(Don’t) Give it Away for Free: A Teacher’s Conundrum

I’ve been struggling with something lately, and have been meaning to find the time to write about it here. It all began with a friend’s blog post, followed by a bar conversation, followed by a 23-message email chain with a teacher in my district, but before I get to all that, I want to rewind a little further.

Crafting lessons, assignments, and units has always been fun for me. I get to be creative, to design an experience for my students around the goals I’ve set for their learning, to imagine my plans in action — it’s downright fun. So naturally, it is also fun for me to share these plans with my colleagues, whether in the teacher’s lounge or in the form of a fully-developed unit plan carefully organized in a binder full of a unit’s scope-and-sequence, assignment sheets, lesson plan calendar, assessments, and examples of student work (I have a lot of these). I was always proud of the “stuff” of teaching that I had created, from that clever lesson on poetic rhythm using Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat to my favorite portfolio unit on gender and social justice for my 9th grade classroom. If someone wanted to use my materials, I handed them over, thrilled that someone wanted to adapt or share something I had crafted.

I always hoped and expected, of course, that anyone who used my materials would credit me, as I had been taught to do whenever I borrowed someone else’s lesson plans or unit concepts. But I have never hesitated to share curriculum that I developed and designed. Case in point: this very website showcases all of the college syllabi I developed during my time at Michigan, including assignments and examples of student work.

Then, about two weeks ago, a few things made me pause and wonder…

Should I Stop Giving it Away for Free?

First, an article, published my a close friend of mine on her blog, entitled “Teachers: Stop Giving it Away for Free.”  As you might expect from the title, she makes the argument that teachers have developed significant stores of knowledge based in experience, have crafted well-designed lessons, units, and other resources with inherent value, and they should not simply hand over these resources for no compensation. She writes:

We need to stop underselling ourselves. It’s not a matter of modesty: we’ve all seen too many bad instructional materials, known that we can do it better. Thus, we should. And we should attach some sort of value to what we do because if we don’t, people will keep taking it until we have nothing left. Know your worth.

And dammit, I agree with her. We’ve all read article after article about how the teaching profession is being perpetually devalued, arguably de-professionalized. Do teachers contribute to this deprofessionalization by handing over their materials and expertise for free? In the corporate world, this doesn’t happen — if you want someone’s professional expertise, their intellectual property, you have to pay them for it, right? My friend makes exactly this argument, saying:

The biggest oversight is that administrators and even other teachers don’t seem to realize that these experts are either next door to them or within their buildings. We sit through PDs that these folks could teach effectively and responsively, yet, they are never asked. On the off chance that they are finally asked to do something, there is often no compensation for the time invested for preparing an excellent PD.

This one struck a chord with me, because as a district-level non-administrator (I am a member of the teacher’s union, and I professionally identify as a teacher, even though I often need to remind people of this), I make a habit of asking teachers to share their expertise in the PD I create. I invite teachers as panelists in online PD to share examples of their practice, and I am actively working to increase my connections across the district so that I have more teacher expertise to draw from. I lean and rely on practicing teachers to develop PD, because they are the best resources.

The Sticky Wicket: Compensation

Here’s where I run into trouble: I can’t financially compensate every teacher expert we have on one of our panels or every teacher who submits a curricular resource to our archive.

Which brings me to the bar conversation. I have been back and forth with my counterpart in my department about how we can attain a budget to compensate teachers for contributing to our professional development, whether that be an example of student work, an hour of their time to talk about their practice, or a sample unit or lesson plan resource. The conversation circled around questions like: “are lesson plans intellectual property?” “if so, whose? the teacher’s or the district’s?” “should teachers be compensated for their intellectual property?” Long story short: we’re still talking about it.

The morning after the bar conversation, one of the digital rock stars in our district, who also happens to be friends with the above-quoted blogger and a blogger herself, called me on this compensation issue in response to an email asking a number of our teachers to contribute resources or ideas to our digital archive so that we could share them in an online library showcasing examples from our teachers’ classrooms.

My inability to compensate teachers for things like this is in part because I work in a broken system that doesn’t recognize teachers as the curricular experts of their profession, so money isn’t automatically allocated for this purpose. It is also partially because of my position within my department (I don’t have control over a budget) and partially because I’m still learning how to do things like write grants to get money so that I have the cash to compensate teachers every time they contribute their expertise. So I do what I can do: I thank teachers profusely, I CITE THEM to give them credit for their work, and I offer up my time to their schools for professional development.

But I don’t necessarily think teachers need to be compensated for their expertise every time they contribute a resource, lesson plan, or unit, or every time they serve on a panel.

There. I said it.

We live in a corporatized culture, and schooling becomes increasingly corporatized by the day. Ask just about any educator about it, and you’ll get a long diatribe about how textbook companies like Pearson are making fortunes on the backs of today’s overtested, undervalued students and teachers. It’s really quite disgusting.

A counterculture to this corporatization of American schooling exists in the Web 2.0 world: a culture characterized by free and open (and attributed) sharing of author-licensed content. A culture that values open-source software maintained by communities of developers who care about the programs that make our lives easier, and don’t code for profit. A culture that values makerspaces, hacking for the sake of knowledge and experimentation, and above all — free and open sharing of socially-developed expertise. This culture actively challenges copyright law, arguing for a change in the way we understand ideas as property while still upholding the rights of the individual creator.

This is a culture today’s adolescents have helped to shape and create, from teen FanFic sites to the videos students make, edit, and post on their blogs to game hackers, today’s teens live in a world where remixing, creating, and sharing (for free) are everyday activities.

How Does this Apply to Teachers?

Maybe it doesn’t. After all, teachers are professionals — unlike adolescents, they have worked hard and earned multiple degrees to gain the expertise that they are asked to share, often without extra compensation. Fundamentally, I agree that teachers should not be asked to give up significant time — an extremely valuable resource for any teacher — without being compensated in some way. Too many teachers sacrifice time with family for a stack of ungraded papers on a Sunday. Let’s not contribute to that nonsense.

However, I think if we are to challenge the corporate culture of American schooling in the 21st century, we also need to think about how and where we share our resources “for free,” when we do. And we do need to share our expertise “for free.” We need to publish in practitioner journals, attend conferences, and write about our practice on blogs and in newspapers. We need to make visible the work of teaching.

On those occasions when we are asked to showcase our work for little or no compensation, we should license it using Creative Commons attributions. We should post and publish it in webspaces created by people we trust and who we know will honor the knowledge and expertise of teachers as professionals. We should not always demand that the time we take to share our craft be compensated — instead, we should demand that the time we take to share our craft be respected and valued by society. I don’t think we should combat the deprofessionalization of teaching by keeping our professional resources under lock and key: we should combat it by making our craft easier to see and understand. It’s why teacher bloggers are some of my favorite writers — they open up the craft of teaching for the world to see, taking time out of their busy lives to share what they know.

So for now, I will leave my syllabi, class calendars, lesson plans, and assignments on my website for others to take, adapt, and attribute.

What say you, teachers? What should(n’t) we give away for free?