On Teachers and School Supplies

As teachers started ramping up for the school season in the United States this year, they did a lot more than decorating their classrooms, thinking about lesson plans, and coordinating with other teachers and staff in a series of endless meeting. They also had to secure school supplies. And that doesn’t mean going to the supply cabinet, taking inventory, and making sure the right things get ordered by the district. For many teachers, it means personally going out and buying school supplies, and sometimes soliciting parents and nonprofit organisations for school supplies or assistance with buying them.

The state of education in the United States has come to this point, that teachers who want their students to have basic supplies in the classroom like pencils, paper, crayons, pens, and even cleaning supplies must provide them on their own. There’s always been some expectation that teachers will stock at least some things, especially for specialty projects that may not necessarily be on the standard district curriculum. In the last few years, that expectation has increased heavily, adding a burden to teachers at precisely the same time that companies selling school supplies may not be able to help teachers with the costs; some are setting limits on the number of discounted items you can buy, for example, so teachers can no longer buy things in bulk for their students because of the price.

And, of course, it’s not like teachers are inordinately wealthy to begin with. This money comes out of their pockets, not from the district, and teachers are already substantially underpaid for the work that they do. Having to buy supplies for a semester can quickly run over $200 and is often much more if teachers need to buy things like safety scissors and other equipment for their classrooms. They don’t get refunds for spending this money and in low-income districts they buy things in full awareness of the fact that parents can’t chip in to help buy supplies, something that is happening in more wealthy districts, where parents may directly fund supplies or fundraise for them to help teachers stock their classrooms adequately.

This is, in a word, ridiculous. Teachers should not have to supply their classrooms, particularly with basic materials. It’s utterly unreasonable. Teachers should have fully-stocked classroom with the supplies they need, the ability to order more, and some discretionary spending on the district’s dime for specific projects that will help students engage and meet specific curricular goals. These supplies should be considered standard as part of the expense of running a school, ensuring that students have the tools they need to learn; and the same goes for textbooks, which should be current and undamaged, as well as things like school furnishings and tools such as computers and blackboards.

The fault here does not lie with parsimonious districts. Most are scrambling to distribute funding as fairly as they can among their teachers, although overpaid administrators are a problem in the educational system as they are elsewhere. School districts work with what they have, which is, bluntly, not enough. They’re underfunded as a result of educational policy in the United States, and funding is wildly unequal between districts. Hence, you have situations where teachers have to buy their own school supplies if they want their students to have something to do in the classroom, something that’s especially critical on the elementary school level, where student activities are an important part of the learning process.

Richer school environments lead to more well-rounded students with a greater chance of success. Children who feel like they are valued and cared for also tend to do better. If you’re in a poorly-maintained school with no supplies, the message is clear. Society believes you are worthless and doesn’t want to invest in you. It will pay for a bare minimum and sometimes not even that because it’s an obligation, and it will be glad to see the end of you after high school, or preferably sooner, if you can be shunted into the school to prison pipeline.

School supplies may seem like a small thing in the face of the larger education crisis in the United States, and there are considerable problems that need to be dealt with. But they are, nonetheless, an important thing, because they reflect so many of the underlying attitudes behind the broken education system here. Providing an education has turned into an unwanted and resented obligation, rather than something that society should be offering because everyone benefits from it. It’s turned into something available to the elite, and given grudgingly to everyone else. If you can afford it, private school can offer an exemplary education, and you can rest assured that these schools are well-supplied.

If you can’t, your children are thrown to the mercy of a system that views them as objects to be shuffled through a series of halls and classrooms until the district can wash its hands of them. Teachers, too, are trapped in this system, which is why they end up scouring the shelves for low-cost school supplies and pleading for funding from community organisations, parents, even friends and family. Some use the Internet for crowdfunding, and some of their requests are truly piteous. All they want to do, they explain, is buy some crayons for their kindergarteners. Or some hand lenses, because asking for microscopes would be too much, but they want their students to be able to explore the natural world.

This is a future generation of scientists and writers and dreamers and musicians and creators and innovators, and we should all be invested in them, because they have so much to offer. Instead, society can’t even be arsed to allot enough money to their schools to provide them with pencil sharpeners.