November is the month of gratitude, but I think we all realize that gratitude is something we should practice all year round. I’m preparing to publish this post, a post that I have been working on for some time now, right on the heels of a wonderful ACTFL Convention (Virtual). Conferences are an important way for us to learn from each other, to get new ideas, to see activities in action, and to hone and grow our thinking. Conferences–whether in person or virtual–are a place for collaboration to take place. We work together toward a common goal of doing better by our students.
I am so grateful to the many presenters that shared their ideas with me and other attendees, and I can’t wait to sprinkle their ideas into the work I do creating materials and training teachers.
PAUSE! rrrrrrrrrrp! (That’s the rewind noise)
That-right there-that’s the thing I want to talk about. I am grateful for what they shared, and I can’t wait to pass those ideas on in some way to others. I want to dissect that connection between an inward-facing feeling of thankfulness and excitement about an idea to the outward-facing way that we talk about and use an idea that came from someone else. As individuals who are connected in online and in-person Professional Learning Communities, both formal and informal, this is a step that we are taking every day, sometimes multiple times a day. We are grateful for hearing an idea, and we want to share that idea with others.
I’m writing this because I have seen many colleagues be hurt by insensitive or unethical distribution of their work. This is happening with increasing frequency as more and more educators (both in and out of the classroom) gain audiences and monetize their work through social media, and it is hurting teachers. As someone outside the classroom but inside the industry, I ask you to please give me a few minutes of your time and read my story.
I am intentionally using myself as the focus of this post because I do not want this to come across as blaming or shaming anyone in particular–although you may feel convicted as you read my experiences and see yourself reflected in them. This post is about me and my learning, and it is an invitation for you to join me. I want to frame this conversation around the question, “What does it look like to practice gratitude toward the teachers that teach us?”.
Is this post relevant to you?
So, who is this post for? This reflection is relevant to anyone who shares ideas with others. No matter how big or small your platform and your reach are, or whether you don’t believe you have any platform or reach at all, you can be hurt and you can hurt others through improper credit and use of ideas and materials. This might look like:
- A teacher who shares teaching ideas on Instagram
- A teacher who blogs about teaching
- A teacher who presents at conferences
- A teacher who creates materials for their own classes and shares them with other teachers in public groups and spaces
- A teacher who creates and sells resources through platforms such as Teachers Pay Teachers
- A teacher who has a podcast or is an invited guest on a podcast
If this sounds like you, I invite you to please read on.
How I’ve screwed up
I want to begin by affirming that I am not without blame. I have fallen short in the area of honoring the work of others many times, and I am learning and making intentional steps to do better. To confirm this, here are some examples of things that I have done wrong in the area of honoring the work of others and lessons that I have learned:
I used to create resources based on song lyrics without getting permission from the copyright holder of the lyrics. This was wrong. At first, I did it without thinking; I just assumed it was okay to use song lyrics in resources that I create and share with others because I saw it being done everywhere. Once it was brought to my attention that it was a copyright violation, I continued to do it even though I felt convicted about it, telling myself that, “Wellll, I’ve never seen anyone actually have a problem with this, so it must be gray area”. I finally owned my actions and procured consent to use song lyrics in my commercial resources. This was costly, and it was necessary.
In this case, showing gratitude looks like (1) purchasing a song that I love and want to use in class, (2) compensating the creator for allowing me to use lyrics in resources that I distribute to others, and (3) when I don’t receive permission to use the lyrics, simply being grateful that they created a song that I can enjoy.
I used to see worksheets or student forms on Pinterest for other content areas and be inspired to create my own version that would better suit my unique context. I used these materials in my own classes and shared some for free on my blog. When I began selling resources, I posted some of them for sale. If I felt like it was a pretty close copy to the original, I continued sharing it but did not charge. As I learned more about intellectual property and gained experience as a content creator on the other side of the situation (as the inspiration for others’ resources), I stopped doing this. Now, the resources that I share and sell are my own. If I am inspired by someone else’s resource, I seek permission to share or sell my version. If I don’t receive it, I keep my version to myself.
In this case, showing gratitude looks like purchasing a resource that inspires me or following a creator that shares an idea that inspires me (versus grabbing a screenshot of an idea, which does not help the creator in any way), being grateful that their idea helped me teach my own students or children, and not using it to create my own resources for distribution.
