The popular lesson sharing website, Teachers Pay Teachers, first landed on Jenny Kay Dupuis’ radar a little over a year ago. Friends and social media users made her aware that pictures and material from one of her children’s books, “I Am Not a Number,” about a young indigenous girl who was sent to a residential school in Canada and was based on her grandmother’s experience, They had made their way into paid lessons on the website that they had never seen before.
Alarmed, she contacted the company directly on Twitter. “They apologized for this, saying that they genuinely believe that teachers are trying to honor the experiences of indigenous peoples by writing lessons that are shared in classrooms,” says Dupuis, a Toronto-based writer and educator who says works for indigenous education. “When I looked at the contents more closely, it was a little more worrying that they really weren’t checking what was being put there.”
In addition to copyright issues, Dupuis was concerned about the cultural sensitivity of the lessons and that the proceeds from sales did not go to her or the First Nations communities she wrote, but to third-party sellers and teachers who pay teachers themselves. “I think what really bothered me is that while writing this story, I was trying to protect this story in my community as best I could,” she says. “I try to make sure I have these permissions and follow protocols, but the added layer is that people benefit financially from my family history.”
The history of Dupuis is far from an isolated incident, and the site has grappled for years with allegations of plagiarism, racist lesson plans, and poor quality content that is regularly discussed on social media. However, Teachers Pay Teachers are still popular with educators. Founded in 2006, the company estimates that more than two-thirds of US educators have used the site, and downloads have exceeded a billion worldwide.
I think a lot of teachers rate resources based on how easy it is to use, how cute, and how fun it is. There is not necessarily a level of criticality. Jennifer Gallagher
To go this massive, 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 cutting back on each sale. A lucky few made millions.
However, if someone can upload materials with minimal control (the site doesn’t review materials before putting them on sale), the quality can vary widely. In a Fordham Institute review, many of the most popular high school English course lessons on Teachers Pay Teachers and similar websites were rated “mediocre” or “probably not worth it”. Compared to two other lesson-sharing websites, ReadWriteThink and Share My Lesson, Teachers Pay Teachers materials scored the lowest.
And then there are the lessons of the kind that preoccupied Dupuis the most – those that rely on culturally insensitive, non-inclusive, or racist stereotypes.
In a recent review of the site’s top 100 US high school lessons, researchers found that 30 percent of them “did potential harm to potential students, especially students with marginalized identities.” Earlier this month, a Wisconsin district put several teachers on leave after a lesson on ancient Mesopotamia downloaded from Teachers Pay Teachers that asked students to decide how to punish a slave. And last summer, amid widespread anti-racism protests in America, an Education Week search of the website found at least two dozen lessons that included reenactments or simulations of slavery. Many were removed after this article was published.
Part of the problem could be that teachers don’t always think critically enough about the materials they download and introduce to students, says Jennifer Gallagher, an assistant professor at East Carolina University, who deals with the quality of websites like Teachers Pay Teachers Has dealt with content.
In an article for Social Education magazine, Gallagher and colleagues looked at seemingly innocuous lessons about “QU marriages” aimed at young aspiring readers. In these lessons, students re-enact elaborate wedding ceremonies in white dresses to illustrate that “Q” and “U” are almost always connected in word formation. But the lesson can come with an unhealthy dose of gender and marriage stereotypes.
“I think a lot of teachers rate resources based on how easy it is to use, how cute and how fun it is,” she says. “At least what we see is not necessarily critical: How meaningful is that and how much does it help me to achieve my educational goal?”
These questions are important because platforms like Teachers Pay Teachers rarely self-regulate, Gallagher adds. “Market forces in general often maintain the status quo on things like white supremacy,” she says, particularly the idea of white as the standard. “I think the fact that it is a market, these spaces are initially not justice-oriented. So it is not necessarily surprising to me that there is no mechanism in this system to think about justice.”
There are signs that the company is listening and responding to these ongoing concerns. Over the summer, the company announced a handful of initiatives, including a series of webinars on social justice, a plan to highlight black creators, and a $ 100,000 grant to create anti-racist and culturally engaging learning materials. Of course, the new lessons do not automatically replace the problematic lessons that are already on the platform. To remedy this, the company is now running a proactive review of its website using artificial intelligence and a team of content moderators. (Previously, moderators only reviewed material that was manually flagged by other users.)
“In the past, we have always worked on the principle that we will not tolerate any racist material,” said Joe Holland, CEO of Teachers Pay Teachers, in an interview with EdSurge. “We are at a moment in training where we realize we can do more to support the community here.”
The website now uses AI to identify lessons that contain certain keywords, especially those related to social studies and historical events, and subject them to manual review. According to Holland, content moderators have reviewed tens of thousands of lessons over the past year, and the flagged lessons make up only a tiny percentage of the total number of websites. When a lesson is found to be problematic, the team either requests changes or pulls them down permanently.
Building trust with educators who have experienced plagiarism and insensitive content at Teachers Pay Teachers is a work in progress, and the company hasn’t addressed all the missteps. Last year, the company tried to get in touch with Twitter users who criticized the platform, including Dupuis. In the course of their discussions, the company added her to a public list on Twitter titled “Anti-TpT,” a popular abbreviation for the company.
“Ultimately, this list was a mistake,” says Holland, adding that the list was later deleted and an apology made. “It is important to be in dialogue with all educators, including those who have problems with TpT.”
For Dupuis, however, this was just another example of the kind of cultural insensitivity that awaited them. “I was shocked because I was added to when I spoke out,” she says. “As an indigenous woman, that bothered me. It felt like my voice was being silenced. ”