The coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we know it, mandating we sequester ourselves to slow the spread of a potentially deadly illness that has killed hundreds of thousands of people globally. 

That reality presents a whole host of complications to everyday life. One major issue: How do we educate our kids?

The initial spike in COVID-19 cases this spring forced nearly all classes to move online. Parents had to pivot overnight to being educators for their kids. Teachers had to make dramatic shifts in how they do things. That reality left folks across the country scrambling for resources.

A surge of new customers soon flooded the online lesson plan market. A lesson plan market is exactly what it sounds like: think Etsy or Amazon but for school resources. Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT) is the most popular such site — a place where teacher-sellers can offer their lesson plans and resources — and it’s had a massive uptick in business since the pandemic hit. 

In data provided to Mashable, TPT reported it saw a 20 percent increase in weekly spending per buyer, year over year. Searches for distance learning shot up 1,400 percent at its peak in mid-to-late March. 

“Teachers in the last couple of months have been dealing with more issues than they normally do,” Joe Holland, TPT’s CEO, said in a phone interview. “Teaching kids in a distance learning environment is incredibly challenging.” 

“Teaching kids in a distance learning environment is incredibly challenging.” 

But lesson plans and resources that work in a traditional classroom don’t always cut it in a virtual learning environment. 

“I have seen firsthand a number of teachers who said, ‘You know what, this is my original thing that I created for this class — I see that a certain number of kids just aren’t getting it and I’m not there [to help]. How do I use technology and more resources to differentiate and meet [kids’] specific needs?'” Holland said. 

The lesson plan marketplace can be lucrative — the market is worth tens of millions. According to TPT, it had more than 6.5 million unique users in the last year and more than 150,000 sellers. It can also make teacher-authors serious cash. As Mashable wrote in 2012, one kindergarten teacher earned $700,000 in just on year selling plans. 

Megan Polk, a seller on TPT who has taught for 14 years, said what started as a side-hustle five years ago has now turned into a business that far surpasses her teacher salary. In an interview, Polk, who works as a reading interventionist at a school in Houston, described the rush for teachers (and sellers) to quickly shift to digital resources when the pandemic hit and schools went remote.

“I quickly tried to think about some of my best sellers or favorites, making them digital, [and] offering those as like free updates,” Polk said. “It kind of took me out of the way of like ‘I’m out here to make a dollar’ …  because we knew how much teachers were struggling.”

Polk's TPT store.

Polk’s TPT store.

Polk isn’t the only seller to quickly shift gears and move towards resources intended use on a device. Typically, you might see printable worksheets, classroom decorations, or physical materials (like pre-made posters) to help engage students. Many of those items are not much good when no one is physically together. 

So when the pandemic hit, TPT created a tool that would allow teacher-authors to convert printable resources into digital PDFs. According to the company, around 30 to 35 percent of newly created resources have been digital during the pandemic. Before COVID-19, that figure was just 10 percent. 

But Polk also said she had to think about creating resources for teachers with students who might not have access to lots of technology.

“So my real shift went to thinking about, OK, this is how you can use the printable resources you have,” Polk said. She took videos and photos of herself that would basically walk teachers through how she would do a lesson.

That’s a real struggle teachers have faced during this time: How do you get students to learn while you’re not in the same room.

“It’s going to be a continual challenge for these teachers, it’s going to be a job continually harder than it even always has been,” said Holland, TPT CEO. “And we expect that we’re going to continue to adapt with teachers to figure out now to meet their needs.” 

Dr. Vicki Jacobs, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, described the challenge of engaging students while making sure their socio-emotional needs are being met during a crisis. And while some in education have been squeamish about lesson plan marketplaces — what if teachers are using it to shirk their responsibilities — Dr. Jacobs said the real issue is making sure educators use every resource with a well-defined end-goal in mind. 

“Buying lesson plans and curriculum, to me the challenge is to figure out whether or not they serve your purposes. The purposes have got to come first,” Dr. Jacobs said in a phone interview.   

In essence, teachers need to have a plan for the lesson plans beyond having a resource from a website that looks neat. 

“We just need to make sure that kids are safe and cared for, and don’t lose those school connections.”

“A good, and usually seasoned, teacher has the intuition to say, I want my students to get to Point A. I want them to learn and I want to use this kind of learning,” Dr. Jacobs said. “So then I can go and take a look at what I might borrow in terms of activities or whatever in these plans that will support my intentionality.”

But these days — you know, with there being no actual classrooms — teachers aren’t the only instructors. Parents and guardians have had to step-in and act as de-facto teaching assistants. They’ve also had to figure out how to help educate their kids while also, in many cases, working full time, putting food on the table, and juggling the many other stresses of a pandemic. It’s a lot. 

Laura Collins, principal of the elementary program at the Stanley G. Falk School in Buffalo, New York, has said handout and physical materials pulled from TPT  have proven really useful for parents. Collins’ school is a relatively small, special education school, which means they’ve actually been able to drive around and pass out physical worksheets to students’ families. 

“I think that’s been a huge thing that parents have been the most grateful for,” Collins said in an interview. “Because oftentimes, if you have one child or two children — from the feedback I’ve gotten — parents are quite overwhelmed with the online learning. So to maybe be able to work with one child on the computer, while the other child’s doing some kind of experiment, or something that they can work on more independently, has been really helpful to parents.”

That’s likely one of the many reasons that some parents are taking things into their own hands and buying these teaching materials themselves. According to TPT data, the number of parents joining the platform doubled at its peak in mid-to-late March. That makes sense. If you’re suddenly running a homeschool out of your kitchen, then you’re likely going to want materials from educators who have years of experience. 

TPT, or any single resource, isn’t solving the massive challenges presented by the coronavirus crisis. But it’s become an important instrument in a toolbox for parents and educators who are doing their best to approximate a normal learning environment.

“We just need to make sure that kids are safe and cared for, and don’t lose those school connections,” Collins said. 

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