It’s that time of year: Huge bins of pencils, paper, and glue sticks have appeared as retailers begin back-to-school sales.
Teachers like Megan Kalchert are already filling up their carts.
A third grade teacher at Amherst’s Nord Middle School, she’s already been stocking up on 50 cent crayons at Target. Kalchert bought 27 packs from the sales shelves to give to her students as Christmas presents.
“Parents groan and roll their eyes when we ask for those 30 sharpened pencils but half of those will be dead in the water by October,” she said. “These supplies go fast… I know the black crayons are the first to go. They’ll be gone by October and half the box will be a mess before we hit mid-year.”
Kalchert said it’s not uncommon for local educators to spend $200 to $400 at the start of the year to get their classrooms up and running — more if they’re a new teacher.
In fact, a U.S. Department of Education survey released in May found 94 percent of public school teachers and 88 percent of charter school teachers dig into their own pockets to buy school supplies each year.
They spend an average of $479. More than a third of teachers report spending between $500 and $1,000.
Similar studies in recent years by Sholastic and AdoptAClassroom.org back up the data, concluding that most American teachers spend between $500 and $600 on back-to-school supplies. All told, it amounts to more than $1.5 billion spent by educators.
Lisa Thacker is a sixth grade social studies teacher at Langston Middle School in Oberlin. Like Kalchert, she’s already started bargain-hunting for school year basics and typically spends upward of $200 — she goes through 50 to 60 fine-tipped markers each year because many classroom projects include creating posters.
Most teachers enter the building hauling bags of supplies, whether it’s decorations, items for bulletin boards, or different posters to spice up the classroom, she said.
That’s important — learning spaces have to feel comfortable while also keeping kids engaged, Thacker and other teachers told us.
Many teachers also spend their own money to buy prizes for students who perform well on assignments and treat each other with respect. Thacker buys her kids fun pencils and stickers; last year, they got a kick out of collecting cat unicorn stickers she placed on homework: “They were only a dollar a pack. It’s money that, if you get into education, you’re willing to spend,” she said.
Kim Foster, a second grade teacher at Wellington’s Westwood Elementary, said like others she spends $300 to $500 throughout the year. Her advice: Buy doubles of everything at the beginning of the year and put it aside, because then you don’t have to pay a premium for supplies in the dead of winter.
It’s also common to buy more than just stationary supplies for students who come from homes where money is scarce, Foster said.
“We’ve bought bookbags and clothing — things like that for kids — that you wouldn’t think you’d have to buy. A lot of times they come to school with clothes that don’t fit them, or they’re wearing the same things all the time. They have a broken pair of shoes,” she said. “Winter coats are a big thing or their backpack will break and parents can’t replace it.”
Russ and Emily Marty, teachers at Amherst Steele High School, said they’ve bought a lot of meals for students who needed something to eat.
Others described buying winter hats, deodorant, and even Christmas gifts for students who otherwise wouldn’t have them.
Thacker recalled buying shoes for a student who desperately needed them, and shirts for another who was wearing pajamas to school. “If a kid comes to me and says they really need something, I feel like it’s my responsibility to help them out. It’s never anything crazy. It’s a necessity,” she said.
“We had students who were so incredibly grateful it was almost humbling how grateful they were,” she said. “It was such gratitude for getting a little bit of help and if that little bit of help can propel someone to do something great, then it was worth it.”
Teachers know which families struggle, so they squirrel away extra binders or calculators for those kids. “I think just about every teacher is willing to do that for kids when they forge a relationship and have knowledge of a kid in need,” Russ said.
All the teachers we spoke with insisted every penny they spend is worth it. Those called to be educators understand it’s part of the profession.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.