Why Did We Stop Hearing About the Teachers Making Millions

It was 2012, and Kristin Rivera was going through a difficult time.

Her husband had lost his job, leaving Rivera to provide for her family of four on her modest income as an elementary school teacher. They foreclosed on their Georgia home and moved into a rental.

The Riveras were struggling. With an infant and a toddler to care for, they needed more money. A close friend mentioned an online marketplace where teachers could sell their original classroom materials to other educators. This friend had even read an article about someone who made big money from their sales and became “a million-dollar teacher.”

“We couldn’t survive on my teacher salary at all,” Rivera remembers. So she decided to give it a shot. She uploaded a few of her favorite materials to Teachers Pay Teachers and waited to see what would happen.

When she earned her first $30, Rivera was relieved. This could cover our electric bill, she thought. Then the money started pouring in. Within a year, she was paying the family’s rent with her income from Teachers Pay Teachers. Within two years, she was on pace to earn more than her teacher’s salary—which, at the time, was around $45,000, she recalls.

Ten years later, Rivera is among the top 10 percent of sellers on the platform. “I’m able to do things that I’ve never imagined, as a teacher. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams,” she says.

The additional income allowed her to leave the classroom altogether—she hasn’t taught in a school since 2014, though she has continued to create and upload new resources to her online store. It also freed her husband of the need to get a job. Instead, they homeschooled their kids together for a time. It has allowed her to help her own mother financially, to afford a weight-loss surgery not covered by insurance, to experience concerts and comedy shows and vacations that are unattainable for many classroom educators.

In short, Teachers Pay Teachers changed Rivera’s life. It not only pulled her out of a tough spot but actually catapulted her into an entirely different socioeconomic status.

Kristin Rivera
Kristin Rivera of TPT’s “One Stop Teacher Shop.” (Courtesy of Rivera)

Rivera’s story is hopeful and heartening, but it isn’t representative of a typical seller’s experience on Teachers Pay Teachers.

While some sellers have struck proverbial gold through the sales of their educational resources on TPT—as the company is more commonly known—more teachers’ sales are unpredictable, amounting only to a bit of extra pocket change.

When the company was founded in 2006, TPT sought to help millions of teachers find materials and lesson plans for their classes—materials that, in founder Paul Edelman’s mind, must already exist, but had no way of reaching the right audience. The idea took off.

A few years later, in 2012, TPT revealed that a teacher on the platform had earned more than $1 million in profits. News coverage of that savvy seller went wild. Then, the company announced, another educator had reached the milestone. As of 2015, there were 12 “millionaires” thanks to Teachers Pay Teachers.

Today, more than 300 teachers can claim that status, having earned at least $1 million in profits from their online stores, according to the company. Some of those teachers have earned tens or even twenties of millions of dollars from their sales. So why did the pace of news stories declaring such successes slow to a trickle, and then virtually stop?

Asked in an interview why TPT stopped showcasing their millionaires, CEO Joe Holland danced around the question (and acknowledged, in real time, that he was doing so).

Collectively, teacher-authors on the platform have earned $1.5 billion in take-home profits from selling resources on TPT. But those dollars are spread across a community of sellers that has grown so big it could fill a few professional football stadiums.

In reality, the average seller is bringing in low single-digit thousands annually, says Holland—a meaningful amount of money, but not enough to quit their day jobs, and certainly not enough to earn the “millionaire” moniker.

The idea of a teacher amassing unforeseen fortunes can be a welcome, refreshing narrative around the topic of educator compensation—particularly in America, where it is almost universally acknowledged that teachers are underpaid, sometimes woefully so. But it’s not hard to imagine that, after a few years of touting their greatest success stories, leaders at TPT began to see the profits of their top sellers as more aspirational than achievable. And besides, was that even the goal of the company—to turn teachers into millionaires?

Far from it, says Holland.

The Full Gamut of Success Stories

More than 185,000 people have made a sale on Teachers Pay Teachers in the last 12 months, Holland notes.

