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Learning From and About Elite Online Teacherpreneurs: A Qualitative Examination of Key Characteristics, School Environments, Practices, and Impacts


by Catharyn C. Shelton & Leanna Archambault - 2020

Background: Today’s teachers are turning to online educational marketplaces, such as TeachersPayTeachers.com (TpT), where they purchase teacher-created classroom materials for a small fee. Meanwhile, teachers who sell resources in these spaces, online teacherpreneurs, stand to benefit financially and may experience other affordances as well as challenges associated with the practice.

Purpose of Study: This study is one of the first empirical investigations of online teacherpreneurship. We interviewed highly experienced and successful online teacherpreneurs to understand who they are, what they do, and the impacts they encounter.

Research Design: Ten one-hour semistructured interviews were conducted with online teacherpreneurs who were ranked in the top 1% of sellers on TpT and had sold materials on TpT for at least four years. Interviews addressed the areas of online teacherpreneur experiences, personal characteristics, work environments, and opinions regarding online teacherpreneur controversies. Responses were analyzed to identify salient and/or repeated themes across the interviews, using the constant comparative method.

Findings: Online teacherpreneurs described themselves as helpful, hardworking, organized, creative, and risk-taking. Whereas some worked in supportive school environments, others worked in ambivalent schools, where they kept their teacherpreneur work separate and/or secret. They indicated that the practice of online teacherpreneurship involved creating resources, collaborating with teachers and online teacherpreneurs, and engaging in entrepreneurship. Online teacherpreneurs experienced positive impacts relating to teaching practice, teacher leadership, and their careers. They also experienced some professional stressors.

Conclusions: Online teacherpreneurs are emerging as virtual teacher leaders and educational influencers. They carry the responsibility to share high-quality resources, and they need the support of their schools and connections with colleagues to thrive.

Online teacherpreneurs are current and former preschool-to-12th-grade (P–12) teachers who share their original teaching materials in virtual marketplaces, often for financial gain (Shelton & Archambault, 2018). To illustrate, consider Laura Randazzo, a high school English teacher, who has sold her lesson materials on the virtual marketplace Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT; Singer, 2015). She uploads class resources to the TpT website, and teachers download them for a small fee. According to a New York Times article featuring Laura, “As some on the site develop sizable and devoted audiences, TeachersPayTeachers.com is fostering the growth of a hybrid profession: teacher-entrepreneur. The phenomenon has even spawned its own neologism: teacherpreneur” (Singer, 2015).


TpT is one of the most popular online educational marketplaces used by teacherpreneurs. TpT reported 5,000,000 site users in 2019 (Teachers Pay Teachers [TpT], n.d.), with an estimated 80,000 teacher authors (Thompson, 2017). A recent survey of K–12 mathematics and English teachers in California, Louisiana, New Mexico, and New York found that 87% of elementary teachers and 51% of secondary teachers used resources from TpT (Opfer et al., 2016). According to the study, TpT was slightly less popular than Google and Pinterest, and more popular than the state’s department of education website, KhanAcademy.org, and ReadWriteThink.org. Online teacherpreneurs sell materials on similar sites, including Houghton Mifflin Marketplace and Amazon Inspire, and in personal online stores on Woo Commerce or Shopify (Gomes, 2015; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016; Rozen, 2018; Young, 2018). Because online teacherpreneurship is a relatively new phenomenon, there are few relevant peer-reviewed studies (Hu et al., 2018; Pittard, 2017; Shelton & Archambault, 2018). Nonetheless, these studies, along with discussion of the topic by the popular press, point to a number of benefits and challenges.


POTENTIAL BENEFITS OF ONLINE TEACHERPRENEURSHIP


Perhaps the most obvious benefits of online teacherpreneurs are the financial gain and the potential to impact countless teachers and students who use teacherpreneurs’ materials (Hu et al., 2018; Opfer et al., 2016; Pittard, 2017). Judging by their popularity (Opfer et al., 2016), online teacherpreneurs’ resources seem to have filled a niche for teachers looking for classroom-tested materials that are on-trend and readily accessible online. In the process, online teacherpreneurs appear to be emerging as virtual leaders through their blogs, social media, and online stores (Thompson, 2017). Unlike traditional notions of teacher leadership (Wenner & Campbell, 2016; York-Barr & Duke, 2004), online teacherpreneurs are not appointed by school leaders and can have a scope of impact much broader than their local schools. Any teacher with time and the technology to share their ideas can be an online teacherpreneur, so online teacherpreneurship may be a potentially more equitable opportunity than traditional teacher leadership.


Online teacherpreneurship may also offer flexibility and autonomy compared with traditional classroom teaching, because online teacherpreneurs can commit as much time as they are able. With income earned from the sale of their educational resources, teacherpreneurs may reduce their teaching loads for personal situations such as birth of children and caring for family members, endeavors that can otherwise marginalize female teachers (Apple, 2013). Further, the feedback that online teacherpreneurs receive in the form of sales metrics and purchaser feedback may inspire reflection on their practice and result in improvements to their curricular materials. Creating educational resources may provide a creative outlet, and the business aspect may inspire a new professional challenge (Pittard, 2017). Taken together, these benefits may improve online teacherpreneurs’ job satisfaction, a factor related to teacher retention (Goldring et al., 2014; Simon & Johnson, 2015).


More broadly, teacherpreneurs may pose a challenge to the neoliberal agenda in education. Under the neoliberal value system, a school’s capital is directed to educational corporations (for the purchase of canned curricula), and consequently, teacher labor is underpaid and undervalued (Apple, 2013; Baltodano, 2012; Pittard, 2017). If schools allocate funds for their teachers to purchase teacherpreneurs’ content instead of paying publishing companies, they push back against an educational system that has come to distrust teacher agency (Apple, 2013).


POTENTIAL CHALLENGES OF ONLINE TEACHERPRENEURSHIP


Online teacherpreneurship also poses a number of challenges. One concern is that online teacherpreneurship challenges the tradition of sharing within the teaching profession (Pittard, 2017; Walthausen, 2016). Should educational ideas be shared freely across teachers for students’ benefit, or should teacherpreneurs be economically rewarded for their creations? A related question is, How do teachers who cannot afford TpT materials fare? As Pittard explained, “There are potentially damaging consequences for teachers when what counts as good enough can be bought, because the women who cannot afford to purchase these materials or have time to produce ‘Pinterest worthy’ lessons may ultimately not have access to what counts as good enough in teaching” (Pittard, 2017, p. 43). Another concern is the undefined boundary between online teacherpreneurs’ classroom work and their online business. To what extent should one’s small business and classroom teaching mingle?


An added concern is the extent to which online teacherpreneurship encourages elite teachers to leave the profession. Online teacherpreneurs whose profits exceed their teacher salary may be exceptional teachers whose departure from the classroom would represent a loss to their schools and communities. On the other hand, online teacherpreneurs who leave the classroom may make a broader impact through the ideas, materials, and support they are able to share online with other teachers. A final issue is that online teacherpreneurs’ resources may be rigorous, well designed, innovative, and aligned to learning objectives, or they may be attractive but unsubstantial, ineffective, or trite (Hu et al., 2018). Worse, they may reinforce systemic racism or harm students (Onion, 2019). When searching seller profiles on the TpT website, many White, female faces appear (TpT, 2019), suggesting that online teacherpreneurship may not be drawing many participants from diverse backgrounds.


THE CURRENT STUDY


The goal of the current study was to begin to explore these issues by providing an initial, descriptive look into online teacherpreneurship. We focused our study on the online teacherpreneur, seeking to understand the characteristics and experiences of teacherpreneurs through their own stories. We interviewed 10 elite online teacherpreneurs who ranked in the top 1% of TpT sellers, using intensity sampling (Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009) to purposefully sample individuals with deep and varied experiences. Providing a profile of highly successful online teacherpreneurs may be useful to P–12 school leaders and teacher educators seeking ways to identify, understand, and engage with online teacherpreneurs and the teachers who use their materials. The study may also shed light on the value of teachers as influencers in online spaces, particularly as women challenging the status quo of educational publishing companies’ dominance in U.S. schools (Apple, 2013; Baltodano, 2012; Pittard, 2017).


LITERATURE REVIEW


The literature review draws on empirical work addressing the topic of teacherpreneurship, while also examining evidence from the more established fields of teacher leadership and entrepreneurial education.


TEACHERPRENEURSHIP AND ONLINE TEACHERPRENEURSHIP


The term “online teacherpreneurship” (Shelton & Archambault, 2018) was derived from the concept of teacherpreneurship (Berry et al., 2013), which is a related but distinct idea. Berry and colleagues’ “teacherpreneur” describes a classroom teacher who is given the time and resources to act entrepreneurially, innovating new reforms for their schools, communities, or educational policy. Teacherpreneurs are creative risk-takers who devise new solutions to classroom problems because they are close to students, community, and fellow teachers (Berry et al., 2013). A marked difference between Berry’s teacherpreneur and our online teacherpreneur (Shelton & Archambault, 2018) is that teacherpreneurs do not receive additional compensation for their work. A similarity is that both practices aim to put educational reform into the hands of teachers rather than leaving it to administrators, local or national leaders, and/or businesses (Holland et al., 2014). Traditional teacherpreneurship remains more of an ideal than a reality, whereas online teacherpreneurship is a rapidly growing practice (Opfer et al., 2016).


