Back to school

Back to school supplies are costly for educators, too

“The one factor we are most certain of is that teachers are overwhelmingly devoted to providing the most meaningful learning experiences for their students, to the extent that most of them endure deep personal sacrifices to make this happen.”

-Casey Bethel

When it comes to back to school expenses, most people aren’t too surprised when they see headlines announcing the hundreds of dollars parents fork out to get their children out of the house and back in the classroom. It’s no joke: School supplies are expensive. And, while this makes most parents cringe, with the exception of the latest viral mom who goes on a hysterical rant in her local Target (very funny, by the way, but there’s some naughty language so we won’t share it), there’s another segment that seems to feel the back-to-school sting, too.

School employees all across the country are doing the same exact thing this time of year, spending hundreds of dollars on back to school supplies. And they are reaching into their own wallets to do this. Needless to say, teachers’ salaries are not necessarily calculated to cover these kinds of expenses.

Oklahoma teacher, Teresa Danks, recently helped to shine a light on the issue. Teresa came to attention for panhandling on the side of the road. She was trying to earn enough money to help stock her third-grade classroom. The image of her wearing a pink Minnie Mouse backpack holding up a sign that read, teacher needs school supplies went viral.

We took some time to catch up with some of our 2016-17 LifeChanger of the Year winners to see if they could shed some additional light on this issue.

Casey Bethel, our LifeChanger finalist from Georgia, is currently one of the Program Directors at the Center for Education Integrating Science, Math & Computing at Georgia Tech. His responsibilities include disseminating cutting edge science and engineering research into K – 12 classrooms across the state. Previously he taught as a science teacher in the Douglas County School System. As a high school science teacher, Casey says, he would easily spend hundreds of dollars on classroom supplies out of his own pocket. He also knows of teachers who spend upwards of one grand to make sure their classrooms are stocked.

Martha Infante, our LifeChanger finalist from Los Angeles, shares a similar story. She is currently a seventh grade world history/GATE coordinator and recalls spending anywhere between $500 and $1,000 on school supplies as a new teacher. She says that even though there is a small budget for supplies at her school, the poverty of families has increased and many simply can’t buy the necessary items. Martha struggles to accommodate all of these students and their needs.

While there may be a small budget for basic supplies, many educators agree that the needs are often more complex and varied as educators strive to create innovative and fun classrooms.

“In my 13 years of teaching, there has never been a budget for these items, and yet, what we are witnessing now is a diminishing budget for even the most common needs, like paper and pencils, and markers,” Casey said. “The cause of this could be shrinking overall education funding. On the surface, it appears as if school funding is equal to, or slightly more than school funding in the past. However, the numbers do not reflect that overall education spending has not kept up with the demand as the school age population has drastically increased in almost every state.”

Prioritization is another factor that Casey mentions. Without enough money to go around, schools and staff are forced to make difficult decisions when it comes to where to spend money. Occasionally, technological updates like upgrading WiFi or opening an iPad lab are chosen at the expense of basic classroom items.

So educators have to be resourceful. Martha says that teachers do have a strong knack for finding good sales and discarded materials from stores. One time she happened upon a going-out-of-business sale and the owner gave her easels, art supplies and poster board, and she gladly took it all.

Amy Lazarowicz, our LifeChanger finalist from Detroit, reminds us that expenses occur not just at the beginning of the year but throughout the entire course of the year, too. So these estimates of back to school costs are only a piece of the pie.

“I continue to spend money throughout the year [on items] that help engage students with learning. For example, when I teach forces and motion, I purchase Matchbox cars, rubber bands, wax paper, sand paper, string, balloons, marbles and various other consumables that help the learning come alive for students,” says Amy.

When Amy is not working as a science teacher at Neinas Dual Language Learning Academy during the school year she spends her summer working at a residence camp owned by her school district. Like so many other educators, Amy works a second job. She uses some of the money she earns during the summer to purchase school supplies for the fall.

One possible solution for educators is to use the popular site Here, teachers can post a profile and request funds for projects – and reach audiences at a global level.

And while I think we can all safely agree that school funding is a politically charged hot button that seems to involve long-term debate, help can still come in other forms. For instance, in the local form of community support and spirit.

Casey asks us to remember the time when the neighborhood’s grandmas would hold a bake sale to raise money for library books. Or parents would gather on a Saturday morning to spruce up the playground.

“We need this in every community,” says Casey. “Admittedly, it still exists in some places – often in wealthier, more stable neighborhoods. And they should be proud. But what about low-income, less stable places? In those places, teachers and schools must rely on more creative, compelling means to assemble resources.”