When I started this blog, I shared many activity ideas that I had learned from others and tried out on my own. At the time, teachers that were using TPRS® and other Comprehension-based strategies were getting ideas from in-person workshops and from the Ben Slavic blog and the MoreTPRS listserv, and a good number of teachers had our own simple blogs in which we wrote about the things we were trying out in class. To me, writing about an activity and how I used it in class felt very collaborative and community-oriented. As more teachers began using TPRS® and other Comprehension-based approaches -and- as the Internet expanded, bringing things like monetized blogs, social media followers, and more, the impact of sharing an idea that came from someone else changed. With time, I began to profit off of ideas that had come from other teachers, in the form of requests to speak at conferences and in districts, and in many cases impacted their ability to profit (both in terms of credit/attention and revenue) from ideas that they had developed or shared with me. Now, I consider what the impacts might be for me sharing an idea in a specific way. Will it drive traffic to the person that taught me, or will it take traffic from them? If I’m not sure, I ask.
Practicing gratitude looks like amplifying individuals that teach me.
Truths and excuses
Through these experiences, I have learned that a lot of harm is done unintentionally, and a lot of harm is done intentionally. It’s easy to get caught up in a project that you are excited about and talk yourself into blurring some lines.
There are at least three things related to this topic of honoring the work of others that are true but can also be used as an excuse for bad behavior… you know, little lies that we tell ourselves to justify doing something that we know is not okay.
“I don’t always get it right“
This is what I call the Romans 6:15 excuse. Knowing that we will mess up sometimes isn’t an excuse for messing up sometimes.
I get things wrong a lot. I really cannot emphasize this enough. Even as I share lessons I have learned, I know that I am still not doing it perfectly. However, I do not say this as an excuse. Rather, it is a reminder to me that I need to keep working. It is also an expression of openness and an invitation to you. If you see something, say something! When you see me doing something that you believe is harmful to you or another creator, say something.
If you are someone who is sharing content with others, you’ll probably get things wrong too. Let’s use that as a reason to intentionally focus on doing better, not as an excuse to continue in wrongful behavior.
“It’s a gray area”
There really are gray areas when it comes to intellectual property and honoring the work of others. There are also areas that are perceived as gray but in fact are not gray at all. There are areas that we might call gray because we haven’t taken the time to look into it. And, there are areas that are not and were never gray, but are sometimes called gray areas as an excuse to continue profiting.
One example is the use of song lyrics that I described earlier. At first, I thought it was a gray area, but that was really because I hadn’t taken the time to learn about it. Then, I when I learned more and realized that it wasn’t a gray area, I used the gray area as an excuse to continue in my wrongful behavior. Finally, I did the right thing and went back to make past violations right and made the commitment to use them appropriately moving forward.
If you’re not sure what the right way to use someone’s material is, take the time to figure it out instead of just looking to what others are doing (because they are often doing it wrong). And in the meantime, don’t pass off your lack of knowledge as gray area. This is what I am trying to live out for myself.
“Other people are doing it“
The fact that others are using content improperly does not mean that it’s okay for you to do it, too.
Sometimes, I do things wrong because I am basing my actions on what I have observed from others. I’ve seen other people do it, and so I assume it’s okay for me to do it. If other people are doing it, it may very well be okay. But… maybe it’s not. How to know?
How I am trying to grow in this area is (a) looking critically at my content and considering how the work of others is present in my work, then reflecting on whether I am using it appropriately, and (b) when a question is raised, taking the time to figure it out.
One example is a friend bringing to my attention the fact that I did not ask for permission to use a page from their book as an example in one of my presentations – not in print, but on a slide and as a talking point. I have seen this done many times (and have done it myself many times), and I think that it is an Editorial/Acceptable use of content. However, I honestly am not sure. Before I do this again, I will take time to actually determine whether I can do this without permission or not. If I determine that I -can- do it without explicit permission, I will not use that as an excuse to not seek explicit permission anyway, as a courtesy and show of gratitude to other content creators.
Everything I have shared thus far has been from the lens of wanting to do things right. By and large, teachers who are sharing ideas and resources that have inspired them want to do the right thing. However, I do think it is important to mention that there is a lot of super yucky stuff that happens in the area of content creation and sharing as well. I said that this post is a reflection about me, but just for a minute I need to switch to angry mode. Don’t do these things:
Don’t claim credit for the ideas of others
If you get a great idea from someone else, say it. Don’t take credit for ideas that aren’t yours, either implicitly by nothing saying anything or explicitly by saying it is your idea. This applies whether you are tangibly profiting from it or not.
If you have pretended like an idea that you share in a blog post or use to create a resource is yours and you get confronted about it, admit it and make it right. It -is- true that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, and there have been times that I thought for sure someone had co-opted my work, only to find out that they had created their content first. But you know when you are stealing someone else’s content, and you can choose to not do it. Don’t.
Don’t credit the wrong person
If you get a great idea from someone that you don’t like, don’t find a way to credit someone else for the idea. I know this sounds crazy, but it happens because of broken relationships, because of jealousy, because of a lot of bad stuff. Give credit where credit is due. If you dislike someone SO MUCH that you are not willing to credit them, then consider not sharing their idea at all. Stop it!