We created the term “online teacherpreneur” to describe current and former P–12 teachers who share their original teaching materials in virtual marketplaces, often for financial gain (Shelton & Archambault, 2018). Empirical investigation of online teacherpreneurship is limited to a few studies (Buckley & Nzembayie, 2016; Carpenter et al., 2016; Hu et al., 2018; Pittard, 2017; Shelton & Archambault, 2018). Buckley and Nzembayie (2016) provided one of the first empirical investigations of online teacherpreneurs, individuals they called entrepreneurial educators. In this preliminary study, they interviewed three K–12 teachers who also pursued entrepreneurial ventures relating to e-learning, educational gaming, educational technology, or mobile learning. They found that teacherpreneurs described themselves as persistent and creative, and they discussed a strong motivation for sharing their resources with other teachers. For one interviewee, dislike of the school’s teaching methods motivated her involvement in online teacherpreneurship.


In our own work (Shelton & Archambault, 2018), we explored online teacherpreneurs’ experiences with collaborative professional development. The study involved a professional learning community hosted in a closed Facebook group of 40 online teacherpreneurs who taught Spanish. A survey method was used to solicit participants’ perspectives via closed- and open-ended responses. The survey was completed by 25 of the community members (63%), with results indicating that the group was an active community of practice (Wenger, 1998) where participants negotiated relationships over shared goals and developed new ideas as well as collective accomplishments. Online teacherpreneurs reported that their participation in the community produced new achievements in entrepreneurship and their teaching practice.


The remaining studies of online teacherpreneurship examined the topic from the lens of Pinterest, a social media site that P–12 teachers use for educational inspiration and where online teacherpreneurs have become a prolific presence as content providers (Archambault et al., 2019; Carpenter et al., 2016; Hu et al., 2018; Pittard, 2017; Schroeder et al., 2019). On Pinterest, teacherpreneurs share pictures to advertise their materials and market their brand to teachers. The visual medium seems to be particularly appealing to teachers who follow and draw inspiration from teacherpreneurs’ ideas on the site. In preliminary work exploring Pinterest, Carpenter et al. (2016) found that online teacherpreneurs had a wide influence on the social media website, participating daily with an average of more than 21,000 followers each. Their findings suggested that Pinterest participation is one way that teacherpreneurs share ideas and resources with teachers virtually.


Hu and colleagues (2018) examined the Pinterest accounts of 29 early-career teachers from three midwestern states to understand how they curated math resources using this online tool. Using an epistemic network analysis, they found that teachers connected with teachers and online teacherpreneurs via Pinterest, where they created a virtual resource pool of educational resources together. Early-career teachers curated a variety of math materials, but these materials were primarily low in cognitive demand. Most were at the remembering and understanding levels rather than the applying, analyzing, evaluating, or creating levels. Years of experience was a moderating factor, such that more experienced teachers curated materials with higher cognitive demand. Hu and colleagues concluded that although social media has potential for exposing teachers to high-quality content and new knowledge, teachers need support when it comes to reflecting on the type and quality of curricular materials they find online.


Pittard (2017) used new materialist feminist theory to examine how three elementary teachers at two different school sites intra-acted with curricular materials from Pinterest and TpT. Using interview data and observations of the Pinterest and TpT websites, she demonstrated that the act of advertising materials on Pinterest and then selling them on TpT gave female teachers a public space where their educational creations were valued. TpT and Pinterest gave teachers the freedom to shape education through classroom content via a free market rather than relying on the textbook companies to do this. Pittard noted benefits to both the teacherpreneur and to teachers, explaining,


Many teachers could see this as an opportunity to finally be compensated for the hours of formerly unpaid labor time spent developing lessons and activities after school. It also provides a way for teachers who do not feel as creatively inclined to have access to new ways of conceiving how to teach a particular lesson on a particular topic. (p. 42)


However, Pittard cautioned that Pinterest and TpT may privilege certain voices—the voices of the teacherpreneurs who are able to sell, and interested in selling, their classroom materials via these sites.


Taken together, findings suggest that online teacherpreneurs are creative and persistent teachers who actively engage in online teacher networks. Their participation is impacting both their teacherpreneur peers and teachers. Although this work established an emerging understanding of online teacherpreneurship and those who participate, further description of this population and their experiences is needed.


TEACHER LEADERSHIP


Decades before the concept of online teacherpreneurship existed, teacher leadership initiatives were undertaken as an approach to empower teachers with greater authority and influence (Wenner & Campbell, 2016; York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Teacher leaders are classroom teachers who take on additional school leadership and improvement responsibilities, such as those of peer coaches, coordinators, specialists, lead teachers, department chairs, or mentor teachers (Wenner & Campbell, 2016; York-Barr & Duke, 2004). York-Barr and Duke (2004) reviewed 41 empirical studies, finding that teacher leaders were highly experienced teachers who excelled in their practice (Katzenmeyer & Moller, 2009). They were creative, hardworking risk-takers who were respected by colleagues (Wilson, 1993). Wenner and Campbell (2016) reviewed 72 studies, confirming York-Barr and Duke’s findings and adding that lack of confidence was an inhibiting factor for teacher leaders.


York-Barr and Duke (2004) found that teacher leaders thrive in school environments where they were given encouragement for taking initiative (Katzenmeyer & Moller, 2009), where colleagues respected them as leaders and experts (Little, 1988), and where they had sufficient time and access to achieve their goals (Ovando, 1996). Wenner and Campbell (2016) found that teacher leaders benefited when given autonomy by school administrators, material compensation (Borchers, 2009), and/or recognition (Vernon-Dotson, 2008). Finally, the norms of isolation and individualism in the profession pose a challenge to teacher leaders, in that they are reluctant to advance beyond their peers (Little, 1988).


Impacts of teacher leadership include teachers gaining leadership, organizational, and instructional skills (York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Teacher leaders also feel increasingly positive toward their professional abilities and are more satisfied professionally (Wenner & Campbell, 2016). However, teacher leaders face increased professional stress, especially relating to having sufficient time (Wenner & Campbell, 2016) and maintaining collegial relationships while leading peers (York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Of the five studies in York-Barr and Duke’s (2004) review examining student impacts, two found indirect effects of teacher leadership on improved instruction (Marks & Louis, 1997) and improved school culture through curricular, scheduling, and policy decisions (York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Another impact of teacher leadership is that it is an approach to teacher-driven reform (York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Teachers may move away from reactive roles, where they respond to top-down school reforms put forth by government officials and/or school administrators, by leading collaboratively (Holland et al., 2014). Despite the potential positive outcomes of teacher leadership, the status quo in most U.S. schools has continued to undervalue teachers’ opinions and expertise (Apple, 2013; Hess, 2006). If teachers’ craft knowledge is to be meaningfully tapped, completely new approaches may be needed that reimagine the teaching profession. Entrepreneurship may provide an incentive to do this (Cuban, 2006).


ENTREPRENEURIAL EDUCATION


Entrepreneurial educators are innovators in education who generate, promote, and then realize new ideas (Borasi & Finnigan, 2010; Brown & Cornwall, 2000; Schimmel, 2016; Thurlings et al., 2015). Unlike teacher leaders, entrepreneurial educators may benefit financially from their efforts, although not necessarily. Entrepreneurial educators include classroom teachers, school leaders, and corporate stakeholders as well. Compared with teacher leaders who improve schools through collaboration (York-Barr & Duke, 2004), entrepreneurial educators often work individually through their own invention (Brown & Cornwall, 2000). An important criticism of the entrepreneurship in education concept came from Cuban (2006), who cautioned depending on “gallant leaders” because this can undermine collaboration among teachers, administration, and stakeholders. Though it may be valuable to have creative, inspirational educators, the work of school improvement will undoubtedly rely on teachers working as a collaborative community (Cuban, 2006).


Borasi and Finnigan (2010) interviewed six entrepreneurial educators from various roles, including a suburban schoolteacher, an urban principal, an assistant superintendent, a dean at a private university, a nonprofit CEO, and a traditional entrepreneur specializing in educational services. They found the entrepreneurial educators to be to be driven by a greater purpose or a sense of urgency. They were apt to recognize more opportunities than they had resources or capacity to support. They were also proficient at networking, quick decision makers, and confident risk-takers (Borasi & Finnigan, 2010). Thurlings and colleagues’ (2015) review of 36 studies regarding innovative teaching supported these findings. The following characteristics had a positive effect on teachers’ innovation: desire to learn, self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation, persistence, technology skills, problem solving, ability to recognize and evaluate opportunities, and content knowledge. They found that school environments that fostered teacher peer collaboration and voicing one’s ideas had a positive effect on innovation. The only consistent impact was that innovative teachers faced coworker conflicts (Janssen, 2003; Pugh & Zhao, 2003). Thus, when entrepreneurial educators pursue novel ideas in their classrooms and push some of these ideas within their schools, their colleagues could feel threatened. As Cuban (2006) asserted, the notion of teachers changing the system from within may be an ambitious one. Entrepreneurial educators must question and challenge existing structures within their organizations. Online teacherpreneurship may represent a dynamic force doing just that.


CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK


The conceptual framework for this study was inspired by established conceptual models from entrepreneurship (Shane, 2003) and teacher leadership (York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Shane’s (2003) individual-opportunity nexus model described entrepreneurship as a practice that exists as a function of enterprising individuals and the opportunities they find. It first accounts for an entrepreneur’s attributes (psychological and demographic factors) and environmental attributes. In an ordered process, entrepreneurs first discover opportunities present in the world, develop ideas for how to exploit them, and execute their ideas. Shane’s model highlights that entrepreneurs differ in their ability to discover, exploit, and execute opportunity, as a function of their prior knowledge, cognitive ability, and environment.


We also drew from York-Barr and Duke’s (2004) theory of action for teacher leadership, which described how teacher leadership leads to student learning. First, the characteristics of leaders, the nature of their work, and the environmental conditions must be considered. These components influence the path by which teachers lead: the means, targets, and outcomes. The final component is student learning, which is a result of the other six components.


We developed the online teacherpreneurship process model to describe online teacherpreneurs, the school environments where they work, the practice itself, and potential impacts. The model was set up in a linear fashion, indicating that characteristics and school environment may relate to the way that online teacherpreneurs practice, which in turn may relate to the impacts that they experience. The first component of the model is characteristics, which refers to the motivations, attitudes, behaviors, or traits of an individual. The second component is the school environment. Shane (2003) indicated that environmental conditions such as social ties and work environments may impact the entrepreneurial process. The third component addresses the practice, or what activities are pursued in the process of online teacherpreneurship. Finally, the fourth component is the impacts, or the perceived and observed effects of the practice.


METHOD


Online teacherpreneurs’ classroom materials have become prolific in U.S. classrooms (Opfer et al., 2016; Thompson, 2017). To begin to address this topic, an initial investigation was needed to systematically define and describe online teacherpreneurs as people, while also describing their practice and the impacts they experience. In this study, we explored online teacherpreneurship from the perspectives of some of its most active, successful, and experienced participants: sellers who are among the top 1% of TpT. We asked the following research questions: (1) What are the characteristics of elite online teacherpreneurs, defined as those who are among the top 1% of sellers on the TpT website? (2) In what school environments do these online teacherpreneurs work? (3) In what practices do elite online teacherpreneurs engage? (4) What impacts do elite online teacherpreneurs experience? We approached this study as former P–12 teachers who use social networking and online resources for our own professional development and university-level teaching. The second author brings experience creating open educational resources at the university level, and the first author brings experience building an online store on TpT from 2012 to 2015. The first author’s positioning as a TpT seller aided in participant recruitment and data collection because she was networked in the TpT seller community and was viewed with more credibility because of her insider status.


PARTICIPANTS


We interviewed 10 online teacherpreneurs who ranked in the top 1% of sellers on TpT and had sold materials on TpT for at least four years. We drew the sample from TpT sellers because it is the most popular online educational marketplace in North America (Gomes, 2015; Opfer et al., 2016); TpT has a seller population of more than 80,000 teacher authors, many of whom experience substantial financial benefits (Thompson, 2017). Intensity sampling (Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009) was used to purposefully sample participants who could provide deep and varied knowledge and experiences regarding online teacherpreneurship.


Potential participants were identified by searching the TpT website, where all sellers were listed publicly by sales rank (TpT, n.d.). We selected a maximum variation sample (Creswell, 2014; Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009; Tracy, 2013), so participants varied on characteristics including level and content taught, employment status, gender, U.S. location, and relationship to the researcher. This approach was selected to add to the complexity and breadth of this exploratory study (Creswell, 2014; Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009). In all, 46 online teacherpreneurs were invited to participate via a personal email message. Among those, 12 responded that they were not able to participate, 24 did not respond, and 10 agreed to participate. Because qualitative research does not specify numeric guidelines for sample size (Tracy, 2013), we set an initial goal of eight participants. After completing the eighth interview, new ideas were still being presented, so we continued interviews. By the 10th interview, we found that the same ideas were consistently presented with no new ideas added, so we concluded data collection.


DATA COLLECTION


The interviews were conducted by the first author following an interview protocol created to promote consistency across interview participants and to focus each interview on the research questions (Appendix A). Questions addressing demographic, teacher, and teacherpreneur background were asked at the beginning of each interview. Probing questions were used to encourage participants to provide as complete a response as possible and to ensure that responses were understood. The questions were generated based on the literature review and focused on entrepreneurship and teacher leadership. Interviews were conducted over a 2-month period via online video call (n = 6) or phone call (n = 4). Interviews, ranging from 48 minutes to 67 minutes, were audio-recorded and then transcribed by a third-party online transcription service.


ANALYSIS


Interviews were analyzed iteratively. After each interview, we read and reread that interview transcript to assign first-level codes to segments of text. Codes included emergent codes detailing descriptive processes, in vivo codes, and a priori codes that had been identified in the literature review. As additional interviews were completed, we continued this process. The newest interview was read and reread, codes were assigned, and previous interviews were reread, with new codes added and then code definitions modified. In the rereading process, the constant comparative method (Corbin & Strauss, 2015) was used to compare and consolidate the codes. For example, the first coding session involved a primary cycle coding of Interview 1. The second coding session involved an initial pass at coding Interview 2, and then rereading and recoding both Interviews 1 and 2, while employing the constant comparative method. As more interviews were added, this process was repeated. After each coding session, a memo was recorded to describe that session’s process, salient ideas about the newest interview, and meanings and connections across the data.


A codebook was created during the first coding session to organize, define, and provide exemplary quotations for each of the initial codes. Codes were organized by the four research questions. As interviews were completed and coded, new codes were added and defined, and other codes were consolidated and redefined. Once all interviews were completed, we used secondary-cycle coding to further organize the codes into more refined categories (Tracy, 2013). The goal was to determine a concise set of relevant codes that appeared repeatedly across responses. The codebook was revised to include a definition for each code, with several example quotations from interviewees for each. A sample of a coded interview portion is provided in Appendix B.


Efforts were made to ensure that the data collection process yielded findings that were trustworthy, authentic, and credible (Creswell & Miller, 2000). First, researcher memos were written throughout the data collection and analysis process, using researcher reflexivity to increase trustworthiness (Creswell, 2014; Tracy, 2013). Second, expert debriefing was used. At three meetings over the course of the 4-month analysis phase, the authors met with a tenured professor of education who specialized in mixed-methods research to discuss, redesign, and consolidate the themes, codes, and definitions based on the data. Third, the findings from this study were triangulated with findings from a second quantitative phase, which involved a survey of more than 400 mainstream online teacherpreneurs (Shelton & Archambault, 2019). After collecting the data for both phases, mixed-methods joint display tables were used to compare the findings (Guetterman et al., 2015). Consequently, some of the initial qualitative themes were consolidated or reorganized, and definitions were slightly revised.


RESULTS


PARTICIPANTS


The 10 participants varied based on employment status, gender, geographical location, and TpT store focus (Table 1). One of the 10 interviews involved two online teacherpreneurs who ran their TpT store together; their responses were reported as one interview.


Table 1. Interviews Organized by Demographic Characteristics of Interest for Maximum Variation Sampling (N = 10)

Pseudonym

Current Employment Status

Gender

Current Region (Based on U.S. Census Regions)

TpT Store Focus

Elizabeth

Full-time classroom teacher

F

Midwestern U.S.

Elementary


Ruby


Full-time classroom teacher


F


Midwestern U.S.


Secondary


Sarah


Full-time classroom teacher


F


Canada


Elementary


Tia


Full-time classroom teacher


F


Southern U.S.


Elementary


Alexander


Full-time classroom teacher


M


Southern U.S.


Elementary


Sean


Full-time classroom teacher


M


Northeastern U.S.


Elementary & Secondary

Co-seller team

Full-time online teacherpreneurs

F

F

Western U.S.

Elementary


Pamela


Full-time online teacherpreneur


F


Western U.S.


Elementary


Lisa


Full-time online teacherpreneur


F


Southern U.S.


Secondary


Mark


Full-time online teacherpreneur


M


Western U.S.


Secondary


Note. TpT  = Teachers Pay Teachers.


Participants were seven women and three men who lived in diverse areas of the United States and Canada. They ranged in age from 32 to 47 years of age (M = 38.5 years) and identified as Caucasian. They had between six and 20 years of classroom teaching experience, with an average of 11.6 years. Their primary teaching experience was in suburban public schools (n = 6), urban public schools (n = 2), a rural public school (n = 1), and a suburban private school (n = 1). Six participants were currently employed as P–12 classroom teachers or teacher leaders, and four participants had left the classroom to pursue online teacherpreneurship full time.


Participants had been sellers on TpT for four to eight years, with an average of 5.5 years. They sold materials focusing on elementary (n = 6), secondary (n = 3), or both (n = 1). At the time of the interviews, all participants ranked in the top 800 sellers on the TpT website, holding rankings in the top 50 sellers (n = 1), top 100 sellers (n = 1), top 200 sellers (n = 3), top 400 sellers (n = 1), top 500 sellers (n = 1), top 700 sellers (n = 2), and top 800 sellers (n = 1). Each had earned at least $100,000 since joining TpT. Two of the participants knew the first author prior before the interview, because they participated in online teacherpreneur Facebook group(s) together before the study.


