Teachers Are Spending Thousands Of Their Own Money to Stock Classrooms with Basic Supplies


School may be out for summer, but I guarantee you there’s one thing teachers are already worried about as they plan for the coming school year: how they'll offset the inevitable out-of-pocket costs that come with running a classroom.

It’s not just a few books or art supplies we’re talking about here; the truth is much more discouraging. During my last year of teaching, I spent over $5,000 of my own money on my classroom during the year, and I know I wasn’t alone. On an annual salary of $42,000, that was hardly pocket change.

The Reason Teachers Have to Pay

In the United States, it has become increasingly clear, we just don’t value education.The average starting teaching salary in the US in 2012-2013 was $36,141, notably low considering that even intern teachers require a bachelor’s degree, plus credentialing for those who remain in the profession. In one of the country’s most expensive cities, San Francisco, a beginning teacher made just $47,902 during the 2014-2015 school year, far from enough to live on as a sole source of income when a 1 bedroom apartment in SF averages $3,213/mo (that adds up $38,556 per year — more than 80% of the pre-tax income).

Every part of education in the United States has its own set of financial woes, but teachers bear the brunt of the burden. Many public schools, even districts located in wealthy areas, do not give their teachers any money for supplies; those that do may only provide $200 - $250 per classroom (and those funds are often distributed only to new teachers). In some areas, the PTA (parent-teacher association) steps in with a modest but helpful stipend to each teacher at the beginning of the school year. But even the more generous PTA grants of $500 or higher don’t provide for much past the initial setting up of a classroom. And relying on private donations only works in middle- and upper-class areas, thereby increasing disparity. I taught in a poor neighborhood in Oakland, and we never had a functioning PTA in the eight years I was employed there.

A Tour of Expenditures

I was shocked my first year of teaching, when I found myself spending several hundred dollars just to set up the classroom for the first day of school. The school provided desks, chairs, tables, textbooks, and not a lot beyond that. There were a few “free reading” books, but they looked like they were decades older than the children and hadn’t been treated well.  

New and naïve, I asked the office where I’d get supplies. The office clerk let me into the supply room and counted out my supplies for the first part of the year: one box of crayons per child, two pencils per child, 10 rulers, lined paper, composition books, and some markers. She gave me some chalk and when I pointed out that I had whiteboards and needed dry erase markers, just shrugged and said, “Do you want the chalk or not?” I looked around and requested a stapler and staples, tape dispenser and tape, construction paper, and some more markers. That was all there was.

I asked where I got scissors, and the office clerk laughed and suggested I visit the nearest office supply store. Also not in the school supply room: permanent markers, paints in any color except shades of brown, paintbrushes, tissues, hand sanitizer, soap, glue, glue sticks, erasers, folders, pencil sharpeners, binders, or spiral notebooks.

Those were just the basics. A good teacher who wants to make her students feel welcome on the first day of school needs a lot more. Most of us buy welcome posters to hang on our door, writing our name and grade level, sometimes with all the children’s names. This can be made but since we usually don’t get paid for set-up days, it can be hard for some teachers to justify the time. Bulletin boards are usually changed monthly and there can be considerable time and expense involved in each iteration of these, as well.

I used to buy spiral notebooks, extra pencils, scissors, colored pencils, pencil boxes, number lines and name-tags for the top of the desks, folders for homework, and much more for every child. In some schools, the parents are expected to provide that, but our parents couldn’t afford it, so I provided this for all 20 students. In addition, I needed those dry erase markers; at least one fan for my greenhouse of a classroom; and many, many books to try to interest the students in reading at all their different levels and with all their different interests. I was lucky that I had access to computers donated by friends that year because the school didn’t provide me with any working computers. My luck ran out with the peripherals though, and I had to purchase my own scanner, printer and printer ink. I have friends who were expected to pay for overhead projectors, AV carts and computers on their own.

These purchases certainly added up. This first set of materials was only for the beginning of school, and I had to purchase it all before I even received a paycheck. 

On an ongoing basis, the expenses piled up. The school didn’t give us enough pencils and crayons to last for a school year, so I bought more when I saw them on sale. Some supplies needed to be replenished regularly: soap, hand sanitizer, tissue, art supplies, printer ink, and dry erase markers seemed to run out very quickly, and I spent a lot of money on them every year. Electric pencil sharpeners had to be replaced most years as they received so much wear. Notebooks and erasers are thought of as staples in any classroom, but teachers end up purchasing these for many, many classrooms. When we exceeded the permitted number of photocopies for the year, we paid not only for the paper but each copy as well.

Teachers do not simply teach the curriculum that is given to them by a school district. They often need to buy reproducible workbooks, source material, computer software, and hands-on math tools to supplement the basic curriculum, and help students learn in a variety of ways. While these are necessary for effective learning, teachers are on their own to purchase them, even in areas where parents may provide many of the other supplies.

Nobody goes into teaching for the money; most people become teachers because they care deeply for the well-being of the children they teach. Because of this, many educators pay for children to go on field trips that the families can’t afford. You often find teachers purchasing food for children who don’t eat enough at home. I’ve had friends buy clothing for children, especially socks and underwear, and I even know one teacher who bought a bed for a student who didn’t have one.

Ways to Help

Concerned citizens or parents can help in several ways. First, be politically aware: make it your business to vote and to advocate for school bond issues on the ballot, which can ease the financial pain for teachers a little, depending on how the funds are allocated. Monetary donations to PTAs can also provide the stipends for supplies mentioned above.

Everybody knows at least one teacher, whether it be your child’s teacher, a friend, or a family member. Pass along your gently used office supplies and the books your children have outgrown to that teacher. If you have rewards points for office supply stores, offer to donate them as well, or see if your teacher has a wish list of things you could buy and donate. You may not think a pack of Sharpies or an older electric pencil sharpener will help, but every little bit really does make a difference, and supporting teachers offers them some much needed recognition and appreciation, too. 

Supporting your child’s classroom, PTA, or school is a fine place to start, but supplementing an already well-resourced school exacerbates the inequality of educational funding based on property taxes. Sometimes PTA funds are pooled within a district, which can equalize things. If you are part of a PTA in a more affluent school, think about partnering with a needier school.

Finally, DonorsChoose is a wonderful non-profit that allows anyone to donate to classrooms across the country. Teachers write short grant requests that are posted on the site, and donors make tax-deductible contributions to fund those specific projects (often with matching funds from foundations). I have received funding for class pets, an abacus set, high-interest books, cleaning supplies, and more this way. The range of proposed teacher projects is vast, so prospective donors can choose to fund something that they are particularly interested in, and can specifically seek out schools in poorer neighborhoods, if they choose.

Teaching is a tough job, and one with relatively poor compensation.Thank the teachers you know, and if you can afford it, send some supplies their way.

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