Teachers Advocate Stealing?

I just returned from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) convention in Dallas and the experience was fantastic. The convention organizers knocked everyone’s socks off with a first rate conference. But there was one little probelm. What was the “buzz” this year among teachers? In a word, stealing. The convention opened with the general session speaker who told the packed audience of over 4,000 K-12 teachers to “steal their way to success.” Of course, “stealing” refers to the taking of another person’s teaching ideas, lesson plans, classroom management practices or their favorite science demonstration in hopes of becoming a better teacher. The keynote speaker concluded with, “… if you didn’t like this speech, I’m not offended because I stole it!” This theme of theft prevailed throughout the conference as presenter after presenter jokingly recommended this sort of tongue and cheek robbery. On my way to a session, a teacher stopped me and said, “I just wanted to let you know that I’ve stolen all of your ideas! They’re great.” This was intended to be a compliment, I think. However, my response caught her off guard. “How could you have stolen the ideas if I gave them to you in my workshop?” I continued, “Tell me about some original ideas you’ve come up with that I might put to good use.” I could tell by the uncomfortable silence that I had hit a nerve. “I’m flattered that you found my ideas useful. Let’s keep sharing,” I replied.

Here’s my basic beef: If you want to be treated like a professional then act like one. Professionals do not run around “stealing” ideas – hacks steal. Professionals, on the other hand, exchange ideas and share their creations in an effort to help and support others in their profession. Professional teachers have integrity and respect for one another and respect for one’s intellectual property. You might say it’s all just semantics, but I believe that the problem lies in the culture of the teaching profession. If teachers believe that it’s acceptable (even cute) to “steal” ideas, then what’s the harm in placing a book on the copy machine instead of buying an original copy or making multiple copies of an instructional video?

I can’t help but think that the speaker would have a problem with my school district if we distributed photocopies of his book or pirated copies of his new DVDs. Using stolen software must be acceptable and a little plagiarism (Ward Churchill) is probably okay, right? What about cheating on a test or worse yet, helping a student cheat on a standardized test? Am I off base on this one?

The solution is free, painless and the behavior is professional. Two words: Give credit. If I use an idea shared by another presenter like Bob Becker, Lee Marek or Don Herbert, I give that person credit. Does giving credit lessen the quality of the idea? Giving credit is a token of respect for colleagues in your profession. In the end, the keynote speaker delivered a great message about running an effective classroom as evidence by the standing ovation. The speaker on the platform has a great responsibility and tremendous influence. Just do the right thing… replace the word steal with the professional behavior of sharing.

17 replies
  1. Bob
    Bob says:

    You again have hit on a sore spot in teacher ed. It is a good thing that teachers don’t have a huge shelves full of videos they’ve copied from
    blockbuster (some kid in class always has the anti-macrovision buster at home) or taped from tv years ago. The “stealing” ethos is tied to the perpetual practice of districts and building to live off the good will of teachers. So teachers, out of their sincere desire to do what they came there to do:teach, grasp at whatever straws float their way. Your point about not giving in to the easy temptation of going the low road of theft, rather than professional interaction, is well expressed. The speaker, however, would have better served education and those teachers if he had said, “We’re damn tired of having to beg, steal and borrow the tools to fulfill our mandate! Do borrow and share with everyone… but also DEMAND that districts meet theirend of that obligation!”

    One improvement in the availability of materials has been easier access to the internet. Stuff that might have been slow and difficult to circulate is now readily available for sharing… and you get a chance to look it over in detail without having to invest lots of money in hard copy, only to find that it didn’t fit your needs.(I rarely find anything anymore in anthro or geography that I would have been happy to pay for… but then I read everything and write most of my own stuff anyway… sometimes it would be nice to “borrow” some ready to go stuff!)

    Let’s make the damn politicians accountable for the shit they dumped on us called No Child Left Behind… How about No Program Left Unfunded? How about licensing for childbirth? How about CSAP prior to assuming elected office? How about individual level progress without lumping at the school level with no recognition of the individual history? So… yep, the speaker was way out of line. He would have done better to criticise that ethos of stealing and to suggest ways to transcend it… as you did in your piece.

  2. Jared
    Jared says:

    You know, I agree with you 100% on your column. I think I’d personally be offended if I wrote a great lesson, only to walk down the hall and see another teacher presenting the same thing and taking all of the credit for it. On the other hand, if that same teacher were to simply ask if they could do it, credit or not, simply asking would be the only key to me being happy to hand over everything I have.

    You are spot-on: it is about sharing, not stealing. That simply sends the wrong message to kids, too.

    It seems the presenters had the right idea, but went about it in a completely incorrect and unethical manner. It sounds as though they really just don’t “get it.”

    I’m glad to see that you spoke out against the “stealing idea.” It is difficult enough to explain the concept of plagiarism to kids, much less when we are setting the wrong example.