CHARACTERISTICS


The first research question related to the characteristics of online teacherpreneurs. Five themes regarding personal characteristics were identified: helpful, hardworking, creative, organized, and risk-taking (Table 2).


Table 2. Characteristics of Highly Successful and Experienced Online Teacherpreneurs

Code

Description

Evidence From Interviews

Helpful

The online teacherpreneur wants to make a difference in education for teachers and students. He/she wants to validate and nurture teachers. The online teacherpreneur needs to give, assist, or serve teachers.

“When teachers come to me, I’m not judging them . . . I’m not going to run to their principal, but I can support them, and I can give them ideas, I can share what works for me. I can validate for them the fact that they’re trying, and it’s safe.” (Sarah)


Hardworking


The online teacherpreneur is persistent and committed to doing their work.


“My willpower and drive to keep on task, to keep on schedule, to get up every morning and do it. Yes, I enjoy it, but there’s also that aspect of just having the drive to do it.”  (Sean)


Creative


The online teacherpreneur produces ideas and outputs that are imaginative and original, from a conceptual and/or visual standpoint.


“I think of unique ways to approach things . . . I’m always kind of looking at something unique and different. . . . getting a new way that I can do something.” (Ruby)


Organized


The online teacherpreneur is adept at planning, goal setting, and structuring their work.


“Start with months . . . plan out a month. When you feel comfortable in that, try to stretch it out to quarters. Then when you have that down, stretch it out to a yearlong plan. I just can’t do that. But, I can do quarterly. And, so I try and set my goals.” (Tia)


Risk-Taking


The online teacherpreneur is prone to trying new ideas and approaches and sharing these publicly.


“I’ve always been like just jump-in-and-do-it kind of person.” (Mark)


Every participant described helping teachers. They did this through informal mentorship, validation, encouragement, and pedagogical support, mostly through email or social media connections. Alexander explained:


What I found with teachers is that they just need to be validated. So much of our conversation with teachers is, “How would you do this?” I’m like, “Well, this is how I do it,” and they’re like, “Oh, well, that’s what I do.” Or, “That’s what I was thinking.” They just need to be validated.


Online teacherpreneurs’ drive to nurture stemmed from a sense of empathy for their teacher colleagues. Ruby described,


I have a soft spot for teachers because I know it’s not an easy job and I know that when I was starting out especially I just didn’t necessarily have people to go to. . . . [They] might be teaching in a building where they are the only teacher, and it’s a hard position for them to be in, and for them to have somebody that they can reach out to is probably very comforting for new teachers.


Teacherpreneurs explained that helping teachers ultimately enabled them to “help kids” also. A second characteristic of online teacherpreneurs was being hardworking. Lisa shared,


I just am an incredibly hard worker, so if I give a deadline it will be done . . . I’ll sleep eventually, but I’ll get it done. That extent of being committed and being consistent and showing up, I think is one of the qualities that helps me to be successful in this avenue.


Beyond their work ethic, careful planning and persistence were important to their success. Tia shared, “I think most of all I am a very persistent person . . . I was committed from day 1. Without the persistence and commitment, I don’t know what degree of success you will really achieve.”


A third characteristic was being creative. Participants said that they were never lacking for educational ideas and considered themselves “crafty.” They enjoyed putting together new classroom materials and creating things. They also reported finding “unique ways to approach things.” By listening to teachers’ “pain points,” they could be especially creative in finding solutions to problems that teachers face.


A fourth characteristic was being organized. Participants described planning, goal setting, and structuring their teacherpreneur work. Careful organization made their resources better and saved them time. Mark said,


I get a little bit excited about organizing [a new] resource . . . and getting that bird’s eye view because you have insights that you wouldn’t have had before and it cuts out a lot of frustrations out as well because [with good planning you won’t] find some kind of major oversight . . . [that] would take so much more time to go back and fix.


They also were highly organized when it came to the business aspect of the job. For example, Sean described his very regimented routine before heading to school each morning:


The first thing I do [at the coffee shop] is I schedule out a Facebook post. I schedule out four tweets and . . . go on Pinterest and I like 50 posts. Then I go on to my Facebook page and I leave five comments on other Facebook pages. Then on Twitter, I do the same thing. Then on Pinterest . . . I look at everything that’s been pinned from my blog and I go on to that pin and I thank the person for pinning it from my site and invite them to come back.


Being organized was viewed as an important characteristic that connected to their business success.


The final characteristic was risk-taking. The tendency to share ideas without hesitation was important to some. Alexander explained that because he could “get out of the box and try new things and take risks in the classroom,” he was a more innovative classroom teacher and successful online teacherpreneur. Still, several others described themselves as more cautious, but they found risk-taking inspiration from family and friends. Lisa shared,


I am not a risk-taker. [My husband] is much more a risk-taker, so he also is super optimist and everything is always gonna be the best possible, and so. . . . Anything that I did, he probably told me, “Hey, go for it, try it, you’re great, do it.”


Whether they enjoyed it or not, risk-taking may have been an important reason for their success.


SCHOOL ENVIRONMENTS


The second research question related to the online teacherpreneurs’ school environments, using data from the six participants who currently worked in P–12 schools. Two themes were identified: whether online teacherpreneurs worked in supportive or ambivalent schools, and whether online teacherpreneurs separated (or did not separate) their school and teacherpreneur work.


Online teacherpreneurs described their schools as either supportive (n = 3) or ambivalent (n = 3). Those working in supportive schools explained that their school, administration, fellow teachers, students, and/or parents knew about their online teacherpreneurship and supported them. Those working in ambivalent schools said that their colleagues did not know about their TpT work, that they downplayed it, or that they simply did not talk about it. Elizabeth stated,


I try to keep what I’m doing kind of separate at school, for the most part, except for my teaching team . . . I don’t probably talk about it much at school . . . I try to keep it somewhat low key. . . . It’s somewhat well received, you know, by some people. By others, I really don’t know. I really don’t know what they think.


Online teacherpreneurs in supportive schools viewed their school’s support as a benefit. Alexander told us,


My principal is amazing and he’s so supportive of everything that I do. He thinks it’s a great reflection of the school and the district. . . . [He] allows me to try new things. [Also] it makes a big difference and having parents and families in the classroom that are also supportive.


By being transparent, he had procured corporate sponsorships that gave him free classroom materials, and he was able to reinvest some of his teacherpreneur earnings into classroom materials and share them with his teacher coworkers. However, a challenge was standing out among colleagues. Tia explained, “There’s always the naysayers.” The teacherpreneurs found that they could mitigate negative feelings by inviting teacher colleagues to visit their classrooms to observe, sharing their TPT resources with them at no cost, and helping them when asked.  


The separation of school and teacherpreneur work was another theme. Four of the six interviewees (67%) believed that it was important to keep their classroom teacher work separate from their online business to avoid a conflict of interest regarding their teaching position. They explained that although some of their colleagues knew about their side business, they often had no idea how successful they were. These participants were experiencing significant financial gain, but as Tia shared, “[My school] has no idea that I’m making money on it, but they know that I probably make coffee money.” Alexander and Sean elected not to separate their teacherpreneur work because they believed that both entities stood to benefit when their efforts in both spaces could overlap.


<B>PRACTICES


Online teacherpreneurs described regularly and intensely participating in three practices: creating resources, collaborating with teachers and teacherpreneurs, and engaging in entrepreneurship.


Creating Resources


Creating resources was at the heart of teacherpreneurship and involved generating new ideas, ensuring quality, addressing logistics, and producing methodically (Table 3).


Table 3. Creating Resources Is Part of Highly Successful and Experienced Online Teacherpreneurs’ Practice

Code

Description

Evidence

Generating new ideas

The online teacherpreneur generates ideas from their own classroom experiences and by talking with other teachers to fill a need. They may bring together multiple approaches, topics, or trends to develop a novel learning experience particular to their area of expertise.

“We do love having our Facebook group ‘cause that’s been a good way to hear from other teachers, like what they’re pain points are, what’s really hard for them about teaching.” (Coseller team)


Ensuring quality


The online teacherpreneur tests the resources they sell in their own classrooms and asks teacher friends to also test them and provide feedback. They may revise existing resources as new evidence is presented.


“We could never stand by a product like that that we didn’t fully believe in, that had some academic merit, that aligned with current research and best practice. We put a lot into that. It’s important that it’s meaningful for students and teacher friendly. That’s always our goal.” (Coseller team)


Addressing logistics


The online teacherpreneur navigates issues such as copyright and determining appropriate pricing.


“I try to stay really low in prices. I was a classroom teacher, too and I know you don’t have any money and [are] trying to save. I like to offer free stuff, too. You know those elementary teachers just eat that stuff up.” (Pamela)


Producing methodically


The online teacherpreneur sets goals and structures to stay on task in producing high-quality outputs.


