The Spirit of Education

The holiday season is here and I thought I’d take the opportunity to speak openly about something that has been bothering me for a long time – the selling of lessons/materials for teaching, online. I want to speak openly and strongly while reminding our community and teachers everywhere of the important “spirit” that runs through our profession as it does Christmas and the miraculous metaphor therein – giving without thought of receiving.

The last few months, there has been a lot of chatter about teachers selling lessons online. If interested, see this N.Y. Times article and this fine blog post and comments – for more details/background. Also, this radio show has some great interviews with teachers on the subject….

Selling lessons? I really don’t buy it. For many reasons I’ll outline but mostly from the standpoint that unless they are of AMAZING quality or offer something which is of “NEW” value – it is a rot that afflicts our fine profession – a profession that I care deeply about. So please forgive any harsh words I may utter. I have created thousands of lessons, materials for students/teachers. FREELY. I bring that perspective to the table. I may be an extreme example but I believe my opinion is in the light and will only benefit this world. Let me tell you why…..

First though, let’s talk about what education is. Let’s remind ourselves what the spirit of education is.

Education is not a possession or commodity.. It is a process and its meaning is in the etymology of the word “educare” – to draw out… It is about bringing to fruition the full potential and development of a person. This is done through awareness and knowledge.

There was a day when knowledge was kept in the bottle and this genie was a play thing of the rich and “noble” . However, slowly but surely, the spirit of this genie escaped from the bottle and spread around the world. Today, this spread of knowledge is gaining momentum. There is less “possession” and secret knowledge, less “pay or you don’t pass go” , less selling and more giving. This is only increasing with the internet and the power of social networking. Selling lessons by teachers eats at this spirit. It is not in the spirit of education and the hope that each child will be fed fruit from the tree of knowledge. Selling lessons is a sick way of trying to put the spirit of education back in the bottle – I reject that in the belief that education is a human right, for all beings. Enshrined in charters but most importantly, hidden and known in the heart of all humanity. It is the duty of every teacher to spread knowledge freely as a gift and not covet it.

Look around you! If you are like me, you will have books, food, toys, phones, TV, electricity, hot water…. Now ask yourself, how did this come to be? In a word – the free movement of ideas. I emphasize FREE.

Societies that allow for the free movement of knowledge and ideas flourish, those that don’t , rot (like the former USSR). Education is a vehicle for the transmission of ideas and knowledge. It is the main pipeline by which this happens. Selling lessons by teachers seems like a small thing but it leads to a slippery slope. We need to stop this and stop the clogging of this vital artery. I’d encourage all public boards of education to even persecute those teachers who sell knowledge as if water to a parched man in the desert. It is against the profession’s faith and the spirit of education.

But let me refine my microscope and be more specific about why I see “selling lessons” as an affront.

1. Teacher’s make the argument, “I don’t get paid enough” so this supplements my meager income. I politely suggest they look for a new line of work then. First, why cannibalize their profession? – aren’t they taking money from the same teachers that have the same “meager” incomes? Isn’t there a better way to go about getting a higher salary than the lowest denominator? Moreover, whose knowledge is it anyways? Teachers learn in their classrooms – the content/lessons they make are the sum total of their experiences. Are the teachers going to share some of the income with their students who contributed to this knowledge? Or the school board or their school? Who owns this knowledge? I’ll also add – if you feel you aren’t making enough teaching – look around the world and see how many are born into poverty and without an education – toiling for pennies a day. Your cries in this vein are to be mocked, I mock them and see the majority of teachers selling lessons as those not “in need” but who want a six slice toaster instead of a two slicer.

2. The best teachers make their own materials/content. This is a fact and conclusion I’ve arrived at after 18+ years of teaching. By making our own materials, we figure out the learner, we get into their shoes and see the learning process much more clearly. Selling lessons discourages others to make their own lessons. It really does and it makes and fosters a community of teachers that forsake sharing/giving and who harbor secrets like some “Masonic Lodge”.

Selling our lessons makes it less likely that others will share and create community and talk about resources. We need open doors to our classrooms and ideas, not a “pay and pass Go” system. How would all our wonderful workshops work if everyone just went there and auctioned off their ideas instead of sharing them?

3. Selling lessons is unethical. Yes, there I said it. It damn well is. Why? Well, especially in my field, TESOL, but also anywhere, there are millions of new teachers desperate for lessons and help in the classroom. Desperate! I was there and been there. So what do they do? They go online and buy, buy, buy…. There is no filter except the almighty dollar. Most get preyed upon and end up buying very poor resources that just keep students busy and not learning. The vicious cycle continues. Most who sell lessons — get income from desperate teachers who don’t know where to turn. It is as unethical to sell in this market as it is to charge $10 for a bottle of water after a hurricane (some tried during Katrina and were thrown in jail – why is it different in education?).

4. Selling lessons is plainly against the spirit of public education. If you want to sell, start your own store and take off the frock of “teacher”. Don’t be a Jekyll and Hyde. I firmly believe you can’t work for the benefit of just your own students – an educator is for all children/students. Our classroom no longer has 4 walls. The role of the public educator is to help those that need help. Truly, in our classrooms, our role is to help those who will have difficulty achieving. The high achievers in your class will succeed irregardless – our job is to help those who really need it. Selling lessons is against this spirit of giving and helping.

