“I can’t find good materials for my classroom.” It’s a common refrain among teachers that often propels them to create their own materials. Not a new phenomenon, but educators are increasingly taking advantage of new technologies to share their solutions with one another. We take a peek under the hood of one classroom to see how one teacher shares his materials—and earns a few vacation dollars while doing so.
Chuck Snyder is a math teacher at City Arts and Tech High School in San Francisco, California. He’s been teaching for eight years, with a year off in the middle.
Snyder creates worksheets for his senior precalculus classes; he describes them as “puzzles within puzzles, where the technical problem leads students to a riddle.” He sells the worksheets on his Teachers Pay Teachers store, where he’s doing quite well. “I’ve sold enough to pay for a vacation or two a year,” he says, “and it’s been growing steadily.” We spoke with Snyder to learn about what it means to straddle the line between educator and entrepreneur.
EdSurge: What do you do?
Snyder: I make things for other math teachers,specifically for precalculus teachers. I don’t make many materials for calculus; my niche is fun worksheets for higher level math.
What are your numbers like? Well, I have 70 followers on Teachers Pay Teachers, and I’ve made 72 sales in March through that site and TES Global combined. That’s peanuts compared to some of the really popular sellers on the marketplace, but it’s a lot more than what I used to sell.
Why did you start making your own content?
I was using these types of worksheets a lot when I taught 8th grade, but I didn’t find there was much content for the higher levels of math. They’re great to handle classroom management and gaps in skill levels. So I started creating them, but I wanted to produce something with an economy of scale.
Has it helped you stay in the classroom?
It has given me something to focus on that extends my capacity; I think this relieves some of the stress that comes with teaching. It's probably similar to how Brandon Barrette said coding rejuvenated him because he was excited. Making these activities gives me something real but slightly tangential to a lot of the emotional challenges that go along with teaching, especially in an urban school.
Is your school administration supportive?
Yes, as much as they can be. I consider my curriculum development a side-gig, and don't ask for any support, but they've never been unsupportive in any way.
Have any of your colleagues followed in your footsteps of creating and selling original materials?
Some have dabbled in it. I know from experience that it takes perseverance, though, and I'm not sure if any have hit the critical "tipping point" where you can no longer justify throwing in the towel on it yet. I hope they do though.
What are the biggest challenges of doing what you do?
Keeping up with it. That’s the biggest one. It takes time to make these things, especially to make them good. Sometimes it’s easier to find something online, something that’s already made. Thankfully, I do have a good process going: make a worksheet; give to students, who find the errors; put it up on Teachers Pay Teachers.
Another challenge is that I’m just making stuff for one particular math class. It’s a limited market; the super successful on Teachers Pay Teachers make materials for general education.
Do your students know they're the quality assurance for your products? Do they know you sell the worksheets they're doing?
They do actually know I sell the worksheets online. This year I've had a working website, so early in the year in one of my classes, a student mentioned it.. In another class it came up recently and everyone enjoyed combing over the website for a quick minute.
I'm not sure they know they are quality assurance but they do catch mistakes because each worksheet is like a puzzle. When a piece doesn't fit that obviously should, they notice.
Would you ever make something for the general ed category?
I like to make money, but I won’t produce something I’m not sure is a good product. I know my materials are good from my students and from reviews on the site. I wouldn’t have the quality assurance for GenEd.
What advice do you have for other teachers considering doing the same thing?
I got some great advice at the annual Teachers Pay Teachers conference: Find your niche—where other people aren’t creating—and fill it. Then you’ve got to promote it through social networking and through the community on the marketplace itself. Teachers Pay Teachers has a super connected and devoted community.
There were many setbacks along the way. It took me a while before the things I was designing came out looking nice. My wife was the one who finally slapped a logo on my worksheets and made them look professional after a year and a half. She set up a Pinterest site. My sales spiked after that. I also missed opportunities and made a number of mistakes, but everything became more polished with time and experience.
One concrete piece of advice for teachers selling their own content is to always categorize you work so other teachers can find your specific materials. For example, I check the grade and math levels—senior precalculus. Always check the “homeschool” box because parents of homeschooled children are becoming a huge segment of the buyers.
Can you give examples of opportunities you missed?
I think that mostly I went through the process you need to, with a reasonable timeline, to become an established seller. I was feeling pretty good about where I was with my store and how it looked until I realized how much time and effort these big sellers put into their online presence and marketing. If I could start over from scratch, I'd be much more streamlined, get things up and running quicker, but it's not realistic to become experienced without making mistakes. I think I'm lucky that my mistakes haven't really set me back at all in this pursuit.
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