Learning As Leadership

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 16 2011

It’s Partly About the Benjamins

Being a teacher is expensive.

You hear teachers whine about this all the time. I used to be like you. I would get so annoyed and just wish they would shut up.

Now that I’m a teacher, I don’t really whine about it that much… Out loud, anyway.

But the fact of the matter is, teaching can really add up. A lot of the stuff I buy isn’t REQUIRED to do my job, but it either gives me a smaller headache at the end of the day, or I just love my kids so sososososososososososoooooooooooooooo much that I can’t help but spend money on certain things.

In a year and a half of teaching, I have spent over two thousand dollars on direct classroom or field trip expenses. At first I kept track, but now I just shred the receipts and pretend like it didn’t happen. I sing “I Believe the Children Are the Future” at the top of my lungs every time my VISA bill comes to drown out the madness.

It’s not the big things, it’s the little things. Every trip to Wal-mart is another hundred dollars blown. With over a hundred students, even doing something minuscule, like giving a kid a sticker on their homework, piles it on like you wouldn’t believe. Bump that up to giving every kid a pencil, or heck, a candy bar, and it starts to get painful.

I’m sure teachers everywhere come out of their pockets for classroom expenses, but teaching in an inner city, where resources are scarce, is extreme. I’m afraid to even ask sometimes. And even if we do get something approved within the budget, all the administrative bologna that we have to go through just to get a pencil sharpener means that we won’t get it until May.

The upside to working in a district with very few available resources means something wonderful, though. It means that we have access to so many community resources. It blows my mind sometimes! Someone once asked me what the biggest surprise was about doing Teach For America. In all honesty, one of the biggest surprises for me was something called KidSmart. In St. Louis, there is an amazing (beyond amazing) non-profit organization called KidSmart. Teachers at qualifying schools (based on the percentage of the student population that qualifies for free/reduced lunch) are eligible to shop once a month at KidSmart. In exchange for volunteering just one shift per year, I get to go every single month and fill an entire shopping cart with school supplies for my students. Tonight I did my September trip. Here is what I received FOR FREE: 56 notebooks, 4 binders, 5 backpacks, 8 packs of markers, 6 wall calendars, 7 brand new paper back books, 25 pencils, 100 pens, 2 packs of colored pencils, 25 binder clips, a pack of band aids, 3 dry-erase markers, 3 highlighters, 8 water bottles, 10 rulers, a pack of notebook filler paper, a used dictionary, 7 really cool “incentive prizes” for my kids, etc. etc. The list goes on. Do you know what it would have cost me to purchase all of these supplies on my own? It simply wouldn’t have been possible. I will go through those pencils, pens, and notebooks within a week.

Even though KidSmart impacts my students, they will probably never realize the impact that it is having in their lives. I think that’s the way it should be. Student in affluent areas take for granted the tools they use to learn like pencils, paper, and books. I believe that the students at my low-income school should also be able to take for granted these tools and just focus on achievement.

That being said, KidSmart probably impacts me far more than it impacts them. I say this because, as a teacher in a high poverty school, I am going to do whatever it takes to get my students the supplies that they need. That means that if KidSmart did not exist, I would be purchasing all of the supplies that I am able to get there free of cost. I am a young professional and am committed to teaching where I teach, but sometimes the financial burden can be astounding. Even with the profound support from KidSmart, I have spent an astronomical amount out of my pocket in order to get established in my first year as a teacher. Were it not for the support of the community through KidSmart, I fear the amount would be far more staggering.

When students borrow supplies from me, I always try to remind them to treat them with respect because someone donated it. They get very curious and always ask, “Who?”

“Just someone from our community who cares about schools and cares about education.”

“Do they have kids or something?”

“I don’t know. Some of them do. But most of them just really want to see all kids succeed. They know how smart you are, and so they wanted to help our classroom succeed.”

This can go on for quite a while. The students almost always want to know the names of the people who donated the supplies. It’s hard to explain to them how enormous KidSmart is and how many donors it requires to function. I usually tell them that many of the donors are anonymous. My students are very impressed and inspired by the nameless and faceless people behind the pencils they use in their journey towards college.

But it doesn’t stop at KidSmart. That’s the tip of the “It Takes a Village” iceberg.