“[First] I schedule out a Facebook post. I schedule out four tweets and Pinterest I do well in advance, like three months. But I also go on Pinterest and I like 50 posts. That’s the first thing I do every morning. Then I go on to my Facebook page and I leave five comments on other Facebook pages. Then on Twitter, I do the same thing. Then on Pinterest, I go on my source page and I look at everything that’s been pinned from my blog and I go on to that pin and I thank the person for pinning it from my site and invite them to come back. So, it’s all about keeping like the brand going and keeping present in everyone’s mind.” (Sean)


Participants said that first they generated new ideas, often out of their own classroom necessity or from learning teachers’ “pain points.” For most, idea generation focused within their particular area of expertise, or niche in the market. The coseller team shared, “We do a lot in [removed for anonymity] grade ’cause that’s where we feel like our expertise is. We spent so many years there. And the good thing about staying in one grade for so long is every year you get to perfect your teaching for that age.” Online teacherpreneurs said they created resources for areas in which they had expertise and for which there was a need.


Once an idea was developed, interviewees explained that ensuring quality was a top priority. The coseller team said, “We could never stand by a product . . . that we didn’t fully believe in, that had some academic merit that aligned with current research and best practice.” They wanted their resources to be fun and visually appealing, but also rigorous and designed with research-based practices in mind. They also said that they tried to test the resources in a real classroom setting and make revisions before sharing the resource online. Elizabeth stated, “I really don’t post anything that I haven’t already used [in my own classroom].” Those no longer in the classroom asked teacher friends to test their materials and provide feedback.


In describing the resource creation process, participants also addressed the importance of following copyright law and pricing materials appropriately. Elizabeth explained that when she first began selling on TpT, she only uploaded free resources. Once she realized that she was “spending hours and hours” perfecting her materials, she decided it was only fair to charge. The online teacherpreneurs interviewed described the careful thought that went into setting a fair price that made materials affordable for teachers while compensating the teacherpreneur for their time and effort spent researching, creating, testing, and marketing the resource.


Resource creation was a methodical process. The coseller team described first brainstorming with sticky notes on a bulletin board, followed by creating a to-do list for the steps needed to complete the resource. Lisa, Mark, and Pamela described planning out a whole line of related resources for a grade level, topic, or activity style. They created templates that could be used for the different versions of the resource, and then revised to create multiple versions.


Collaborating With Teachers and Online Teacherpreneurs


The second aspect of online teacherpreneur practice was collaborating with teachers (Table 4) and teacherpreneur peers (Table 5). Participants said it was common for them to connect with teachers virtually and in person, to provide guidance and/or to facilitate community for teachers to support each other.


Table 4. Collaborating With Teachers Is Part of Highly Successful and Experienced Online Teacherpreneurs’ Practice

Code

Description

Evidence

Facilitating community

The online teacherpreneur initiates and facilitates communities of teachers in online spaces, such as private Facebook groups, and face-to-face spaces, such as workshops and conferences that they attend and/or provide.

“I’ll get . . . 15 messages a day asking different things towards specific students . . . I know that I can answer some of them, but I’m certainly not the expert in every situation. So, it kind of hit me [to create a private Facebook group for meeting the needs of diverse learners]. . . . I try to go live in that group on Mondays, just to . . . keep the conversation going. But, it’s really happened organically . . . [teachers] just needed a place where they can come in and ask.” (Tia)

Providing guidance

The online teacherpreneur provides guidance for teachers seeking classroom support and emotional validation; the guidance takes place through personal communication, typically via email and by sharing targeted support through blog and video postings on their websites and social media pages.

“I’ll be contacted by a lot of teachers that either have bought something that I have made or see an idea on my blog, and they just kind of want some more information or to have some dialogue about how they can make that work with their individual situation or needs. I do spend time on mailing back and forth with teachers that are seeking that kind of guidance.” (Ruby)


Online teacherpreneurs described communicating with teachers one-on-one, in small groups, and even in large-group settings, both online and in person. Typically, communications occurred via email, blog posts, or video messages or tutorials on their websites and social media pages. Ruby shared, “I’ll be contacted by a lot of teachers that either have bought something that I have made or see an idea on my blog, and they just kind of want some more information or to have some dialogue about how they can make that work with their individual situation or needs.” They helped teachers by troubleshooting solutions for classroom challenges, dialoguing about how to make a resource work given a particular situation, or simply sharing lesson plans. When providing guidance, they emphasized “validating,” “encouraging,” and “keeping it positive” for teachers who might feel overwhelmed, intimidated, or underappreciated.


Six of the 10 online teacherpreneurs ran a private Facebook group where teachers in their grade and/or content specialty could collaborate virtually. They described these groups not as a marketing strategy, but as a “way to support teachers.” Tia told us about a new Facebook group she had started just before the interview:


I [used to] get . . . 15 messages a day asking different things towards specific students . . . I know that I can answer some of them, but I’m certainly not the expert in every situation. So, it kind of hit me [to create a private Facebook group for meeting the needs of diverse learners] . . . I try to [post a Facebook Live video] in that group on Mondays . . . to kind of keep the conversation going. But, it’s really happened organically . . . [teachers] just needed a place where they can come in and ask.


In just two months, her online group expanded to thousands of members who asked and answered questions of each other freely.


Additionally, all but one of the participants described collaborating with fellow online teacherpreneurs (Table 5).


Table 5.  Collaborating With Teacherpreneurs Is Part of Highly Successful and Experienced Online Teacherpreneurs’ Practice

Code

Description

Evidence

   

Developing friendships and networks

The online teacherpreneur builds professional and personal relationships with online teacherpreneur peers that provide both professional and personal support.

“It’s just been so nice to form relationships [with teacherpreneurs] across the country. I’m part of a couple of different mastermind groups . . . where it’s just a safe place to come in and ask a question in the group or bounce some ideas . . . I definitely have had a lot of really close friendships, people that I text with constantly.” (Tia)

Marketing together

The online teacherpreneur works with other online teacherpreneurs to share ideas and marketing burden, through ventures including collaborative blogging, collaborative sales, suggesting their resources to potential buyers, etc.

“If I have a teacher that’s looking for interactive notebooks and I know someone else that does it better than I do, I push them that teacher[preneur]’s way. There is a lot of cross-marketing that goes on that helps everyone.” (Ruby)

Learning together

The online teacherpreneur works with fellow online teacherpreneurs to learn entrepreneurial and technology skills together, through participation in mastermind groups, social media communities, and local in-person meetings.

“[In my mastermind group,] we read books together, listened to podcasts together. . . . It was really nice, especially when I was kind of in the beginning of growing my store to have other people there, because some of them at the time were more experienced sellers than I was.” (Ruby)

Creating together

The online teacherpreneur collaborates with other online teacherpreneurs to create jointly produced content to sell or share freely online. They are particularly cautious and selective about who they collaborate with.

“I [asked my online teacherpreneur friend], “Hey, would you want to partner with me this summer to write some more just non-content-specific blog posts to kind of hit that audience?” And so we just did that . . . our readers hopefully got something out of it.” (Lisa)


They developed friendships and networks both virtually and in person. Tia described being part of a group of teacherpreneur friends across the United States who texted daily. Alexander described a similar situation, sharing, “Sometimes you’ll open your phone and there are like 87 messages” from their group text message chain. Building close virtual friendships with the online teacherpreneurs “you just click with” was a common way for online teacherpreneurs to feel connected to other professionals who “get it.” Although these relationships existed primarily in the online space, they also described how exciting it was to finally meet their virtual friends in person, at education conferences or even on group vacations with teacherpreneur friends.


Online teacherpreneurs also described teacherpreneur business collaborations. Lisa wrote a collaborative blog series with another online teacherpreneur from a different content area. Although it was common to collaborate on blogs and social media, collaborating to create resources was not common. Online teacherpreneurs were cautious to work with others. They felt protective of their ideas and nervous about maintaining high-quality resources. As the coseller team explained, they didn’t want “too many voices” when it came to making decisions. Nonetheless, lower stakes collaborations, such as publicizing colleagues’ blog posts and new TpT resources and pinning their material on Pinterest, were common. Online teacherpreneurs also participated in collaborative promotional giveaways, and they “liked” and commented on one another’s social media posts regularly if they respected their teacherpreneur colleague.


Another aspect of online teacherpreneurs’ collaborations involved learning entrepreneurial and pedagogical skills together. Some participated in a “mastermind group,” comprising a few noncompeting online teacherpreneurs who connected during structured virtual meetings. The group learned technology, entrepreneurial, and pedagogical skills through the ongoing conversations that occurred. A common issue in teacherpreneur collaborations was prioritizing collegiality. Because collaborators were sometimes marketplace competitors and the relationships developed online, Sean said, “[I would] never, ever put myself in a position to be in competition with anyone, nor do I ever put myself in a position to comment on the validity of someone’s product.” Finding a positive and nurturing collaborative experience was important to online teacherpreneurs when learning with peers.


Entrepreneurship


The final theme relating to online teacherpreneurs’ practice was engaging in entrepreneurship (Table 6).


Table 6.  Entrepreneurship Is Part of Highly Successful and Experienced Online Teacherpreneurs’ Practice

Code

Description

Evidence

Marketing

The online teacherpreneur markets their resources, store, and brand in an effort to grow their business.