5. Time. Who are these lessons we sell for? How much time will we take away from our classroom while designing these lessons, tweaking them, styling/coloring them? Aren’t we forsaking our job by outsourcing in this fashion? I envision teachers being consumed with their “lesson selling returns” and less consumed by Johnny’s needs in the classroom.

6. Selling lessons eats away at the spirit of collaboration within education. It suggests we shouldn’t share and help. It spits at such fine endeavors as OER (Open Education Resources), Richard Baraniuk’s CNX (for low cost textbooks), Open Universities and so many other open source and educational sharing sites. I”ll return to my first thought – selling lessons clogs up the pipeline of knowledge. It shatters the view of a future where all students, all people will have access to knowledge and teachers will have access to the best of everything to help students. And at the end of this process, for the temporary pennies teachers gain, it undermines our own prosperity and future.

7. It isn’t necessary! There is plenty FREE out there and plenty of sites where you can get what you need for your teaching. Don’t feed this Moloch!

Wikipedia – Wow, what an idea! I’ll leave you with the message of its founder Jimmy Wales;

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s where we’re headed. And with your help, we will get there.

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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5 Responses

  1. I’m generally against selling lessons as well. I really agree with what you say about how developing your own lessons really allows you to develop as a teacher. It makes you think.

    I also strongly agree with the point that selling lessons breeds this kind of “it’s mine and I’m not sharing” mentality”, which is counter to our profession. I’ve worked at places where this mentality has developed and it’s not good. We should be helping each other grow, not hording our ideas and plans.

    However, I’ve talked to others about this a bit recently and there is the other side of the spectrum. There are a lot of teachers who just expect things to be free these days and never bother doing the work. They blatantly take from others without giving credit and give nothing back. Selling lessons promotes the idea that people put a lot of time and effort into this and if they want to use it they need to give something back, even if it’s only money.

    I guess I would prefer a method like ESL Printables where you can download based on the number of quality materials you’ve uploaded that other people used. It’s better than the monetary exchange.

    Ultimately, I say to each his own and don’t take as strong a stand as you against the practice. But, I do agree with your views for the most part.

  2. Jake says:


    While applaud your enthusiasm, I have to disagree with the arguments you’ve presented.

    I do agree that free, fair, and equal access to the foundations of general public education is a basic human right. Specialized education above and beyond k-12 skills is a different horse.

    While you yourself may be able to design and pilot engaging, effective classroom activities that are specific to your context, there are thousands if not millions of teachers around the world who are unable to access quality lessons and/or do not have the know-how to create their own. They are willing to pay for lessons better than their own. I suspect your 18 years of experience and high level of professional motivation provide you with sufficient resources to create lessons that less educated, less experienced, and less motivated teachers could not possibly make themselves.

    Listening to the Current program you posted, it was suggested that communities of local teachers are a viable, ethical alternative to buying/selling lessons. That comment addresses the context of educated, licensed teachers in the US or Canada, not thousands of untrained teachers making their way onto classrooms across the world teaching EFL. Reinventing the wheel is important for new generations of teachers so that they can develop. Reading and listening to what’s been posted, many teachers are doing that by adapting lessons and activities they create and sell and even buy.

    Regardless, a local community is small. How about getting 10 EPIC teachers desperate for help. Put them together. Maybe they’ll come up with great ideas—good enough to save Apollo 13. Maybe they’ll spin their wheels and crash and burn. How many people does it take to change a light bulb? Hundreds if no one knows how. Only one if he/she knows how. Now open an online community with 1000s of teachers, many with vast amounts of practical experience. You’ll have more solutions that work.

    Imagine Teacher A has few resources or lacks the ability to create effective lessons. He/she follows your advice and plays it by ear in the classroom. Maybe the teacher resorts to book-only lessons. Maybe the teacher makes his/her own trial n’ error lessons, all the while using students as laboratory subjects or guinea pigs. The end result is that students get the short end of the stick. Teacher B spends 75 cents or $3-4 for individual lessons or activities. Perhaps Teacher B splurges on $20 or even $100 on a yearly a subscription/s to access thousands of effective lessons, prints them up, and teaches a satisfactory lesson. It’s win-win for both students and teachers. If I were a student given a choice above, I sincerely hope that Teacher B would be mine. What’s the point of a free education when it isn’t very good?

    Your analogy of selling a $10 bottle of water during Katrina (a life or death situation) is a bit over the top, don’t you think? The freedom to spend 75 cents or whatever on a lesson activity doesn’t compare. You’re yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there isn’t one.

    Selling lessons does not clog the pipeline of knowledge. If I suddenly unlock the doors and make my lessons free, then suddenly they’re great additions to the fountain of knowledge?It fosters the exchange of ideas just as well as free materials do–if not better in many cases. Reputable lesson services often have optimized search engines providing dozens of tailor-made lessons to a particular topic. That saves teachers’ time. These services typically offer networking and assistance, even if only a forum moderator. Do you have any evidence suggesting that teachers are being robbed blind at every turn with bad, ineffective lessons? Where’s the proof? Which Websites should teachers stay away from? I’d rather pay a few bucks and quickly get what I want rather than spend hours trawling through garbage trying to find one gem.