The next most amazing resource available to me is called DonorsChoose. Donors Choose is a website where you can fund raise donations for your classroom. You primarily solicit donations from your friends and family who, more than likely, have already given you a crap-ton of money/books/supplies, but often times corporations like Build-A-Bear Workshop will match donations, or fully fund your project. Companies in St. Louis are notorious for swooping in and funding Teach For America corps member projects. I cannot tell you the level of gratitude that I feel when this happens. It’s like Santa Claus and winning the lottery at the same time. Twice already in my teaching journey I have had my Donors Choose wish granted. First, donors sent me beautiful journals for every single one of my students. Then, at the end of last year, donors sent me six wonderful beanbag chairs for my students to curl up in when they are writing or reading.

Donors Choose is amazing for the bigger projects, pie-in-the-sky ideas, and technology. My only problems with Donors Choose? Part of doing DonorsChoose means that the “cost” of my project increases because of DonorsChoose’s administrative costs, requiring them to tack on a minimum of $50 to my project. When I’m just asking my friends and family to donate, sometimes that increased burden is prohibitive. I’ve created an Amazon Wishlist, and many of my friends have sent me items directly from my Wishlist, like a book of the top Harvard admissions essays, which my students use to hone their craft and prepare for college.

Other random things that I’ve purchased? Hundreds of dollars worth of used books, white boards for my classroom, taking some of the top students in my class to Incredible Pizza, squishy stress-relief balls for kids with ADD, stickers, posterboard, dry-erase markers, and PHOTOCOPIES!!!!!!!!!!!! This year I do not have reliable access to a copy machine at school. The guy at Fedex/Kinko’s knows me by name. And also the name of my cat.

But guess what???? Even Fedex gives me a discount to make copies! A HUGE discount. Everyone does their part to ease the burden on us, and I am so grateful. Not every teacher has that. Then again, not every teacher has to make their own copies.

I know what you’re thinking. If you were a teacher you could do it cheaper. You would be more creative. You would get more donations. You would write more grants. You wouldn’t spend a dime. Easier said than done, mon frere. Sure, I write grants, enter contests, sell my soul for donations. But as a new teacher, I can’t possibly anticipate all of my needs. Much of the time I have last-minute needs. Getting donations is great, but typically takes a looooooong time. Additionally, time is money, people!!! My time is SO incredibly limited. If I have an extra hour of time, I am much more likely to spend that time doing something that DIRECTLY impacts my students, versus spending that time writing a grant proposal for something that I may or may not get, that may or may not benefit all of my students.

I try to be creative as possible and use every last resource at my disposal, but even then, sometimes you just need adhesive Velcro at 2 A.M.

Teach For America has been incredible at generating support, and a few times a semester they allow us to select students to bring on awesome field trips, like ice skating or bowling. These organized events give us a way to bond with our students outside of school, and provide extra field trip incentives for students who most deserve it. Last year they even gave us Safari passes to the St. Louis Zoo.

You may have heard that Apple is donating a free i-Pad to every Teach For America teacher’s classroom. First of all, I am absolutely floored by this. It is amazing to have a company support us in such a major way. So even though I don’t have a copy machine, or books for my kids, or enough pencils to go around… We will have an i-Pad!!!!! I’m currently working with other teachers to brainstorm how to most effectively use the computer so that students can benefit from it. Without a projector or reliable internet access in my classroom, I am eager to hear how other teachers are using their i-Pads.

Do you know what the best gift I’ve received has been? A woman I went to college with, who is a law student at St. Louis University, and also president of the Black Law Students Association, organized weekly tutoring sessions with my students last year. You simply cannot put a price on members of our community putting their money where their mouth is and coming in to have a direct- DIRECT- impact on our children. Their impact was beyond what you can imagine. EVERY SINGLE DAY students asked me if their tutors were coming. Having someone to read with was a huge motivation for my students to read after school.

Not everyone can volunteer in schools, though. So keep donating pencils. Keep doing book drives. Keep funding DonorsChoose. It all makes a difference, big or small.

And we’ll try to keep our whining to a minimum.

3 Responses

  1. Kurt (Community Manager)

    Congratulations! Your post has been featured on the Teach For Us homepage.

  2. Fiona

    If you go to into any apple store and let them know you are a teacher, they will take your information and let you know when they are having workshops to teach how to use the ipads to their fullest potential in your classroom.

  3. -05 STL Alum

    Glad to know you are taking advantage of resources like KidSmart and Donors Choose. If you celebrate Christmas, one thing I would do is have my family ‘sponsor’ my classroom instead of giving me gifts. Also, for pencils, think about using golf pencils. They are small, no eraser, but they won’t walk out of your classroom the way nicer writing utensils will. A cheaper way to mark student papers is with stamps, I know everyone likes stickers but if you get a few fun stamps, they will last a lot longer for a lot less $$.

    Glad to have you in the region!

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a Teach For America teacher’s blog

St. Louis
Middle School

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