“We look at those as success stories,” he says. “We look at all those and say, ‘Hey, you’ve had an impact outside the classroom,’ whether it’s 10,000 sales or one sale. Any sale by teacher-authors is a win.”

Holland acknowledges that TPT exists, and has become a household name among educators, because of certain realities in the teaching profession. Namely, that teachers are equipped with inadequate resources and compensation for what’s asked of them.

He elaborates: On the buyer side, TPT connects teachers—often early-career teachers—to materials that can help them in their classrooms, whether by saving them money, time or both. (TPT has more than 7 million users, including, the company estimates, 85 percent of all U.S. K-12 teachers.)

On the seller side, it rewards teachers financially for the expertise they’ve acquired, ultimately helping to keep them in the profession in many cases, Holland explains. (Though for some, like Rivera, it can be a ticket out.)

“We love the incentive that gives and the way it changes their lives,” he says.

In rare cases, it can change their lives in huge ways.

Bryce Sizemore, a kindergarten teacher in Dallas and owner of The Teaching Texan, was able to pursue adoption and then take a year-and-a-half away from the classroom to stay home with his son because of the additional income from his TPT store. Sizemore and his husband are now pursuing surrogacy for their second child—only possible, he says, because of TPT.

Greg Coleman, owner of Mr. Elementary Math, who left the classroom in 2017 to pursue his store full-time, has used his profits to pay off student loans and car debt, take vacations and go out to eat frequently. Now, he’s saving for an early retirement.

Greg Coleman
Teacher-author Greg Coleman. (Courtesy of Coleman)

But more often, Holland says, TPT sales have a more understated impact for teachers, like covering their next tank of gas, giving them a bit of extra cash to build out an emergency fund, or allowing them to feel good about an occasional Starbucks purchase.

“Whether they make $1 or that high-end number, that feeling of fulfillment is undeniable for every teacher-author,” Holland says.

Seeking Financial Freedom — and Validation

Erika B. Tegard first opened her TPT store, Dual Language Oasis, in October 2020. She and her husband are both elementary school teachers in Matthews, North Carolina, and between their two public school salaries, there is little left over each month after expenses.

For years, Tegard spent plenty of her own money purchasing materials from other sellers on TPT. Then she saw a sponsored post in her Facebook feed about how TPT helps teachers become CEOs. It was enticing, so she figured she’d try it, uploading some of the Spanish-language materials she had already created for her third graders.

That first year was spotty, but she made a few sales here and there. Even $20 felt like a victory, she says. It could justify a rare indulgence: a sweet treat, or a cosmetic product.

By the middle of 2021, Tegard began to take her shop more seriously, spending extra time on each resource she uploaded, investing in social media promotion, updating past resources to be higher quality. She has been averaging about $50 per month in profits this year, and in October, she had her best month yet, earning $139. Tegard, like others interviewed for this story, pays for the “premium seller” membership, which for $59.95 a year allows sellers to keep 80 percent of their sales. Basic sellers keep 55 percent.

“When I passed $100, it was a big step,” Tegard shares. “I never thought I was going to get there.”

She knows that other people do better, and that some teachers’ shops have earned them a fortune. But she is proud of her progress, an accomplishment in its own right.

Erika Tegard
Erika B. Tegard with her husband, both of whom are teachers in North Carolina. (Courtesy of Tegard)

“Both me and my husband, we don’t make that much money,” says Tegard, who is originally from Chile and moved to North Carolina eight years ago. “I’m not saying that we’re poor. We live decently. But sometimes we’re kind of tight on money. We want to have more independence, economically, and not live paycheck by paycheck.”

What she wants from her online shop, ultimately, is financial freedom. If she goes into a retail store and sees a pair of shoes she likes, she would like to have the option to purchase them. When a relative’s birthday rolls around, she wants to have enough disposable income to buy them a gift.

“We were very tight in June and July,” Tegard says, noting that she and her husband don’t get paid from the school during those months. “It was nice to have that extra money. … I know it’s not that much, but it feels good.”