“I do a lot of Facebook live videos from my classroom, which is something not many teachers are doing. We also do a monthly YouTube show, where we answer questions live and we try to have special guests every now and then. Last year, I had one of my students come.” (Alexander)

Business sense and analytical skills

The online teacherpreneur possesses business skills in data management and goal setting that help their business.

“I think that is where I learned a lot of my business stuff. One of my main jobs there was assessing data and doing statistics and figuring out what is the optimum price to charge for a hotel room on this night verses this night.” (Ruby)

Luck and timing

The online teacherpreneur attributes their success to some degree of luck and also timing of when a new idea or resource is launched.

“There’s some timing involved and there is some luck involved, and so do I make great resources? I think so, I want to, but some of it is just accredited to the time and the different. . . . The market and the Internet, there’s just a lot of things that just kind of lined up too.” (Lisa)

Having help

The online teacherpreneur seeks assistance from trusted others with different expertise to support their business.

“If I want to continue to grow, I’ll just have to hire more people. And have a team. I can’t do it all by myself.” (Sarah)


Marketing one’s brand and one’s resources was at the heart of teacherpreneurs’ entrepreneurial practice. Marketing involved sharing photos and videos of their educational resources “in action” or publicizing occasional discounts and sales on various online platforms. All 10 of the elite online teacherpreneurs reported using Pinterest, and nine said they used Facebook for their marketing efforts. One marketing strategy addressed by several participants was attempting unique approaches for the design and execution of their marketing. As Alexander explained,


 [Online teacherpreneurs] are in this cocoon of these things might work for us because of what we do, but there’s this whole other world of marketing and those kind of things that I think we need to tap into. Why would you do that if that’s what everybody else is doing?


Another marketing approach involved offering promotional giveaways and free support to teachers as a way to also promote their brands. Teacherpreneurs also described the private Facebook groups they ran as a way to “give back” to teachers while building brand recognition. Finally, they invested time in building their personal brands to establish trust with buyers. They used their actual photo rather than a generic logo on their TpT store page, shared details about their personal life and family on social media, and spoke candidly about experiences in their own classroom on their blogs. Only Pamela chose to stay highly anonymous online, citing privacy reasons.


Beyond marketing, many of the online teacherpreneurs indicated that their business sense and analytical skills helped them. Ruby had managed the budget for a local hotel before beginning her teaching career. She used the knowledge she gained about data, budgets, and statistics in that job to inform her TpT business decisions. Online teacherpreneurs also mentioned the idea that successful entrepreneurship involves luck and good timing. Lisa explained, “Do I make great resources? I think so, I want to, but some of it is just accredited to the time and . . . the market and the Internet, there’s just a lot of things that just kind of lined up too.” Some of the participants’ success may be due to getting established on the TpT site when it was in its infancy, given that more established resources seemed to be prioritized in the site’s search algorithm. Although good luck and timing could work in their favor, it could also work against them. Tia shared, “At any moment I always just think, let’s live life right now and be grateful for what we have now though this business. . . . You know, I could nosedive tomorrow and it would be okay. But, I’m just thankful for each and every day.”


Finally, all 10 of the online teacherpreneurs said that they recruited others whom they trusted to help with the business in some way. They hired their spouses, children, teacher friends, parents, and former students to work odd jobs for the business. Two of the online teacherpreneurs had a spouse who worked full time as their business manager so the teacherpreneur could continue to teach while growing their business. Others had hired a virtual assistant or professional who helped run different aspects of their business remotely; as Pamela explained, their work required them be “a little good at everything,” including lesson creation, writing, budgeting, photography, graphic design, and much more.


IMPACTS


The last research question addressed the impacts that teacherpreneurs experienced. Across the interviews, participants discussed impacts relating to their teaching practices, leadership, career, and professional stressors.


Teaching Practice


Teacherpreneurs who still worked in schools (n = 6) believed that their teacherpreneurship made them more reflective, effective, and innovative teachers (Table 7).


Table 7. Teaching Impacts of Highly Successful and Experienced Online Teacherpreneurs

Code

Description

Evidence

Being more reflective

The online teacherpreneur has become more reflective on their teaching practice through blogging and vlogging, resource creation, collaborations with other teachers, and/or workshop/PD creation.

“Blogging and creating materials is a constant reflection on what you’re doing. So because I make so many videos and do so many Facebook Live, I’m constantly watching myself in action. So I’m constantly criticizing myself and improving and growing. So that constant self-reflection has really changed me as a teacher and made me better.” (Alexander)

Being more effective

The online teacherpreneur produces higher quality resources for use in their classroom.

“I’ve learned a lot about sound instructional strategies from the research that comes with trying to make products. That definitely has raised the bar as far as the kind of things that I make and that may be beneficial to my kids. I have a better handle on what works in the classroom than I did before I started this venture. And I’ve just been exposed to a lot more ideas through research, through collaborating with other teachers, and on social media and through the blog and all that than I had been exposed to before I started.” (Ruby)

Being more innovative

The online teacherpreneur believes that online teacherpreneurship enables and encourages them to create, try, and/or spread innovative ideas in their own classroom and school.

“I’m not going to put number 1,724 is the same thing on TPT. What’s going to make mine stand apart? You’re always trying to do something new and a little more innovation. My teaching is definitely that way because of it in a way that it wouldn’t be if that weren’t my mindset of trying to always look at education in a different way.” (Sean)


The first impact to teaching practice was that teacherpreneurs were inspired to reflect more. Alexander explained, “Because I make so many videos [for teacherpreneurship] . . . I’m constantly watching myself in action. So I’m constantly criticizing myself and improving and growing.” Being reflective, along with the act of selling their educational resources publicly, motivated them to revise and perfect their materials. In turn, they believed that they became more effective teachers because their students benefited from more attractive, complete, and accurate lessons. Ruby said,


I have a better handle on what works in the classroom than I did before I started this venture. And I’ve just been exposed to a lot more ideas through research, through collaborating with other teachers, and on social media and through the blog and all that than I had been exposed to before I started [teacherpreneurship].


Beyond creating higher quality materials, teacherpreneurs also indicated that they were motivated to pursue more innovative teaching approaches. Online teacherpreneurship enabled and encouraged them to create, try, and/or spread innovative ideas in their own classroom and school. Sarah said that she was inspired watching “some of the awesome things that people are doing in their classroom” on Instagram. Alternatively, Sean felt that TpT inspired him to seek out completely novel approaches. He shared that he intentionally did not create and post resources similar to others he had seen on TpT. Instead, he would ask himself,


What’s going to make mine stand apart? You’re always trying to do something new and a little more innovation. My teaching is definitely that way because of it in a way that it wouldn’t be if that weren’t my mindset of trying to always look at education in a different way.


Overall, teacherpreneurs still in the classroom said that they became more reflective, they produced higher quality materials, and they tried innovative pedagogical approaches in their classrooms.


Leadership


The second theme addressed impacts to teacher leadership. Teacher leadership has been described as occurring when teachers take on additional roles in their schools and/or districts beyond their classroom teaching, serving as mentors, instructional coaches, and supporters of school decision makers to improve teaching and learning (Wenner & Campbell, 2016; York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Online teacherpreneurs said that they were engaging in informal online teacher leadership by advancing their ideals and impacting teachers and students (Table 8).


Table 8. Leadership Impacts of Highly Successful and Experienced Online Teacherpreneurs

Code

Description

Evidence

Advancing their ideals

The online teacherpreneur has a real vision for where the teaching profession should be heading or is a vocal ambassador for a particular teaching approach. They are actively pursuing their agenda for impacting the teaching profession.

“[I started a teaching blog because I] wanted to add things I disagreed with or things that I would do differently . . . then it was trying to find big connections with other teachers who are also blogging.” (Sarah)

Impacting teachers and students

The online teacherpreneur appreciates the wide impact they have on teachers and students all over the world who use their resources and ideas and collaborate with them online.

“It is very rewarding to know that you are helping other teachers and in turn you are helping their students on a scale that I really couldn’t do in my own building.” (Ruby)



Like traditional teacher leaders who act as mentors for teacher peers at their schools, online teacherpreneurship allowed participants to advance their ideas, resources, and approaches that they believed were good for education. Sarah said she felt compelled to start a teaching blog that was intended to bring teachers together to “find big connections” on project-based learning approaches, which was a passion for her.


Teacherpreneurs also believed that they impacted teachers and students. The primary purpose of teacher leadership is to help teachers to do their job better and ultimately to improve student learning (Wenner & Campbell, 2016; York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Online teacherpreneurs described receiving messages and photos from teachers that showed how teachers and students used their resources or implemented their ideas. Ruby said, “It is very rewarding to know that you are helping other teachers and in turn you are helping their students on a scale that I really couldn’t do in my own building.” By sharing their resources and providing support on how to use them, teacherpreneurs felt that they stood to positively impact both teachers and students.  


Career


Online teacherpreneurs reported three impacts relating to their career: financial gain, more career satisfaction, and the question of whether to leave or stay in the classroom (Table 9).


Table 9.  Career Impacts of Highly Successful and Experienced Online Teacherpreneurs

Code

Description

Evidence

Financial gains

The online teacherpreneur benefits financially from their work.

“I’m making more money now than I did teaching. That’s nice.” (Mark)


More career satisfaction

The online teacherpreneur is more satisfied being able to both teach and lead online.