Don’t remove or change copyright information
If you want to share a resource, such as an image or a worksheet, that contains a copyright line, don’t remove it. Don’t replace it with your own information and don’t delete it altogether. Don’t re-create the resource and add your own content and copyright line. This is theft and it’s totally not cool.
Questions to consider
If you’re feeling like this is way more complex than you thought, you’re right. I have learned that the step from feeling grateful to wanting to share that thing for which you are grateful requires a lot of thought. To help you navigate this step along with me, I’ve got some advice! Instead of sharing with you rules to follow, I want to leave you with some questions. These are questions that I consider when creating content, and I invite you to use them as well.
Question 1: What’s the source?
Imagine that your colleague tells you about something they did in class, and you give it a try and love it. You love it so much you want to blog about it! In your blog, you say, “My colleague shared this idea with me and it’s awesome!”
While your source might have been your colleague, it’s important to find out your colleague’s source. Did your colleague come up with the idea? If so, are they comfortable with you blogging about it? Or, did your colleague learn the idea from somewhere or someone else? Do you have permission or the right to share that idea? Is it trademarked or otherwise protected? What impact would you sharing the idea have on the original source of the idea? If you aren’t sure – ASK. This runs into the next question.
Question 2: Am I driving traffic or taking traffic?
Once I know the source of an idea and I am confident that I may share it with others, I consider how to share the idea. Specifically, I consider whether my content-share would drive traffic to the source of the idea or whether it would take traffic from an idea. This is my first litmus test. And if I am not sure how it would impact their traffic or if it would impact it at all, I am training myself to ask.
Here are some case studies to consider:
I read a blog post and try the idea in my class. It goes great and I want to blog about it. In my blog post, I credit the original blogger and link to their post. Then, I go on and explain the entire activity in great detail. I also share a few twists or tweaks that I tried out to the original idea. I provided so much information in my post that there is literally no need for anyone to click on that one little link that I included to the blog post written by another creator. To me, this doesn’t feel like gratitude – it feels like exploitation. I’m taking traffic from their blog, even though I have included a link.
What would showing gratitude look like? How could I share the idea in a way that drives traffic TO the creator? Likely, it would be as simple as sharing out the link to their post, along with a short personal reflection about how it went for me, what I like about it, or what I did differently.
Depending on how you are connected to your audience, this might be in a social media post or it might be in a blog post. The key is not giving out SO MUCH information that there is no need for your audience to seek out the source of the idea.
I see a cool idea on Instagram and I like it. A teacher shares an activity they are doing with their students, and maybe they have a form that goes along with it that they’re selling. I like their idea but I would want to use a snazzier looking form. So, I make one myself. Then, I use my form in class, take a picture of my students using it, and post, “Shout out to Teacher X for this great idea; you can download the form that I used with my students FREE – message me!”
You don’t describe the activity so your audience still has to go back to Teacher X to learn how to do it. You’re driving traffic their way. Buuuuut now you’re giving out a free version of something that they are charging for. For your audience, that’s amazing – I believe firmly in supporting teachers with free content. However, how do you think Teacher X ends up feeling in this situation?
Instead, what would gratitude look like? How could you connect with Teacher X to honor the work that they put into developing and sharing an idea that you benefited from in using it with your students? In this situation, I have found that the best solution is to reach out to Teacher X and let them know what you’re thinking. In the past, I have given away things that I create to teachers that inspired me to create them so that THEY can share them with their own audience. Other times, I’ve just kept my creation to myself. Maybe you can think of some other ways!
Stealing the spotlight
I attend a presentation at a conference about a really cool activity that the presenter came up with, called “Fruity Tooty”. I think Fruity Tooty sounds awesome and I use it with my classes. When I see a Call for Proposals for my state conference, I think- hey! I amplify that great Tooty Fruity idea! My presentation is accepted, and in the presentation I give full credit to the person that I saw presenting on it originally. A department leader sees my presentation and thinks Tooty Fruity is so amazing that they invite me to come to their school and present on Fruity Tooty – and they want to PAY me!! One thing leads to another, and I become known as the Fruity Tooty Lady.
Was that really amplification? While that may have been my intention, the impact was in no way amplification– it was co-opting. This case study hits home for me because this is a big part of my story. I did not intentionally steal the spotlight from other trainers, but because of the timing of the way that social media has exploded over the last decade, that is what happened. It wasn’t my intent to steal the spotlight, but that was the impact. In many cases, I’m not sure how or if I can make things ‘right’ with the teachers that trained me. I -always- give credit, but I realize that giving credit rarely drives traffic their way, at least not in meaningful ways. I look for opportunities to advertise/amplify their work and platforms. And, I look for ways to partner with them and compensate them for their work.
