It is that time of year again: Back to School. Many of the ads are targeted at the parents, yet there is another demographic listening to the best sales and loading up their carts: teachers. A headline from CNN this past spring has stuck with me all summer: 94% of Teachers Spend their Own Money on School Supplies.
Let that sink in a little bit.
That is a huge number of teachers. In fact that is almost all teachers; who are spending their own paychecks (as small as they may be) on school supplies AND they are not reimbursed for those supplies. In no other profession do you spend time outside of the work day shopping for work items from your very own paycheck.
The answer could be as easy as stop, but sadly it is not.
The amount of money spent by a teacher depends on school classification, SES, instructional level and the community. There is a direct correlation to the number of students in the free and reduced lunch program (an indicator of the socioeconomic status) to the amount of money spent by the teacher.
In areas with a high free and reduced lunch rate of 75% teachers spent $554 on average on school supplies.(2018) Still, this number remains high for all teachers regardless of school status at an average of around $400. Imagine how much that would translate to if invested pre-tax or put into a savings account year after year.
On average across the nation teachers are paid $60,000 annually. In some areas this is of course much lower at around $26-$32k per year for teachers starting out. We also should recognize that pay caps out after around 15 years teaching. Teaching remains one of the lowest paid professions with the amount of education required.
Physical barriers exist in the school system itself for teachers, leading to spending more money including:
- Lack of funding in departments overall
- Lack of access to funding or ability to access reimbursement requires many hoops- leaving new teachers to reach for their own wallet
- Time allocation-it can take up to one month to receive approval for funding even the smallest of projects.
- Time Reimbursement- it can take up to one month to receive a reimbursement
While it is easy to blame the system and shame the teacher- it is this very behavior that leads to a barrier beyond the physical. Emotional barriers are presented for those who choose to serve others and often lead to habits of spending. These are rooted in the underlying expectations of the educator and include:
- Your performance score is based on the success of students. – causing a reaction to ensure your ability as a professional (which often requires school supplies). In most areas the “success” of a student is linked to standardized testing scores as a measure.
- “It is for the kids” – a guilt of nurture and responsibility similar to that of a parent is often placed on teachers. “Don’t you love your students?” leading to spending.
- “You knew what you signed up for.” – A dismissal of a problem and added shame – resulting in a burial of feelings and spending.
- Teachers need to be teaching to state standards, national standards, and industry standards….it is not a need: actually a requirement. Without supplies and funding it makes this task nearly unachievable.
My first two years teaching I spent about $1,000 per school year on supplies for my classroom. This is because I was not aware of how to access additional funds (which can be a major struggle for new teachers) or that there were additional funds available. What is even more concerning is that I came into it expecting to use my own money since a precedent had been set.
NPR’s education team put out a tweet asking teachers what they spend on supplies and what they purchase. The answers were a range of $100 to over $1,000 per year in a long twitter thread. The justification for most? “It is what my students need in order to learn.”
Also, my first few years teaching I was so overloaded with six preps, stressed trying to learn how the system works and try to give my students the best education I could, that spending $20 over the weekend on school supplies that would make my life easier seemed like the only option. Survival mode kicks in along with the guilt of giving students what they deserve. (See more on this in Expectations of the Female Educator: Accepted Injustice in the Teaching Profession).
The Extra Steps Taken
The creative departments in many large districts lost funding provided by lab fees this past year in order to make classes more accessible to students. This is fantastic in removing a barrier for students, the repercussion was that it then removes the consumables budget and created a new barrier for learning within the classroom.
Teachers and the Administrators have been writing grants, opening up accounts on Teachers Pay Teachers, signing up for Adopt a Classroom, running their own fundraisers, and starting campaigns on DonorsChoose.org in order to get the needed money for supplies outside of the district and outside of the work day. Although, it is important to note in some districts this will no longer be allowed.
Now, some of you may be saying “Yes, but they get to write it off.” Teachers can write off the amount spent on school supplies, but the max amount that can be deducted is a grand total of $250- still leaving most teachers in the red.
Thankfully, my particular district has access to funding and school supplies- including a resource center with clothes, food and the essentials for our students in need. While sometimes the process to get these funds is tricky- once learned it is a life saver for our own funds. This, however, is the exception– not the rule.
Back to School Should Not Mean Breaking the Bank for Teachers
This amount of money spent by teachers across the nation is especially important now as we start back to school. Back to school for teachers often means breaking the bank. Filling their cabinets with pencils and notebooks, even snacks to make sure students have brain food.
This also highlights the major problem in our school system and is one of the many reasons teachers have been walking out, striking and demanding more from their legislator and community. Keep this in mind as we start school this year.
I no longer spend money like I did my first few years. I have figured out where I can swipe pencils from and where I can fill out a form for funds. I have also decided that my family needs those funds and every teacher should feel completely fine about keeping their paycheck in their pocket. We literally worked for it.
Everyone deserves a right to education. Every teacher deserves to practice their craft without having to pan handle on the corner or use their own money to fund the classroom.