For both Rivera and Tegard, the motivation to sign up and sell for TPT was money. They weren’t making enough from their teacher salaries, and they were looking for ways to supplement their income.

That was not quite the case for Brianne Ferreiro, known on TPT as the Crafty Science Teacher.

Ferreiro opened her shop in 2018, shortly after earning a graduate degree in curriculum and instruction. “I wanted more for myself,” she explains. “There’s not really room to grow as a teacher unless you want to become an administrator, and that wasn’t something I wanted to do.”

Her sales took off pretty immediately. She attributes some of that success to her use of Instagram to share and promote her resources. “It validated me as a teacher, sharing what I would do in the classroom with other teachers,” she says. “I wanted something from the outside world versus what I’ve had in the district.”

Brianne Ferreiro
Brianne Ferreiro with her husband. (Courtesy of Ferreiro)

For the last two-and-a-half years, Ferreiro’s profits from TPT have been like a second salary. She’s consistently bringing in $100 a day from her online store, she says. Some days, it’s closer to $200.

That money helped Ferreiro pay for her daughter’s child care program and, later, preschool education. Now, it’s allowing her and her husband to provide the type of life for their daughter that they always dreamed of, without financial worry.

The Secret to Success?

That, really, is the goal of TPT, Holland says of Ferreiro’s experience. Not to create millionaires, per se, but to alleviate the financial pressure that so many teachers feel just by virtue of being in the profession, living on a modest income. And better for them to be making that extra income by monetizing their existing skills and expertise in education, he says, than to be doing outside jobs like driving for Uber, selling for multi-level marketing companies, bartending or working in retail.

The risk of seeking that income from an online marketplace like TPT, versus an hourly wage job in the service industry, is that it can be somewhat unreliable. Some seasons, like back-to-school, are more lucrative than others, with lulls in between. And some shops just sort of flop, without any real explanation.

Of the seven educators EdSurge interviewed whose sales from TPT place them in the top 10 percent on the platform, most attribute their success to a combination of hard work and luck. On the one hand, they put hours each week into the resources they upload to their stores and the marketing they do to promote those resources. Some even have staff to help them grow their businesses. But many expressed that their initial success happened somewhat automatically.

Holland says that, in some situations, timing can play a part. Teachers who built out digital resources in 2018 or 2019, for example, might have had limited success until the pandemic in early 2020 caused their sales to explode as everything moved online. Other teachers experience big booms in demand based on broader conversations happening in education, he notes, adding that antiracism resources became popular in summer 2020, and social-emotional learning materials are a big one right now.

“A lot of it is finding unmet needs,” Holland says.

That comes naturally to many sellers, since that’s often what inspires them to start their stores in the first place.

That was the case for Liliana Diaz-Vasquez, a speech language pathologist in Chicago Public Schools who owns the TPT store Bilingual Speechie. When she was first starting out in her career, Diaz-Vasquez says she spent “countless hours” scouring the internet for materials to use with her primarily Spanish-speaking student population. From what she could tell, the types of resources she needed didn’t really exist. So, as many educators have had to do over the years, she created some herself.

A couple of years later, a colleague asked to take a look at what she’d been using with her students. Then other speech language pathologists in the district asked to see her materials, excited that Diaz-Vasquez had created high-quality therapy resources in Spanish. Someone suggested that she put it on TPT, so other educators might see it and benefit.

Liliana Diaz-Vasquez
Liliana Diaz-Vasquez with students during a field trip to a science museum. (Courtesy of Diaz-Vasquez)

“Bilingual Speechie” has been a boon, in part, because so little else like it exists, at a time when an increasing number of U.S. schools are serving Spanish-speaking and other linguistically and culturally diverse students. A teacher in Honduras even contacted her, thanking her for the assessment tool she created.

Diaz-Vasquez’s TPT store is illustrative of how TPT helps those who both buy and sell on the platform, Holland says. “TPT exists because teaching is a profession where they’re underpaid, they’re overwhelmed, they’re under-supported. … We view TPT as part of the solution,” he adds, and says he hopes the platform is a place “where educators can feel connected, empowered and not alone.”