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This Independence Math Teacher Got $30,000 For Writing Lessons

Kyle Palmer

Who says teaching doesn't pay? 

Probably not Libbi Sparks. The Independence high school teacher recently cashed in a career's worth of math lessons to the tune of $30,000. 

Sparks teaches math at William Chrisman High School in Independence, Missouri, and has nearly three decades of experience teaching in public schools.

She's taught everything from middle school pre-algebra to dual-credit Calculus II. In 2012, she earned prestigious National Board certification. 

In other words, she knows what she is doing. 

"I find the job fun, and I'm always looking for ways to change how I do things," she says. 

To this end, Sparks decided to apply for something called the Better Lesson Master Teacher Project two years ago. After a rigorous evaluation process, she was one of several dozen educators nationwide selected to develop, write and post their curricula to the website betterlesson.com. All for an annual stipend of $15,000.

But this wasn't easy money. 

For sure, Sparks already had lessons she has used for years. But she couldn't just copy and paste her old lessons to the Better Lessons website. She had to actively work to write a curriculum not only she could use but others could download and teach. 

"The whole time I had a Better Lesson coach, and we would go over each lesson again and again," she says. "They had to be perfect, you know, because these were being put out there as lessons from the 'master!'"

Periodically, Sparks also would work with other Master Teachers, either in person or online, to vet each other's work and give advice and feedback. 

Better Lesson launched the Master Teacher Project in 2013 with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Later, the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, partnered with the project.  The site now boasts 15,000 lessons, aligned to Common Core standards, with comprehensive unit-by-unit curricula for English, math, and science at all grade levels, kindergarten through 12th grade. 

"The goal was to highlight and scale the work of effective educators around the Common Core," says Christine Glandorf of Better Lesson. "Our lessons are not only packed with resources and immediately actionable, we also seek to showcase the true artistry of these masterful educators." 

Any teacher can go to Better Lesson's Master Teacher Project page, find an appropriate unit for their subject and grade level, and be set for weeks. All they have to do is sign up. Better Lesson does not charge for using its site. 

Currently, the only subjects Better Lesson has built out curriculum for are English, math and science, with a new Blended Learning initiative that seeks to integrate in technology more prominently. 

The teachers who created the lesson retain their copyright but Better Lesson licenses them in order to be able to distribute them. There are between four and six Master Teachers writing curriculum for every grade level in each subject area. 

The effort mirrors similar moves made by Teach For America, which created its own internal lesson-sharing service several years ago, as well as the American Federation of Teachers, which launched Share My Lesson in 2011 and attracted half a million users in its first two years. 

But those two initiatives are not curated to the extent that Better Lesson's is and are also not as explicitly standards-aligned as the Master Teacher Project. 

"Our hope is to create a living, breathing body of knowledge around the new (Common Core) standards," Glandorf of Better Lesson says. 

For Master Teachers like Sparks, it has also proven to be good professional development. 

"It's been very rewarding," she says. "I enjoy the challenge of thinking in new ways and figuring out how to make my work better for others." 

And the money doesn't hurt either. 

"My kids are now in college," she says. "So it came at a good time." 

Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
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