Question 3: What would I feel like if they saw this?
My second question is my biggest litmus test. I am training myself to ask, “If the teacher that inspired me saw this, how would I feel?”. If the answer is embarrassed or ‘caught’, then I know I can’t take action without asking permission first. Often, I have caught myself thinking, “I think this is a gray area, and besides they are working in a different space anyway and there’s no way that they would see this…” Hear all of that self-deception? It takes a lot of self discipline to NOT share something that I have worked long and hard to create, and I am guilty of giving in to the excuses from time to time. I’m committed to doing better.
One example are these sight word sentences from Anne Gardner. I absolutely love the format, but quickly found that they didn’t match our reading program closely enough to be easy to implement. I ended up creating my own – with my own sentences and images and everything. I’ve thought about posting the ones that I created in my store, and I even did research to see if the format was uniquely hers or if it is somewhat standard or widely used. I found quite a few other products by other content creators that were similar, so I thought… I’m sure it’s fine. It’s my content after all, and it was so much work to create it! And surely there are others out there like me that want to use these sentences but need different vocabulary. Self deception alert! When I find myself trying to justify to myself why something is okay, that’s a big red flag for me that I need to get permission. Showing gratitude to Anne for helping me find a tool that has had a huge impact on our homeschool reading program looks like reaching out to Anne first to see if she’s okay with me selling the product and under what conditions. And if not, I won’t.
Grow an abundance mindset
I know it’s so hard to have a resource or an idea that is just perfect for a project you are working on and to not be able to use it because it’s not yours to use. It’s hard to see so much opportunity in a resource or an idea and know that that opportunity belongs to someone else, not to you.
I try to approach my work with an abundance mindset. No matter what your goals are for sharing content, there is enough attention and success for everyone, and there is time. You don’t need to copy someone else’s story; you can write your own. You don’t need to use someone else’s idea; you can wait until you have your own. You don’t have to drive traffic and attention away from other people so that you can increase traffic to yourself.
Help others share your ideas appropriately
I have found that one of the easiest and most effective ways to prevent my own ideas from being used in ways that I am not okay with is to set clear expectations. If you are presenting, take a moment to say how your content can and can’t be used and shared. If you create a resource, add a copyright line or a Creative Commons license line (even if it says ‘Public Domain’) so that teachers know how they can and can’t use, share, and modify the work. If you share content on social media that you think others might be interested in re-sharing, add a note such as, “If this idea resonated with you, please save the post to reference in the future! If you want to share this idea outside [Instagram], check with me first!”.
Practice gratitude, no matter what.
I began blogging as a way to connect with and support other teachers. I did not know that it was even a possibility to have a business based on connecting and supporting teachers, but that is where it has led. Especially now that I am not teaching, I know that I need to be very careful that what I am doing is not harming teachers who are out there sharing their experiences and their expertise.
You don’t have to be making money or trying to get more followers to harm content creators. And, content creators don’t have to be making money from their content for you to harm them. Any teacher who is on social media sharing their experience is a content creator. Even if you are sharing things that you have created and learned from other teachers with ABSOLUTELY ZERO selfish interest, your actions will still have an impact on the person that inspired or taught you. It is very possible for you to be taking traffic away from and creating competition for the creators that inspired you even if you do not have a business or any followers on social media. In every situation, join me in asking, “What does gratitude look like?”.
Furthermore, none of us have any idea what our future holds or what path a single step forward will lead us down (see this post!). Do everything you can to honor the work and ideas of others now, and at every step along the way, so that you don’t find yourself like me trying to make amends later on down the way.
Most of all, if you are someone who IS trying to build a business, to grow your platform, to get more followers – please join me in practicing gratitude. Just as I am still training myself to ask first, even when I think it’s fine, please consider forming the habit of asking first.
If you’re reading this and feeling unsettled about something that you have done in the past, I invite you to reach out to whomever it is that you need to reach out. It’s never too late to try and repair a potential harm. I’ve had to backtrack and repair, and it feels really uncomfortable, and I don’t always receive forgiveness and a repaired relationship, but it needs to be done regardless.
If you are reading this and feeling like it’s a slap in the face because you are someone who I have harmed by co-opting your content, I am sorry and I very sincerely invite you to reach out so that I can take steps to make it right.
Don’t be afraid to collaborate, to share, and to support your colleagues, but do be thoughtful and full of care. Your unique voice is needed. Let’s work together, always, to honor the work of the teachers and creators that are supporting us with their time, their intellect, their ideas, and their resources. Let’s practice gratitude in how we learn, share, and grow together!
If this message resonated with you, feel free to share the blog post and images on any platform. Please credit Martina Bex or The Comprehensible Classroom (@martinabex on Twitter, @comprehensibleclassroom on Instagram). Thanks!