“I actually find [online teacherpreneurship] more satisfying than my regular paying [classroom] job. Because it’s a creative outlet for me. It is very rewarding to know that you are helping other teachers and in turn you are helping their students on a scale that I really couldn’t do in my own building.” (Ruby)

Leaving or staying in the profession

Online teacherpreneurship may enable teachers to leave the classroom, while in other cases, it inspires them to stay.

“So, what this whole teacherpreneur journey has done is it’s shown me that it does not have to be just the old school, ‘Mrs. Jones taught second grade for 40 years in that one school and that’s all she did.’ I can be doing so much more and still stay grounded in the classroom. So, it’s more than just a classroom. I’m running a business based on the vocation that I love. And it’s making my teaching career incredibly sustainable because it’s not static. It’s always evolving.” (Sean)


The first career impact was financial gains. Participants had all earned more than $100,000 at the time of the study. Their profits enabled them or their significant others to take time off, work a reduced load, or quit their jobs to run the business. Working less at a traditional teaching job meant that they had more time with their children and increased work-life satisfaction in general. They also described using their online teacherpreneur profits for extra vacations, a new home office, and home remodels.


A related career impact was an increased sense of career satisfaction. This topic was addressed by all the online teacherpreneurs who had left the classroom (n = 4). They were more professionally satisfied as teacherpreneurs because of the increased autonomy, the joy they experienced creating and sharing their ideas, and the pride they felt when teachers used and liked their resources. Ruby, who was still in the classroom, mirrored this same sentiment,


I actually find [online teacherpreneurship] more satisfying than my regular paying [classroom] job. Because it’s a creative outlet for me. It is very rewarding to know that you are helping other teachers and in turn you are helping their students on a scale that I really couldn’t do in my own building.


The final career impact involved the conundrum of whether to leave or stay in the profession. All four of the teacherpreneurs who no longer worked as teachers were adamant that leaving teaching was a positive career decision. Alternatively, the six teacherpreneurs still teaching said they had no plans to leave the profession because they genuinely enjoyed classroom teaching, were committed to their teaching career, and valued the steady paycheck and health care benefits. A few said it was essential for online teacherpreneurs to continue to teach to produce relevant and effective resources and to be a reliable voice and support for teacher peers. On the other hand, Lisa, who had left the classroom, explained that leaving the classroom gave her more time to research best practices, meticulously revise resources, produce more resources, and mentor teachers than she would have if she continued with a full-time teaching job.


Professional Stressors


Elite online teacherpreneurs viewed their teacherpreneurship experience very positively; however, a few stressors were brought up. The first stressor was avoiding comparing oneself to other teacherpreneurs. It was common for teacherpreneurs to observe other elite teacherpreneurs’ social media activity, to get alerts when they posted new resources to the TpT website, and to keep tabs via the TpT weekly Top 100 sellers ranking (this feature of the site was recently deactivated). Almost all participants discussed trying to avoid comparing themselves to others. As Elizabeth explained, “Teacher [buyers] want different things, and people make things differently. So, I guess they’ll choose what’s going to best fit them.”


A related stressor was the issue of conflicts with other online teacherpreneurs. We did not actively probe on this topic, but participants described conflicts regarding copyright violations, philosophical differences, and/or failed collaborative ventures between teacherpreneurs. Several teacherpreneurs described having to confront “copycat” sellers who sold material on TpT that was copied from them.


Another stressor was keeping up with all the facets of online teacherpreneurship. Teacherpreneurs felt overwhelmed with the amount and variety of tasks they wanted to pursue to make their business be successful. Pamela explained,


I had to learn how to do a website. I had to learn how to blog. . . . Then this whole thing with the Pinterest paying and then now Photoshop or Photobucket you have to pay for that, so now I have to go through my blog and change all my photos . . . I can’t keep up.


Teacherpreneurship required entrepreneurial skills related to business management, marketing, branding, resource development, and customer support, among other related areas. Nearly all these tasks took place online and required technologies that were often changing. Although the elite teacherpreneurs felt confident learning new skills and technologies, they still felt overwhelmed by the constant need to keep up.


An additional professional stressor was marketplace uncertainty. Teacherpreneurs described worrying about the longevity of their success. Several attributed their success to “God’s will” or, more simply, accepted that it was beyond their control. The final professional stressor was self-doubt. Mark was creating resources for a content area and grade level that he had never taught. He expressed concern about producing high-quality resources and maintaining buyer confidence. Noelle explained that she can “get really worked up . . . anxious, worried” when she gets negative feedback from teacher buyers. Though her initial thought might be, “Okay, maybe my ideas aren’t good enough,” she tried override that self-doubt by remembering, “One teacher could do it different from another teacher.”


In sum, the findings shed new light on the characteristics of online teacherpreneurs, the school environments in which they work, the aspects involved in their practice, and the impacts they experience.


LIMITATIONS


The primary limitation of this study was that the results were restricted to the beliefs of 10 elite online teacherpreneurs. The sample was relatively homogeneous in that participants were White and between 30 and 50 years old. We made multiple attempts to recruit teacherpreneurs of color to participate and were disappointed that none agreed. We have begun to address these limitations with the second phase of this study (Shelton & Archambault, 2019), in which we surveyed a large sample of mainstream online teacherpreneurs to understand perspectives of the teacherpreneur population more generally. The survey sample included participants of color and participants of a broader age range, which will provide a more complete description of online teacherpreneurship.  


Another limitation was that the results of this study represent our own interpretation of interview data and could yield different results if analyzed by a different researcher with different objectives (Creswell, 2014; Tracy, 2013). The interview data were robust, and we opted to present selected portions that aligned with the a priori themes of teacherpreneurship, teacher leadership, and entrepreneurship so that we could connect the findings with past research. We remained open to unpredicted themes as well. A benefit of using qualitative interviews for this exploratory work was that it allowed us to gain nuanced data and authentic stories, while we were also able to probe for more information from participants about topics we found interesting, complex, or odd. This was a useful approach given that the study was exploratory and descriptive in nature.


A broader limitation is that to date, we have not collected observational data or perspectives of other stakeholders such as teachers, students, or school leaders. Collecting data of this nature was beyond the scope of this study, but this is an area to explore in the future. In spite of these concerns, our study focusing on elite TpT sellers allowed us to gain an initial understanding of online teacherpreneurship from the perspectives of those who may know it best.


DISCUSSION


This study used qualitative interviews of elite online teacherpreneurs to understand this practice and its most accomplished practitioners. Findings addressed the characteristics, school environments, practices, and impacts of online teacherpreneurs.


The first takeaway from this study points to new understandings regarding elite online teacherpreneurs as people. Elite online teacherpreneurs conveyed a passion for helping and validating teachers through the resources they created and their relationships with teacher buyers. They described themselves as hardworking, organized, creative, and risk-taking, which are characteristics evidenced in entrepreneurs (Borasi & Finnigan, 2010; Shane, 2013) and teacher leaders (Wilson, 1993). To rise to the top 1% of TpT sellers, these teacherpreneurs “showed up” consistently, meticulously, and strategically.


Our second finding demonstrated that when elite online teacherpreneurs worked in supportive schools, they experienced a strong sense of professional satisfaction, yet most participants kept their school work and TpT work separate. This may be a wise decision given most schools operate under the Copyright Act of 1976, so materials teachers create under the scope of their job description legally become the intellectual property of their employer (Copyright Act of 1976, 2016). The extent to which this law is enforced is unknown, but the threat of teacherpreneurs being sued is serious. Although most participants were not open about their teacherpreneurship at school, those who were open felt more professionally satisfied. This finding aligns with Simon and Johnson’s (2015) work with teachers generally, showing that teacher satisfaction and retention are directly related to feeling supported by school leadership and colleagues. We also know that teacher leaders thrive in schools where they are encouraged to take initiative (Katzenmeyer & Moller, 2009) and where colleagues respect them as leaders and experts (Little, 1998). To retain teacherpreneurs in the classroom, openness and supportive schools may be key.


Our third finding relates to the practice of online teacherpreneurship. We learned that online teacherpreneurship involves much more than selling materials online. In addition to creating resources, elite teacherpreneurs engage in virtual collaborations with teachers and fellow online teacherpreneurs. As our previous research indicates, online teacherpreneurs have rich and fulfilling online professional networks with teacherpreneur colleagues (Shelton & Archambault, 2018). The current study adds to this finding, showing that elite online teacherpreneurs are also active in teacher networks, where they act as facilitators, thought leaders, and consistent participants. Every study participant reported using Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest to share new ideas with teachers, provide messages of support, advertise their resources, and challenge ways of thinking. Our findings extend past research showing that the lesson materials of online teacherpreneurs are prolific on Pinterest (Archambault et al., 2019; Carpenter et al., 2016; Hu et al., 2018; Pittard, 2017; Schroeder et al., 2019), adding that elite teacherpreneurs use other social media sites to connect with teachers and that their connections are highly personal and supportive in nature. Teacherpreneurs’ continual participation may play a role in making these sometimes fragile online communities thrive (Wenger, 1998), while facilitating teacher professional development through social media (Carpenter & Krutka, 2014).