    Here’s food for thought: If teachers are buying poorly designed lessons and they don’t even realize it, can you imagine what their performance would be like without the paid lesson plans! I’m guessing even worse.

    Many teachers I know make and/or save good money for what amounts to a part-time job. Some teachers make use of carefully prepared lessons and become effective, engaging instructors who, after a short time, receive promotions and higher pay as lead teachers or trainers.

    You mentioned items that are “free.” Books, food, electricity, TV, etc. are available to us today because scientists and engineers and writers worked hard to patent technologies and copyright materials. I find it difficult for anyone to hold a higher moral ground while flagrantly violating copyright laws and/or proprietary patents. The issue in the NYT is an issue mostly because of legal debate revolving around who owns the rights to materials developed by employees.

    I think it is naïve to assert that teachers must be high-minded role models like Mother Teresa, spending $200-500 of their own money annually on their students and coaching and doing extra work without compensation. Considering their time and services, workers in other fields would call that exploitation. Anyway, these teachers are simply trying to do a better job than they could alone. They’re also trying to save time and energy.

  3. ddeubel says:

    Nick and Jake,

    I appreciate the comments and opinions. I’d like to address a few and hope you don’t mind if I kill two comments with one reply 🙂

    First off, I’ve gotten some private emails about this post and I guess I should have made it clear that I was using inflated rhetoric and being intentionally scandalous. It was my choice to use inflamed language but I should have been more clear about that…. I really wanted people to “think” about this issue and thought this kind of rhetoric would help that.

    Second, I do think there IS a place for payment of lessons, materials, knowledge. Just not public education or as you mention Jake – under 18, the formative years. Although I’d prefer this weren’t the case, I do respect the opinion that there can be a market for knowledge and it does have benefits.

    Jake, you mention copyright. I’ve been a defender of “fair use” for educators. If we don’t resell it, we can use it. There is no one iota of evidence that shows that copyright in the modern world does anything to help education, public education. It is old and outdated. But I’d take it even further – do you think that without copyright protection people would stop creating works of art, stop inventing, stop “learning”? It wouldn’t happen and that is a big boogie man hanging over this whole issue.

    I often wonder why America and Europe became such powers in the world? A lot of reasons but one of the most important was the library and media. That knowledge could be had, obtained, exchanged, traded FREELY. Now of course, you can buy the book if you like….. It’s the same with the issue of selling lessons. We need balance. I’m just telling teachers there are alternatives, plus we need to continually keep the PUBLIC in education , for the sake of our students, economy, lifestyle, world.

    I’ve worked in a variety of teaching environments. There is “little” sharing despite appearances. Lots of closed doors and 4 walls. Selling lessons online does nothing but “button up the hatches”.

    I remember when I first was going overseas to teach “English”. Back before the internet etc… I spent an afternoon in The World’s Largest Bookstore, deciding what books to buy, which might “go the furthest”. I only had a few dollars and didn’t know what would happen when I got behind “the Iron Curtain”. Those pennies were important for me and at that time, my only alternative was the published material. It is a big issue to teachers, spending pennies. And in ELT it is so important to use the internet to freely share and inform new teachers of their options. So important. I’m doing my part and I’ll keep crying “wolf”, if that’s what it takes.

    I think there can be valuable paid services – I just don’t agree we should charge teachers. Charge the providers, the schools, the governments, the parents. Just don’t charge the teachers. In ELT that is more problematic but I think it is the ethical thing not to partake in that and prey on the desperation of teachers. I know how desperate they are. I lecture and see thousands of teachers every year who are taking their first steps into teaching. They are desperate.

    I don’t think it is about “saving teacher’s time”. That’s precisely the thing we have to avoid. Good teaching comes with taking time, especially when developing curriculum. It also means being able to alter, rework. Most bought materials come stamped and branded AND without the ability to edit and change the material. (by using pdf or other protective measures). This too ruins the process of developing a strong teacher that can personalize the learning experience.

    Recently, I invited Andrew Finch to my institute to give the opening lecture for a licensing course. He’s a model to follow and spent a good 10 min. extra showing teachers how to download his books free — he is in public education and his main priority isn’t “$$$” but getting the knowledge flowing and meeting its end – the students. Find the downloads here –

    I really think we have to be strict in public education. We are up against a monster – self interest. That’s my final point. I’ll keep being high minded, as Shelley quipped, “a man’s grasp should exceed his reach, or what’s a heaven for? ”


  4. Something else occurred to me after mulling this issue over. How is selling lessons any different from publishing your work through a publishing house? If selling lessons is wrong then publishing your work would be wrong as well. No answers, just a question.

  5. Nick says:

    Interesting take on things, sometimes people have to use what assets they have to make a living, and if they’re good at teaching why not allow them to do that to supplement their income? If they aren’t price gouging, and the students are willing to pay then I don’t see the harm.

    – Nick (

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