  3. Lisa Heaton
    Lisa Heaton says:

    You are RIGHT ON! I am deeply saddened AND offended that NSTA would chose the word “steal” to communicate with teachers. Teachers are very visible role models for kids-EVERYDAY! “Steal” is an extremely poor choice of words. This profession doesn’t need that kind of negative message being broadcast nationwide. I am a total advocate for “sharing” with my colleagues. There is such richness to be gained by dialoguing with my peers, and learning from their incredible creativity. It may just be word-choice here, but with that comes an image. And I get a NEGATIVE image with the use of “stealing” as a metaphor for “sharing!” THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING!

  4. Steve
    Steve says:

    Lisa – Thanks for the comment. For clarification, it’s really a teacher thing and not an NSTA position. I attended a demo session where the presenter use the phrase, “I don’t know where I got this next demo but I only steal the good ones.” Wouldn’t it be much classier and more professional to say, “I first saw this next demo presented at last year’s convention while attending John Walsh’s presentation on cool demos to do with air.” Either people are too lazy to remember names or they feel that giving someone else credit somehow hurts their presentation.

  5. Earl
    Earl says:

    GREAT AND BRILLIANT AND RIGHT. It is a topic for Student Council
    People everywhere as well…..and right down to the Music Teacher who copies
    the score to a Broadway Play — and tells me that because teachers/ salaries
    are so low, that copying — stealing — is acceptable behavior….

    Sharing is a phenomenal idea.

  6. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Glad to hear the word “steal” wasn’t from NSTA. I had the wrong impression. I thought it was sort of a motto of the conference to “steal your way to success.” However, my opinion still coincides with yours. I feel it boils down to a sincere lack of integrity, and there’s way too much of that EVERYWHERE-not just in teaching. Look at Ken Lay, CEO of Enron, and Martha Stewart, and, and, and…What kind of message are we “showing” our kids?

  7. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    Off base? Absolutely not! As a matter of fact, right on! When the dust has settled (and I’m glad you kicked it up!), I think you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of teachers (and those in other professions, for that matter) will agree with your observations. Just judging by the first five comments received in response to your blog, you’re batting 1,000.

    Share? Give credit? What a concept! Let’s start giving credit whenever we can. Your presentations can still shine…and isn’t that a nice reflection on you!

  8. Mark T Jones
    Mark T Jones says:

    I agree with the mentality that is expressed about resources that are available in general for teachers. The root of the semantic problem here is that any individual without the resources to do what has been mandated of them will scavenge etc. to meet that mandate. Certainly I have read psychology and behavioral reports about other professions and a healthy work place. Professionals that are supported adequately aren’t led to scavenge, copy or steal at all – whether in a serious or joking sense. Teachers need to stop arguing among themselves and point the finger uphill! Concerns or goals about intellectual rights and professionals being creative on their own part are in general perposterous in my state, where they had to pass a law to garuantee that teachers have 30 minutes of planning minimum and still this law is ignored and not taken seriously. Mark T Jones, Alabama.

  9. Steve
    Steve says:

    Mark — I appreciate your comments and you’re exploring issues that I didn’t even consider. The root of my concern is the culture we’ve created as teachers that “stealing” is part of our standard operating procedure. Doesn’t it make you mad when someone comes up and say, “I’ve stolen all of your force and motion ideas.” You and I both know that they’re trying to say, “Thanks for all of your ideas and demos on the topic of force and motion – I use them all of the time and they’re a great asset to my kids.” Why can’t teachers act more like professionals? Ever seen a doctor approach a colleague and say, “I’ve stolen all of your surgery techniques for hip replacements.” Yes, we all take things, but teachers seem to relish in the idea that they have to “steal” everything. Just replace the word “steal” with “share” and we gain a lot more respect among our colleagues and the public, I contend.

    • Deb
      Deb says:

      I agree with much of what you say, but I have a problem with a colleague who never brings anything to the table. “Share” implies a mutual exchange. I am sick of walking through her classroom to see her teaching my lesson ideas, using handouts, projects, etc. that I took the time to create! Especially since it takes me a long time to do a thorough, comprehensive job with everything!

      Then this teacher does nothing except for eavesdrop, dig through my things, or blatantly beg for my lesson plans.

      I’ve confronted her about the fact that she needs to do her own original work…but it doesn’t change anything. I’m stuck doing all of the grunt work…while she reaps the benefits of MY WORK!

      SHARING IMPLIES A MUTUAL EXCHANGE. When a teacher seemingly prepares nothing….nothing should be given or stolen.

      I’ve even talked with my administrator about this. The problem is that the lazy teacher enjoys seniority and tenure…I have no clue how one can be okay with teaching 13 years…and have no ideas or lesson plans. There is a moral disconnect and a willingness to abuse the system.

      I am not exaggerating or joking….my first day of teaching at this school…the first day of school….she came into work (20 minutes after contract time and 2 minutes after first period started)… and asked for a copy of my rules and syllabus…and made copies for her classes. This was the first day of school!! How are you not prepared for the first day of school when you’ve been teaching 10+ years?!?! How do you need to make copies of a brand new teachers rules??

