As their children head back to school, many parents send along with them supplies for their teachers, including Kleenex tissues, paper towels, hand sanitizer and maybe even some pencils or art supplies. But what about the many other things teachers opt to provide for their students without reimbursement?
The recent rise of sites like DonorsChoose, a fundraising platform for educators, and Teachers Pay Teachers, a site that allows them to buy and sell educational resources, underscore that many educators are left to fully supply their classrooms on their own. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education released survey findings in May that showed 94 percent of public school teachers paid for classroom supplies without reimbursement during the 2014-2015 school year. Among those teachers, the average amount spent was $479.
Some educators publicly share links to their Amazon wish lists filled with suggestions for supplies, and recently, a report from Airbnb showed nearly one in 10 hosts on the lodging site in the U.S. are teachers, many of whom are trying to make ends meet. During the past year, many teachers have participated in walkouts across the country as they seek higher wages and improved funding for their classrooms.
HuffPost chatted with five educators to learn what back-to-school season looks like for them and what they actually provide for their rooms ― including some unexpected items ― to ensure their students have a fun and effective learning setting.
A friendly and comfortable learning environment
Several of the teachers said they funded “flexible seating” to make their rooms more comfortable for students.
“Not all students work best in a plastic chair and desk,” said Ashley LaGrow, who teaches fourth grade in Illinois and blogs about her experience at Learning with Miss LaGrow. “Think about where you work best at home and it puts it in perspective a bit. Over the past year, I have bought fuzzy lounge chairs, wobble stools, exercise balls, rugs, floor cushions, clipboards, lap desks, and bar stools. Having a lot of options allows students to work optimally, but I’m only provided with desks and plastic chairs.”
Books for classroom libraries can also make a dent in teachers’ paychecks. While some educators are lucky to get books donated from friends, family and parents of students ― or inherit them from a past teacher ― others buy the ones they think will help them do their job. Denise Dunbar of Connecticut, who has been teaching for 18 years and shares her tips on her site I’d Rather Educate, said via email that she also provided book bins for her classroom so she could categorize them by grade level.
To help students thrive, many teachers decorate their classrooms with colorful and fun designs that aim to keep the kids engaged and alert. Part of Dunbar’s classroom decor includes rugs. She said that during one of her years of teaching, her rug was thrown out because of flood damage, and the school administration denied her request to have it replaced.
Sally DeCost, a recently retired educator in New Hampshire who taught for 40 years and shares teaching resources on her site Elementary Matters, made sure she had snacks available so none of her students would be hungry while trying to learn.
The everyday supplies
Everyday office supplies like paper, pencils, glue and scissors certainly make the cut on many teachers’ wish lists, as they’re crucial for class activities. And hygienic items such as Kleenex tissues and hand sanitizer are important to help maintain the good health of students and teachers. Many parents donate these items at the beginning of the school year, but they can run out quickly.
“As the year continues and we start running out of pencils or Kleenexes I know I will start to purchase those on my own,” said Stephanie Yi, who teaches math in San Jose, California.
Yi shares updates about her classroom on Instagram at the handle @MathWithMsYi. She said she wants to provide these basic hygienic supplies for her class as part of creating the right environment for her students.
“I personally remember, in middle school, during the height of allergy season using paper towels from the bathroom to blow my nose because we had no more Kleenexes,” she said via email. “It’s the little things that help our students feel cared for and I aim for my students to feel like they are cared for. However, this means that the money I make goes right back into my classroom.”
Kristen Wesson, who teaches in Louisiana and is known as Miss Wesson in the Middle on her education-focused Instagram profile, told HuffPost that the past two years she supplied items like paper towels, Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, pencils and paper because she had morning bus duty instead of a homeroom, so she didn’t receive these supplies from students and their families.
“This year, however, is my first year with a homeroom, so I am feeling over-the-moon grateful to have a nice stock of these everyday supplies!” she said via email.
For special moments and projects
For holidays like Mother’s and Father’s Day, many kids give homemade gifts that they make at school to their parents. DeCost told HuffPost she paid for many of the supplies for these activities. Another one of her big purchases? A laminator and the sheets that go with it for her classroom.
“Many of the learning games, name tags, bookmarks, reading and math materials needed the durable laminate to survive the little ones [using them],” she said via email.
Many teachers have seen the benefits of hands-on science experiments in the classroom, but the tools and supplies that go into them can add up. LaGrow said that last year she spent her own money on supplies so her students could build flexible rollercoaster tracks for a marble as they learned about force and motion.
“That lesson is what really solidified my students’ understanding of the unit, as they referred back to it constantly and made connections,” she said.
Investing in the future
Many teachers also turn to additional resources when the textbooks their school districts provide don’t match up with the curriculum they’re told to teach. For most educators, these purchases are investments for the future of their classroom as well as the future for their students.
“I live paycheck to paycheck and struggle at the end of every pay period in order to make sure that my students have what they need to learn and grow in a positive classroom environment and to be successful inside and outside of school,” Wesson said. “I try to think of the money I put into my classroom and students as an investment in the future of our country.”
It’s important to note that not all teachers buy their classroom supplies out of pocket. Some educators receive a budget or stipend from their school. Others don’t. Some receive donations throughout the year, and many apply for grants to fund their school activities.
But what teachers put into their classrooms often goes beyond a dollar amount. LaGrow pointed out that educators put in extra time after a typical school day to be prepared to teach the next day.
“I think going along with the spending aspect is how much time we spend outside of ‘school hours’ on our jobs,” she said. “For self-care purposes, I try to stay at school an hour or two after most days to not take any grading or lesson-planning home, but a lot of nights, papers find their way to my apartment.”
Yi, who said she was given a “small stipend” to spend on her classroom this year, noted that many schools try their best to support their teachers, but the money is simply not there. It’s a sad reality in America that many schools are underfunded and teachers are underpaid for their time and work.
“While my school has great intentions and wants us to have everything we need to teach and make our room a comfortable space, our budget is extremely tight and needs to be allocated in many different places,” she said.