I haven't been teaching long—8 years. But every summer, my inner cheapskate's anxiety goes up to 11. It's the time I've been anticipating/dreading all year: back to school sales.
When I started teaching, things were different. I wore a lot of dresses, I was always in heels, I was blonde, I was dating a guy who worked for McKinsey and wanted me to quit and have babies, and back to school shopping day was my favorite day of the year.
If you timed it correctly, you could hit up 5 Staples in the matter of 2 hours, get all their free swag, hit their penny sales, have a Mary Kay lady pressure you into giving up your info, and maybe have mini-muffin or two (or 4, I'm trying to be honest with you here) along the way.
After that, you meander to a Walmart or two, maybe an Office Max and you had enough supplies for you and the kids for a year. By the end of the day, your car was full and you were exhausted.
When I first started, I was spending 100-200 a year, but it was okay. My kids had markers, colored pencils, writing instruments, binders, Post-it notes (I teach English and try to have them engage with text while reading), scissors (it took 5 years to build up a class set), binder clips, filler paper, notebooks, whatever they needed.
I did this for two reasons:
1. I was working in districts where money was tight
2. Even in wealthier districts, people tend to buy 1 of everything their kid needs and then in December, supplies run out and you still have 6 months to go.
I know what you're thinking: Lady, this is your fault! In my day, our teachers didn't buy us anything and we were happy!! I picked up pencils from the floor! No one asked you to spend this money! Why are you whining? You get summers off! You make more than a lot of people! Rabble-rabble-rabble.
I'm not trying to whine. I'm trying to explain why it's so important that we get discounts and help for supplies. I don't think that poverty should be a barrier to education and it's hard enough for some kids to participate in class, do homework, and not break down—there's no need to add another anxiety to that. But not all schools cover those supplies.
So the cycle starts. You buy things in the summer. You get supplies for yourself, try to replace anything that's broken, maybe splurge on a new pencil sharpener and to get supplies for the kids, too. And when you go over the supplies the kids will need during the first or second class, you try to be casual when you mention that if they can't get something in time, they should come see you.
In October, you realize that a few kids never have breakfast and your school doesn't offer it, so you pick up a box of Nutri-Grain. You have to replenish that at least once a month. Kids come after school for help but aren't focused because they're hungry. You decide to get a jug of pretzels. That's replenished at least twice a month. Some kids are staying for club meetings/rehearsals/team building things. You're going to need to feed them otherwise they'll be crashing at five. Maybe you're lucky to find a place that does $5 pizzas. Maybe you're not.
Winter comes and you and your colleagues sit with the nurse to figure out what certain kids need (hats, coats, boots) and how you'll get them. You'll chip in money, try to see if you can find gently used gloves and then figure out a way to give them to kids without embarrassing them. Kids' supplies start to dwindle and so do yours, so back to the store to get some more things. A kid loses a book and your department head is on you for that 8 bucks you know the family really can't afford. You give her a ten and make sure you get your change back. The kids are all sick—you buy 12 packs of Kleenex at a warehouse store.
In February, right before break, you realize that the kids aren't reading—-mainly because the books you have in your classroom library are old. If you're lucky, you can arrange something with the librarian. If you're not, off to a book fair! The kids are all still sick—you're buying 12 packs of Kleenex and Clorox wipes at a warehouse store every Friday afternoon and the cashier knows your name. You do your taxes and claim the max federal deduction for school supplies—250.
Spring arrives, kids freak out about placement for next year, you're dreading high stakes testing, and then the end of the year trips start piling up. You try to figure out what kids need to have things paid for (class trip, yearbook, end of year dance, etc.) and how that will be handled—did the person in charge of yearbook charge everyone a dollar more than cost so they could have extra for kids who can't afford it or will you have to buy one and sneak it to the kid? Can you figure out a way to get kids home from the dance because their parents work nights and you really can't drive kids home. Oh, and since it's spring, now all of the kids have allergies. You've resorted to taking toilet paper from the bathroom and having them use that.
Then it's the end of the year and you see your more privileged kids try to throw everything away and your stomach drops. You remind them about up-cycling and saving things for you, but the pickings are slim (binders are hardly ever on sale, but by the end of the year, most of them are trash).
You say goodbye to them, try not to cry, and hope they'll have kind teachers at the high school.
By the end of the year, you've spent about 700 dollars (this of course, depends a lot on where you live, but New England is expensive, so I lucked out there). But hey, at least you got teacher appreciation days and the accompanying, right?
But things have changed. I'm a brunette now. Staples' appreciation is a tote bag (if you're lucky); Walmart is giving you 10%, yeah, but it's in the form of an eGift card; and who knows what Office Max is doing?
They used to waive maximum amounts for teachers—every year, my mother would buy a full box of those folders for 5 cents each. Now, they're 15 and the manager gives you shit for wanting 100.
Money's tight everywhere, I know. But it's especially tight when you're paying for your life, all of your work supplies and supplementing what your "kids" need.
We're not going to wake up tomorrow with huge checks in our mailboxes, stores aren't going to let us just take things, and Staples will probably stop handing out those tote bags.
Teachers are just going to have to suck it up, continue paying out of pocket (did I mention we only get a 250 allowance on our taxes and that expired at the end 2013), and hoping for the best.
I've already spent $200 this summer. This includes guilting the Staples manager into letting me do multiple transactions, returning things that were .25 cents more expensive than elsewhere, and getting bare basics. This doesn't include the clipboards and posters I still need and clothes for the new year.
So I'm going to get it out of my system (no, I don't speak this way in my classroom):
Fuck you, Staples! You've always been a hometown favorite, but fuck you! That rewards program is bullshit! Kiss my butt, Walmart! You make me feel guilty for shopping there! Politicians who felt that teachers shouldn't get the puny 250 deduction? I hope you go to hell.
But at the end of the day, I'm a teacher. We're hardcore. We love our kids and our jobs. So, we'll pick up the slack, try to make sure everyone goes home at the end of the day feeling happy, loved, and ready for more challenges.
But, if you've got an extra $10 or so, please consider helping us. Give to a Donors Choose project; see if your workplace has any awesome extras to give to schools; buy a teacher a drink (you'll have to head to a bar at around 4 to do this one—we go to bed early). Or, even better, please, please, please, give your kid's teacher a box of tissues. It really does make our week.