individual teachers (and networks of teachers), but in how they actually teach, collaborate, and inspire kids back in the classroom?
Paul: Well, there will be four kinds of teachers: 1, those who sell on TpT, 2, those who buy on TpT, 3, those who buy AND sell on TpT, and 4, those who don’t use TpT at all. The largest group will be the 4th one, I must admit. I don’t have any illusions here (well, maybe a few). The first group will be re-invigorated teachers! They will feel many things other than happiness for being a little richer than they were before. For one, they will feel great for having earned some recognition for being a hard working teacher who creates high quality original teaching materials. The recognition is earned im- and explicitly through sales, user ratings & comments, and through Teacher-Author community channels that we are in the process of creating. They will also feel great that teachers and students all over the country and world are benefiting from their own ideas and the way they chose to organize and express them in their work. Because Teacher-Authors are marketing and selling their work, they spend more time thinking about, reflecting upon and developing their ideas. This process makes them better teachers!! Who benefits when teachers improve? Students do.
Buyers, instead of having to reinvent the wheel every night, will be able to find better ways to teach certain things. But a buyer isn’t a consumer! She is an active collaborator, for when she gets her hands on supplemental teaching materials, something happens. She starts reading it and imagining how she’s going to implement it. She tweaks it and improves it to meet her own students’ needs. She makes it better! Who benefits when teachers improve? Students do. And she may decide that she has great ideas too and that she wants to create original resources to sell on TpT. It’s a very healthy cycle, I think. Who benefits? Everyone does.
This is the process by which we, our minds and our wisdom evolve and progress.
If you ran this as a not-for-profit, how would your vision/mission change? And in what ways have you retained some of the same values even within a for-profit business plan? Do you see these as different or similar at the end of the day?
Paul: I think some people think that education should somehow transcend money and market forces. I wish that were the case, but it’s not, and those who think it is have a woefully naive point of view. That’s just not how it works. It would be wonderful if the millions of teachers in this world willingly and without any incentive other than altruism posted all of their original teaching materials on the web and shared them with everybody. Some do, but most don’t. Perhaps we’ll get there someday with a behemoth edu-wiki of sorts. I hope so, but we’re not there now.
It would also be wonderful if musicians didn’t charge us for their music or if writers gave away their novels and artists their paintings and directors their films. But we wouldn't ask that of them. Is not a teacher’s intellectual property just as valuable??
And what about the people behind the idea and the business, the people who had the guts to quit their jobs and cash in their retirement funds to start it? Don’t they have a right to earn a profit? Is profit a bad word? One can do wonderful things with profit! Look at what the Microsoft men have done with their profits. Look at what the eBay men have done with theirs! They’ve started very admirable non-profits that fund non-profits that are literally trying to save the world! Knee-jerk anti-for-profitism is so 90s.
What is the greatest opportunity that you see once TPT gets rolling? What is the greatest challenge that you’ll face with TPT in achieving that goal?
Paul: The greatest opportunity is in improving teachers’ and students’ lives, even just a little. The greatest challenge is actually reaching a critical mass so that we can achieve the above goal on a large scale.
How would this have made a difference for you as a teacher in the past on a typical Tuesday morning with a day’s worth of classes laying ahead? Would you have relied on TPT curriculum the night before, looking a the week ahead, as a research vehicle or as a way to ‘buy’ the next day’s lesson? Would it have been better with time to explore, such as during summer break, or on the weekends? How do you want most teachers to really dive in and use TPT’s tools on an average day?
Paul: I would have used in every way you mentioned. Teaching is hard. It makes you exhausted. Sometimes you just want to go online to download a great lesson plan, master it over a cup of herbal tea and go to bed. Other times you are wondering how an amazing veteran teacher would teach, say, subject/verb agreement, because you don’t want to spend 20 years getting to the same point, so you go to TpT to buy from the highest rated ELA teacher. In one day you just advanced 20 years! If I had access to TpT my first year, I would have paid a lot for a full year’s curriculum developed by a former New York State Teacher of the Year, something that may soon be available. What a difference it would have made, especially for my students. Maybe you are about to teach a novel for the first time and you’ve spent a couple of weeks’ worth of prep periods preparing a unit but you would love some fresh ideas to supplement your own. Voila, TpT.
What has been the greatest surprise you’ve encountered since sharing your vision with the public, either through web traffic or in traditional media terms? Why did it surprise you?
Paul: When the AP article about TpT hit the wires on June 28th, I was surprised that it was the most emailed story on Yahoo and CNN.com for a couple of days. It’s a story that people are intrigued by which is why TpT continues to attract the attention of the press (there’s a ton more coming this Fall). I didn’t think it would catch on so much, but I’ve since realized that, one, nearly everyone cares about education, and two, people are fascinated by the eBay phenomenon which created entrepreneurs out of regular people. When you put the two together—an eBay for teachers and teacher-created materials (without the auctions of course)—you generate a lot of interest. Of course, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by it and am very excited and optimistic about the future.
Your thoughts or reactions for Paul or for me?
FYI -- an interesting web forum for teachers that actually has several teachers debating TPT and another service. Not the 'full story', but I do believe it has potential to enlighten on larger issues and the underlying model (and user needs). Because at the heart of it this is what the conversation looks like. A few teachers in a single faculty room or a virtual form trying to figure out how to do a simple task with big promise. Figure out how to do that, and you'll do something magical. Ignore this type of conversation, and it won't matter philosophically where you stand. For better or worse.