Unpacking “Neoliberal” Schooling, Part 2: Teachers Pay Teachers

Chris McNutt
June 15, 2020
While Teach Like a Champion, the bestselling secondary education book, trains teachers to control students through behavioral compliance, Teachers Pay Teachers — generally — trains teachers to control students through “fun” activities, worksheets, and slideshows.
Unpacking “Neoliberal” Schooling, Part 2: Teachers Pay Teachers

In 2019, over 5 million teachers used Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT), an online marketplace to purchase lesson plans and materials. According to their website, 2 out of 3 teachers in the United States used a TpT resource, where one can purchase anything from full curricula to projects to SEL resources. Needless to say, TpT is a giant storm cloud over the entire education industry.

“Fun” as Compliance

While Teach Like a Champion, the bestselling secondary education book, trains teachers to control students through behavioral compliance, Teachers Pay Teachers — generally — trains teachers to control students through “fun” activities, worksheets, and slideshows. As I’ve discussed before, the issue isn’t that these activities are designed to be “fun” (although it can be problematic, see below), rather we are not questioning the systemic problems of the education system by doing this system “better.” Nor are we questioning if these “fun” activities are as rich in engagement as authentic, deep learning.

When I used to teach history, I always did a speakeasy simulation. We’d dissect jazz as an art form and movement, discuss the growth of the mafia, and the implementation of the 18th amendment. Then, we’d “reenact” what a real speakeasy was like. At the end of the year, students would always write that this was one of their favorite activities of the year. However, the response right below that was telling. “What did you most enjoy learning about this year?” Almost no students would write “prohibition.” Instead, I’d receive an array of topics mostly on current events: the war in Syria, the modern civil rights movement, or developing countries and capitalism. The point being that although this activity was “fun” for a day and a good way to break up routine, the activity was more interesting than the topic at hand. That practice wouldn’t be sustainable for every lesson. It seems as if TpT creators believe that the only way to create an “engaged” classroom is by making “fun” activities.

Rooted in these systems is compliance misinterpreted as engagement. Dr. Susan Engel in The End of the Rainbow describes how educators conflate these terms. She sent a group of teachers-in-training to observe classrooms throughout a school and instructed them to write down examples of engaged students. Time and time again, teachers wrote down statements like “students were sitting up straight”, “they were quiet”, “no one was goofing off.” Engel explains that teachers rarely remarked on what “engagement” actually is, such as “students were asking a lot of questions”, “a student was absorbed in an experiment”, or “students were deeply discussing a topic.”

We can gain the compliance of students through literal mental and physical control, masquerading a lesson through games and room transformations, or simply through making the content engaging. Engaging content is centered on what students are interested in just because it is inherently interesting. In my experience, students are most interested in things that are relevant to them which tend to be critical topics surrounding current events (e.g. as of June 2020: BLM, police brutality, COVID-19.) These topics naturally drive discourse and learning because it draws upon students’ lived and viewed experiences, and is a great opportunity to teach students about the history, math, science, literature — and guide them through the process of learning.

A problem arises when the TpT pedagogy is applied to any critical topic concerning race, gender, or most of history (which tends to be dark, depressing, yet needed to say.) TpT resources will rarely (if ever?) include content that hasn’t been whitewashed:

And constantly utilizes simulations and games in inappropriate ways:

The racism and whitewashing of history across TpT resources is overwhelming, especially for elementary school. This is an overarching issue on the platform. Although not all resources are not explicitly racist, almost all exclude most, if not all, history or context beyond the Eurocentric, white narrative — and this goes for resources beyond history such as math and science. In an effort to hit the state standards, most of these resources don’t make any critical interpretation of text or resources, instead opting to “check off” each learning standard in the simplest, most basic way possible.

There’s also just the sheer lack of quality.

Questionable and Just Bad Pedagogy

Practically every popular resource on TpT is a packet, worksheet booklet, or curriculum package. The design of each is entirely commodified — a market entirely planned on a teacher’s lack of planning time, which treats its students like commodities who regurgitate the same standardized curriculum as everyone else. Many boast how these activities require “0 prep” and showcase a range of worksheets that hit 10's to 100's of Common Core vocabulary words.

These worksheets are lazy and in no way could represent deeper learning. They’re reminiscent of the testing industry itself — throw a bunch of shallow information out, have students repeat that information until they can memorize it for a few weeks, then throw it out and start over. A quick search found…

Applying Engaging Curriculum

Of course, many educators feel pressured to use resources on TpT because 1) they lack the time, energy, and potentially training and 2) administrators oftentimes see TpT lessons as “engaging” because they’re “fun.” Some of the top reviews on TpT are educators speaking about how impressed their administrators were with the lesson. Therefore, the solution to this issue is multifaceted and systemic, not entirely on the shoulders of educators.

Obviously, providing more time for planning and training educators to use free, high quality materials is a start. It’s absurd to pay for content when Zinn Education Project, Teaching Tolerance, Youcubed, High Tech High’s Project Database, and the many open access teaching tools available promote quality resources for all subject areas.

Second, we all need to acknowledge what “engaged” teaching looks like. A loud classroom doesn’t always equate to a loss of control. A child with their head up doesn’t mean they’re absorbed in the content. A fun activity isn’t always academically stimulating.

As for TpT — we need a mass exodus from the website. It isn’t benefiting any member of the school. In addition to its quality concerns, there’s many instances of plagiarism. TpT is the natural extension of a neoliberal teaching style. It focuses on shallow understandings of content that is transferred easily between operator and consumer. It involves educators in an economic system that promotes the commodification of their work, individualizes the profession, and devalues the community element of the classroom. It boils down teaching to a singular, rout-based field that assigns an array of boring activities to students to check off standards boxes.

The point is that students being mesmerized by cool-looking slideshows, having slightly better worksheets, and being compliant due to pop culture-based materials is not the same as engaged learning, and is compliance through another means. It isn’t as bad as forcing children to “learn” via military-like conditions, but is still missing the point of what authentic learning could be — one that explores the rich narratives, multiple perspectives, lived community, and students’ knowledge base.

Revitalizing education can be so much more: purpose-finding, experiential learning, community activism, and bringing in student voices and experiences to the lessons at hand.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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