Our final finding provided empirical evidence that online teacherpreneurs experience numerous benefits. Elite online teacherpreneurs experienced significant financial gain and expressed satisfaction in having their materials used in other classrooms. This finding aligns with Pittard (2017), who addressed the empowerment that teacherpreneurs gain by producing curriculum for which someone is willing to spend money. Monetary gains and professional satisfaction were two topics that came up in every interview. In some cases, teacherpreneur income enabled them to leave (or reduce) their classroom positions, freeing up time for their children and families. These elite online teacherpreneurs could earn a decent living while also caring for their families—which many working women teachers are not able to do (Apple, 2013).


Another benefit is the leadership that elite online teacherpreneurs are providing for educators. Through their blogs, social media, and TpT products, teacherpreneurs share their teaching ideas and classroom approaches while supporting teachers in implementing their vision. The extent to which teacherpreneurs’ ideas, approaches, lessons, and curriculum are innovative, appropriate, or effective is unknown and an important topic for future study. However, their efforts are informed by their own training as educators and years of classroom practice, and teacherpreneurs’ virtual leadership may be a way to push back against the marginalization of teachers’ opinions and expertise in the field of education (Apple, 2013; Hess, 2006).


In addition, improvements to teacherpreneurs’ own teaching were reported. Being a teacherpreneur made them take time to be more critical and reflective of their own teaching and teaching materials and inspired them to try new approaches. These findings align with past research showing that entrepreneurial activity has been associated with being more innovative (Bellu, 1988) and spending more time thinking about opportunities (Gilad et al., 1989). The act of running an education-related business may actually inspire or encourage development in teachers’ craft. Future work investigating this finding beyond self-report data would be necessary to understand the extent to which teacherpreneurship impacts practice.


IMPLICATIONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS


When considering this study’s implications for teacher educators, school and district leaders, online teacherpreneurs, aspiring online teacherpreneurs, and teachers, we find ourselves returning to two questions again and again. First, we wonder about the quality of online teacherpreneurs’ materials. Hu and colleagues (2018) found that the quality of math materials curated by teachers on Pinterest was questionable. Almost anyone can post a lesson online, regardless of quality or professional credibility. The elite online teacherpreneurs in this study were highly educated and experienced teachers who said they went to great lengths to design materials using research-based best practices. They tested and revised their resources in classrooms and pursued continual professional development on educational research and trends, but amid teacherpreneurs’ best intentions, the objective quality of their resources is unknown. The quality of resources shared by the mainstream online teacherpreneur population may be even more questionable, given that these individuals presumably have less experience. We are in the process of pursuing future work investigating this very question.


We see an opportunity in university teacher education programs and school/district continuing education to help teachers develop skills in media literacy and deepen their understanding of their curriculum and learning goals so they can identify high-quality educational materials. Another opportunity is for online educational marketplaces such as TpT. If these sites require more detailed and validated information about sellers’ credentials, potential buyers may better understand the qualifications of the teacher-authors from whom they purchase.


The second topic we have found ourselves returning to is the concern that online teacherpreneurship relies on teachers paying their own money to purchase online educational resources. This practice is unequitable (Pittard, 2017) and unfair to teachers. However, it also seems unfair to ask online teacherpreneurs to give their resources away. Elite online teacherpreneurs told us that their work was a serious, legitimate business, requiring time, effort, and inventiveness. Schools and districts need to consider reallocating budget funds so that teachers may purchase the curricular materials they want and need. “TpT for Schools” is a new feature that allows teachers to request resources so that school leaders can approve (or deny) the purchase of the resource using school funds (TpT, 2019). As Apple (2013) expressed, schools need to trust teachers to select the materials they need, and teacher education and professional development must prepare teachers to make effective curricular decisions. When schools give teachers more agency over their curricular choices, this may begin to dismantle the neoliberal system that controls teachers’ teaching via prepackaged, standardized, and systematized curriculum (Apple, 2013).


CONCLUSION


The current study gives an in-depth look at the emerging practice of online teacherpreneurship and sheds light on those educators who have found success in the online education marketplace. We found that online teacherpreneurship provides a creative outlet, a way to make a bigger impact beyond one’s classroom walls, and a way for teachers to be compensated for their expertise and hard work. It also is an avenue for teachers to be connected to the larger conversation regarding education beyond their classroom walls. As emerging educational thought leaders and influencers, online teacherpreneurs carry the burden of sharing academic materials and ideas that are of high quality. The teachers who use teacherpreneurs’ materials and the schools, districts, and universities who support them also share in this responsibility.


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APPENDIX


APPENDIX A: INTERVIEW QUESTIONS

What are the impacts of online teacherpreneurship?

1)

What have been some of your biggest benefits as a teacherpreneur?

2)

What have been some of your biggest challenges as a teacherpreneur?

3)

If you’re still in the classroom, do you believe your teacherpreneurship impacts your teaching? If so, how? If not, why?

What are the characteristics of online teacherpreneurs?

1)

Which of your personal qualities do you think make you successful as a teacherpreneur?

2)

Which of your personal qualities do you think make it hard to be a successful teacherpreneur?

3)

What skills do you believe make you successful as a teacherpreneur?

4)

What skills do you wish you had as a teacherpreneur?

5)

What skills have you developed as a teacherpreneur?

What environmental conditions influence online teacherpreneurship?

1)

What other factors (beyond the personal qualities you discussed earlier) contribute to your teacherpreneur success?


2)

What other factors make it hard to be a successful teacherpreneur? Consider your school, home, family, and other business influences.

a)

Classroom teachers: What about your school helps you and what hinders you as a teacherpreneur?


3)

What do sales and buyer feedback mean for you as a teacherpreneur?

In what practices do online teacherpreneurs engage? What challenges do online teacherpreneurs encounter?

1)

One concern voiced about teacher-created materials is that they lack consistent quality. Can you speak to this?


2)

Another concern is that teacherpreneurs profit from fellow teachers. What do you think about this?


3)

Can you talk about your experience with collaboration and competition among your teacherpreneur peers?


4)

Overall, how has your teacherpreneur experience influenced your career goals and trajectory as an educator?


APPENDIX B: CODING OF AN EXAMPLE INTERVIEW PORTION

Interviewer: So what about your home school? It sounds like they embrace this whole thing, but have there been any issues or positive things that have come relating to your school?


Participant: My principal is amazing and he’s so supportive of everything that I do. He thinks it’s a great reflection of the school and the district. So he’s 100% supportive. Having a supportive administrator who allows me to try new things and to do what I do makes a big difference and having parents and families in the classroom that are also supportive. (School environment: Supportive school)


Interviewer: Yes, great. And then what has been challenging? What things about your environment make it hard to be a good teacherpreneur?


Participant: Colleagues who are not supportive. That’s colleagues in my building and that’s teacherpreneurs who aren’t supportive or who aren’t kind and friendly towards you. (School environment: Ambivalent school; Impact: Professional stressor: Teacherpreneur conflicts)


Interviewer: Okay, and so more in the online space, have you had big benefits or big conflicts with other teacherpreneurs or with teachers that you’ve interacted with?


Participant: Both. I mean, 95% of the interactions that I have with teachers are positive and amazing. What I found with teachers is that they just need to be validated. So much of our conversation with teachers is, “How would you do this?” I’m like, “Well, this is how I do it,” and they’re like, “Oh, well, that’s what I do.” Or, “That’s what I was thinking. Okay good.” They just need to be validated. (Practice: Collaborating with teachers; Characteristic: Helpful) Which I think speaks to a serious problem in our schools is that teachers aren’t validated and we’re not supported and seen as professionals. So that’s I think where some of that leadership comes in is that people look to me for that. (Characteristic: Helpful; Impact: Teacher leadership)


Interviewer: Yes.


Participant: As far as the negative on the teacherpreneur side. There’s a lot. It’s there. It’s hidden pretty well until you show up at a conference and you all get in the same space. You start to see the cliques and you start to hear the sniping and the back and forth. Part of that is because the people that have left the classroom, it’s become about the money. . . . There’s also the pressure to do all the things, what people see on social media. That fear of missing out or, “Oh, they’re doing that. Oh, I got to do that. Oh, I got to do that.” So there’s that side of it too. (Impact: Professional stressor: Comparing yourself to other teacherpreneurs)


Interviewer: Yes.


Participant: But overall, you couldn’t ask for a more positive experience.






Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 7, 2020, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23322, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 1:27:32 PM

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About the Author
  • Catharyn Shelton
    Northern Arizona University
    E-mail Author
    CATHARYN C. SHELTON, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of education at Northern Arizona University. She studies how teachers lead, learn, and collaborate in virtual spaces. A recent publication on the topic of teacherpreneurs can be found at: Shelton, C. C., & Archambault, L. M. (2019). Who are online teacherpreneurs and what do they do? A survey of content creators on TeachersPayTeachers.com. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 51(4), 398–414. doi:10.1080/15391523.2019.1666757.
  • Leanna Archambault
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    LEANNA ARCHAMBAULT, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of learning design and technologies in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Her research areas include teacher preparation for online and blended classrooms, the use of innovative technologies to improve learning outcomes, and sustainability literacy for preservice and in-service teachers.
 
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