  10. Mark T Jones
    Mark T Jones says:

    Steve, I see your point – being in the trenches, I have to remind myself and everyone around that the word “professional” is duplicidous for teachers in the sense that teachers have to behave like them, but they have to be treated like them too. I don’t see the relish, but instead the necessity. Our profession will always be ambiguous as long as we allow the public, parents, children, governors and presidents to treat us like ditch diggers and not professionals. I think the teacher culture is ingrained with unprofessional practices because of the empass that we seem to be in as far as acting like professionals and being viewed as professionals. My point to your point is that the formality of peer review and professional ethics among colleagues is wiped out with many other professional formalities because of unprofessional conditions, mainly being time. You comparison of doctors is only valid if, as a teacher, I could walk into a classroom with my lesson plans with the class already prepared by my team of four teaching assistants. I come in after having hours to prepare, deliver my lesson, implement some activity and lead a probing discussion about the results. After assessing my students, I leave to go to the next class while my team closes… I mean finishes up class, grades my assessment, enters grades and call a few parents about behavioral probles. Teachers and doctors are the farthest reach of comparison you could come up with. Docotors put in a lot of time, but are paid for it. The difference between “steal” and “I have integrated your ideas into my own” is time, wouldn’t you think? I agree with you 100% that teacher need to model professionalism for each other and those who might vote about the money that supports our profession (which is then structured into our professional atmosphere). But among significant things that need to be done, focusing on a word we use is like a doctor in a third world country worrying about leaving a scar on one patient when there are 100 lined up outside the tent who are sick or dying.
    I do make one connection to explain the psychology of why you might get the impression that teachers relish plundering resources. As a teacher, I do relish my ability to be resourceful when I have inadequate resources. I would say it is one of the top ten characteristics of a good teacher. Maybe you are seeing that and interpretting it as something else that is unprofessional.
    Here is a bumper sticker our state put out – I wonder if a doctor’s professional association would be proud of a bumper sticker like this one…
    “Alabama teachers do more with less.”

  11. Marc
    Marc says:

    Isaac Asimov stated in his book, The New Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, “The victory of modern science did not become complete until it established one more essential principle-namely the free and cooperative communication among all scientists.”

    Therefore the only disspassionate and scientific response to someone using the concept of stealing regarding a topic, demonstration, or other science teaching is, “There is nothing to steal since it always was and must always remain free.”

    We are likely involved in a money making enterprise if we find ourselves responding with concern to words like “stealing” or “theft.” While indeed a more respectful choice of words could improve communcation, as scientists we should maintain our disspassionate and scientific outlook when responding to others.

  12. Steve
    Steve says:

    In response to your thoughts, I’m wondering if you’ve authored any books or have any copyrights in your name? Would it be okay with you if people just obtained their copy of your work by means of a copy machine? Is it okay to pirate a training manual or a DVD if the author is just a teacher? No matter how you look at it, stealing is wrong. If I choose to share something with you, it’s yours for the taking.

    As a scientist at John Hopkins University, I’d imagine that the school makes some effort to legally protect your intellectual property. Am I right? If so, why? According to your reasoning, “There is nothing to steal since it always was and must always remain free.” The point is not an arguement about intellectual property rights… it’s about acting like a professional to share ideas. Why do teachers think they have to “steal” ideas.

  13. Marc
    Marc says:

    Indeed, Isaac Asimov’s book from which I quoted is protected by copyright. If someone is making illegal copies of protected property they are stealing.

    However, we must maintain a distinction between stuff and knowledge. We must not be concerned with the theft of scientific knowledge; it simply cannot be stolen. We teach so others may learn. Teaching science teaches others to learn for themselves; this must be taught freely.

    A teacher’s greatest success is when his students imitate him.


  14. Steve
    Steve says:

    I agree with everything you’re saying. But my argument is with teachers not acting like professionals. When a 3rd grade teacher says to teachers at a science convention, “Here are a few demos I stole from Bob…”, I believe that this is a problem. Why can’t teachers act like professionals and give credit? What’s so hard about giving credit? The only people who are afraid to give credit have something to hide. The professional would say, “Here are a few demos that I learned from Bob Becker, a great chemistry teacher in the St. Louis area.”

    See, there’s a difference.

    • L
      L says:

      How does using the word “stole” mean you’re not giving credit? If you in fact think that the appropriation of teaching ideas is stealing, then isn’t it better — more honest (and self-deprecating, if you haven’t noticed) — for the culprits to call it that?

      You seem to consider “stealing” both a very big deal, and something that is fully remedied so long as the stealers call it something else. Huh?

  15. lisa
    lisa says:

    I feel so used when teachers on my grade level ask me to e-mail them lists, plans, centers I implement in my classroom. it’s not sharing, it’s just “use her plans then i don’t have to do anything”. then the funny thing is they get to stay with the school because they know the principal. newer teachers like myself get told “you don’t have experience”. oh, can we have your lesson plans, though?


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