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More Teachers Fund the Class Supply Closet

Amid cutbacks that affect the classroom, many educators are dipping deeper into their wallets for pencils and field trips

It's a maxim they don't teach at college: If you want to become a teacher, be prepared to open your wallet when supplies run short.


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* A Portland, Ore., principal gives up half her salary to rescue a teacher's job from budget cuts.

* A Las Vegas teacher who makes $29,500 a year spends $1,500 of it on teaching supplies the district doesn't provide.

* A physical-education teacher on unpaid sabbatical in Pennsylvania prepares weekly lesson plans for her students on the West Coast.

Teachers have always spent personal money on students. But as tax-support dollars decline and educators are told to make do with less, many teachers find they are spending more.

The nation's teachers spend more than $1 billion annually on their classes, according to a study co-authored by Utah State University professor Glenn Latham. Of 1,700 teachers responding to the 1993 survey, only five spent nothing. Typically, teachers spent an average of $454 annually on supplies, learning materials, and teaching aids.

The National Education Association says some teachers' expenditures run well above $1,000.

The result is frustrated teachers. They know what a difference money makes to a classroom, says NEA spokeswoman Melinda Anderson.

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"I think people need to realize the final consumer is the child," she says.

Teachers shouldn't have to dip into their own pockets to meet the scholastic needs of their students, she says. Most businesses, for instance, would never dream of asking employees to supply their own computers.

"You're not talking about a lot of extra disposable income there, Ms. Anderson says. "It's a real love of children and a love of a profession that keeps them doing this."

Putting off retirement

Mary Beth Van Cleave was planning to retire this year. The Portland principal hoped to fill the year with gardening, traveling and spending time with her two grandchildren. Then budget cuts threatened to slash teaching positions at Kelly Elementary school, which she headed for seven years.

Ms. Van Cleave felt she couldn't leave the school at such a critical time. So she decided to forfeit her $70,000 yearly wages to help. The school district agreed to use half of Van Cleave's salary to pay for a teacher who instructs first and second graders.

"I don't think it was a rational decision," the principal admits. "But it was possible, and it's working. When you're faced with the children and their needs and you love them so much...."

But not everyone was pleased with Van Cleave's gesture. She was nominated for Oregon's outstanding principal of the year, but lost when three of the five principals on the deciding panel voted against her, she says. Van Cleave believes they felt she was setting a bad precedent.

Yet she never expected others to follow her example. Van Cleave was happy to be in a position to contribute - inspired, in part, by similar actions by teachers.

Mission impossible?

Many school districts require teachers to perform miracles, but give them little in the way of proper tools and support, says Mr. Latham, now professor emeritus at the Logan, Utah, university.

"I never cease to be amazed at what school teachers will do to come to the rescue of kids when parents and school systems fail," he says.

Kimberli Helaire-Smith earned just $21,000 a year when she walked into her first classroom as a teacher. She discovered that her low-income students lacked paper, pencils, rulers, and scissors. Ms. Helaire-Smith soon found herself reaching into her own pockets for supplies.

She rewards her first graders with Popsicles, stickers, pencils, and erasers. And she's buying up inexpensive trinkets for a treasure chest her students will dip into after they read five books.

"If you have that hunger to hang on to your money, you're not going to stay in the field," she says. "It's part of the job.

Last year, Helaire-Smith took 12 fourth-graders -- top scorers in a spelling bee - to Utah's Zion National Park. Smith used her own money to rent a van for the drive into the scenic gorge. She paid for food, doled out spending money, and bought film for several students who brought cameras without film.

"We try to give them a home away from home," she says, "which means going into our pockets to do whatever we can."

Helaire-Smith isn't wealthy. With a baby on the way and two teenage stepchildren, she and her husband can't afford to buy a home.

Karen Tompkins Barker lives in Carlisle, Pa., more than 3,000 miles from her students at Irvington Early Childhood Development Center in Portland. But she stays involved with their education.

Ms. Barker spends at least eight hours a week preparing special lessons for her gym classes. She took a sabbatical to be with her husband, now in a year-long training program for the National Guard.

Despite her volunteer efforts, when her husband's training is over, Barker might not have the same job to go back to. The Portland schools face another round of budget cuts, and elementary physical-education programs are often seen as disposable.

"Even knowing that," she says, "I'm not giving up. I'm not a quitter."

For 19 years, Barker has devised ways to coax kids into physical fitness and better nutrition, creating such programs as the mini-Olympics. She has spent her own money on equipment. She shelled out $4,000 last year.

Parents take note

Such sacrifices aren't lost on parents.

All of Peggy Schultz's five children have attended Portland schools. One is a third-grader at Kelly Elementary. Over the years, Ms. Schultz has watched teachers quietly provide school supplies for their students who can't afford them.

"I think if everyone had the opportunity to spend some time in a classroom they would have a different perspective," she says. "I personally wouldn't choose that job for anything. I don't have that kind of dedication."

But Schultz says there are no easy answers. Many people are struggling and can't afford to pay higher taxes for more school funding. "Does that make it fair for the teacher? No, I can't imagine how they get by," she says.

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