This week an Oklahoma teacher made the news by panhandling. Not for herself or her family, but to improve her students’ lives. She reportedly spends $2,000-3,000 of her $35,000 annual salary each year on classroom supplies and state budget cuts are making it more difficult for her to do her job. Though she was surprised at the response, receiving $80 in 20 minutes (which by the way is more than her hourly salary), this is not how she should be spending her summer.
Though many do not realize it, teachers paying for supplies out of pocket is nothing new. Even in rather affluent school districts, teachers throughout the U.S. report spending several hundred dollars each year to provide not only classroom supplies, rewards and snacks but also to pay for field trips for families who don’t have the funds to do so themselves. And this is seen as perfectly acceptable. Most teachers today do so without thinking twice about it and many can’t even claim a tax deduction for these purchases.
Years ago, when my children were small, I had a neighbor who complained every time there was a school fundraiser, asking “Don’t my taxes pay for that?” While is seems reasonable to assume, tax dollars often cover only the very basics: costs involved with physically running the schools and salaries and benefits for school employees. Any “extras” from rugs for kindergarten “circle time,” to books for the class library, dry erase markers for the whiteboard, and tissues for snotty noses, are funded by parents or in many cases, the teachers. As federal and state education budgets are getting smaller, teachers are faced with either making do with less or spending more of their own money to make sure their students’ education doesn’t suffer.
We want our teachers to be creative, to think out of the box and engage our children. We praise their creativity when they find innovative ways to make lessons relevant and interesting. We tend to overlook the costs. Tax funded schools supply books and in some cases, hands-on teaching kits. Anything else is usually provided by the teacher and there are not always funds to reimburse them for these purchases. Anyone who frequents craft or office supply stores can tell you how quickly costs add up.
Those parents who dutifully make the trip to Target or Staples for supplies in August or September feel the pain at the register, but they are only shopping for their own children. Sure you may have dutifully purchased the 72 #2 pencils on the school supply list, but three months in: 17 have been loaned to friends, 3 are rolling around the bus, 7 have been chewed by the dog, 5 are lost in the couch cushions, 4 are under the bed, 28 are somewhere at the bottom of the backpack, 1 is under the car seat, 2 were left in the cafeteria, 3 are at the back of the desk, which leaves 2 to be found, and one for some mysterious reason, won’t stay sharpened. Now Billy needs a pencil to take a math test, so Miss White reaches into her desk and pulls one out for him, as she has done for 15 other students this month.
It’s not only pencils. Miss White also has a personal stash of other common supplies (like the 22 glue sticks on the supply list) to “loan” to students who don’t have their own. And like the inspirational posters, charts on the walls, the books in the bookcase and likely even that bookcase, all these things were purchased by Miss White, out of her own pocket.
It makes one wonder: Is this something included in the teacher certification test? Are new teachers warned that they may be spending the equivalent of several days’ pay to make sure their students have what they need to learn? Are they told that their first classroom will have nothing but desks in it and they will have few if any resources to make it welcoming? Are there seminars in how to supply your classroom on a budget? And, why would they want a job that requires them to pay for supplies that other people use?
Why do they do it? Because they care about “their kids.” Teaching is not a profession to go into for the money. Most teachers put in 50 or more hours a week and are perpetual students themselves (continual education is often a requirement to maintaining certification). Their evenings are spent grading and/or preparing lesson plans, going over IEPs or researching ways to help kids learn better, responding to parent emails and searching eBay and Craigslist for deals on items to use in their classrooms. Summers may be spent working a second job to help make ends meet and/or while taking classes to keep current with educational standards. A teacher spending a sweltering summer day standing on a busy street, holding a sign begging for school supplies is going way over and above. Can you see any other professional going to these lengths to ensure success?
Please, if you have the means, when shopping for school supplies or if you happen to see them on sale, pick up a couple extra and send them to school. Our teachers have plenty of things to worry about. Begging for school supplies shouldn’t be one of them.