What Teachers Pay Teachers Is Learning From Bad Lessons and Upset Teachers

Diversity and Equity

What Teachers Pay Teachers Is Learning From Bad Lessons and Upset Teachers

By Stephen Noonoo     Feb 10, 2021

What Teachers Pay Teachers Is Learning From Bad Lessons and Upset Teachers

The popular lesson-sharing site Teachers Pay Teachers first landed on Jenny Kay Dupuis’ radar a little over a year ago. Friends and social media users began alerting her that images and material from one of her children’s books, “I Am Not a Number,” about a young Indigenous girl sent to a residential school in Canada and based on the experience of her grandmother, had made their way into paid lessons on the site that she had never seen before.

Alarmed, she contacted the company directly through Twitter. “They apologized for it and said that they really believe that teachers are trying to honor the experiences of Indigenous people by writing lessons that would be shared in classrooms,” says Dupuis, a Toronto-based author and educator who advocates for Indigenous education. “When I started looking closer at the content, it was a little more concerning that they really weren’t vetting what was being put on there.”

In addition to copyright issues, Dupuis was concerned about the cultural sensitivity of the lessons and that proceeds from their sale were not going to her or the First Nations communities she wrote about, but to third-party sellers and Teachers Pay Teachers itself. “I think what really bothered me is when I wrote that story, I tried to protect that story in my community as much as I could,” she says. “I try to make sure that I have those permissions and that I follow protocols, but the extra layer is that people are financially benefiting from my family story.”

Dupuis’ story is far from an isolated case, and the site has struggled for years with allegations of plagiarism, racist lesson plans and poor content quality—all of which are regularly discussed on social media. Yet Teachers Pay Teachers has remained enduringly popular with educators. Founded in 2006, the company estimates more than two-thirds of U.S. educators have used the site, and downloads have surpassed one billion worldwide.

To operate at such massive scale, Teachers Pay Teachers acts like a typical online marketplace—think eBay or Etsy—where third-party sellers set their own prices and market their own materials, with the company taking a cut of each sale. A lucky few have made millions.

But when anyone can upload materials with minimal oversight (the site does not vet materials before they are offered for sale), quality can vary widely. A Fordham Institute review rated many of the most popular lessons for high school English classes on Teachers Pay Teachers and similar sites as “mediocre” or “probably not worth using.” When compared with two other lesson sharing sites, ReadWriteThink and Share My Lesson, materials on Teachers Pay Teachers scored the lowest.

And then there are the lessons of the type that were most concerning to Dupuis—the ones relying on culturally insensitive, non-inclusive or racist stereotypes.

In a recent review of the site’s top 100 U.S. history high school lessons, researchers found that 30 percent of them “posed potential harm to students, particularly to students with marginalized identities.” Earlier this month, a Wisconsin district placed several teachers on leave following a lesson on ancient Mesopotamia, downloaded from Teachers Pay Teachers, which asked students to decide how to punish a slave. And last summer, in the midst of widespread protests concerning racism in America, an Education Week search of the site revealed at least two dozen lessons that involved slavery reenactments or simulations. Many were removed after that article was published.

Thinking Critically

Part of the issue may be that teachers aren’t always thinking critically enough about the materials they download and introduce to students, says Jennifer Gallagher, an assistant professor at East Carolina University who has looked into content quality on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers.

In a piece for the journal Social Education, Gallagher and colleagues looked at seemingly innocuous lessons around “QU marriages,” designed for young emerging readers. In these lessons, students reenact elaborate white dress wedding ceremonies to help illustrate that “Q” and “U” are almost always joined together when forming words. But the lesson can come with an unhealthy dose of gender and marriage stereotypes.

“I think a lot of teachers are evaluating resources by how easy it is to use, how cute and how fun it is,” she says. “There isn’t necessarily a level, at least what we’re seeing, of criticality about: How meaningful is this and how much does it help me meet my pedagogical goal?”

Those questions are important since platforms like Teachers Pay Teachers rarely self regulate, Gallagher adds. “Market forces in general often uphold the status quo in terms of things like white supremacy,” she says, in particular the idea of whiteness as default. “I think the fact that it is a marketplace, those spaces don’t tend to be justice oriented to begin with, so it’s not necessarily surprising to me that there wouldn’t be a mechanism within that system to think about equity.”

There are signs the company is listening and responding to these ongoing concerns. Over the summer the company announced a handful of initiatives, including a social justice webinar series, a plan to highlight Black creators and a grant to funnel $100,000 toward creating anti-racist and cultrally responsive learning materials. The new lessons, of course, do not automatically replace the problematic ones already on the platform. To address this, the company now says it is conducting a proactive review of its site using artificial intelligence and a team of content moderators. (Previously, moderators only checked materials manually flagged by other users.)

“We were always historically operating on the principle that we do not tolerate any type of racist material,” says Teachers Pay Teachers CEO Joe Holland in an interview with EdSurge. “We’re at a moment in education where we’re realizing that there’s more that we can be doing to support the community here.”

The site now uses AI to identify lessons that include certain keywords, especially ones relating to social studies and historical events, and subjects them to manual review. Holland says content moderators have reviewed tens of thousands of lessons during the past year, and that flagged lessons make up only a tiny percentage of the site’s total. When a lesson is deemed problematic, the team will either ask for revisions or pull it down permanently.

Building trust with educators who have experienced plagiarism and insensitive content on Teachers Pay Teachers is work in progress, and the company hasn’t ironed out all of its missteps. Last year, the company tried engaging with Twitter users who were critical of the platform, including Dupuis. During the course of their discussions the company added her to a public list on Twitter they titled “Anti-TpT,” using a popular shorthand for the company.

“Ultimately, that list was a mistake,” Holland says, adding that the list was later deleted and an apology issued. “What’s important is to be in dialogue with all educators, even the ones who have issues with TpT.”

But to Dupuis, it was just another example of the kind of cultural insensitivity that she has come to expect. “I was shocked because I was added to that when I was speaking out,” she says. “As an Indigenous woman, that bothered me. It felt like my voice was being silenced.”

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