COFFEE TALK | Back to School


It's funny, this thing called social media.  It has opened up an outlet for people... a sort of immobile soap box where people choose to utilize their right to free speech for the whole "world" to see.  I put the word "world" in quotations because some people truly have afforded themselves a platform to reach the world, while some of us reach the "world" on a more local, intimate scale. One thing I have always said is I want to change the world.  So, I'm hopping up on my soap box and letting it rip on a subject that's pretty close to me:  Back to School.

I say that it's close to me not because I am newly a mom to a preschooler so suddenly I have reached a status where I am the end all be all of school parenting knowledge.  I say that because my husband is also a teacher who has been in the field for 10 years in his own classroom and many years before that in various capacities, from student teaching to substitute teaching and beyond.  I have seen the effects being in the classroom and working in a state-run environment that is truly so poorly funded.  I have seen the financial strains it puts on US - - yes, my husband and I.  The list goes on.


What sparked my idea for this particular blog post was the back-to-school season hitting the stores.  I saw countless posts either shared or posted personally from friends on Facebook and even people on Instagram, complaining about schools, the cost of back to school, teachers and teaching in general, funding, etc.  I am here to say that I have seen the lists for back to school and yes, yes... I once was in the trenches for my own self back to school shopping.  I completely get that August is generally a rather expensive month for families, and I don't want to invalidate the fact that it completely can be a financial burden on people.  While there are so many options of places to not only purchase affordable school supplies, there are just as many if not more places to purchase the "cool" supplies ON TOP OF the extras like locker decorations, fancy book covers, etc.  The pressure on kids these days to appear as if they can afford the best, or AT best the middle of the road, is so hard.  BUT... I digress.

After seeing all of these posts as I mentioned before, I decided to put on my journalism hat and find a story.  A story to help others who may not understand the other side -- the teacher's side -- and maybe not be so upset when a teacher asks for extra supplies or assistance in funding portions of their classroom above and beyond their own child.


Seeing as my husband, though a teacher, commutes roughly an hour to work, I don't typically get up to his school so I opted to not bother him too much on this project.  Instead, I took to my personal Facebook page, seeking local teachers... any teachers... who would meet with me in the early evening hours, take me to their classroom and school halls and let me document.  Someone who would let me take a few photographs of them working and just talk with them.  I was connected with an incredibly passionate, energetic lady named Maggie.  She works in the Special Ed program in Alternative Education at MacArthur High School in Decatur, IL.  Without any hesitation, she brought me into her classroom and let me spend about 45 minutes just chatting, learning about her, where she came from, why she does what she does and beyond.  Listening to her speak to what her job entails and why she chooses to do what she does every single day is WHY we have students who are exceeding and excelling -- she wants nothing more than for her students to be the absolutely best they can be, she wants to afford them every opportunity imaginable and be their safe haven, all in a small window of the school day and in a 180 days of the school year.  She is such an advocate for change and support and all things good in this world, and being able to meet her and spend time with her is WHY I love what I do... there is a story in everyone and everything, you just have to find it.

After leaving Maggie, I created a questionnaire for my teacher friends (including Maggie) to complete in order to gather some data and to help you, my readers, maybe understand a little more about teachers and what they do not only on the outside but on the sidelines and behind the scenes.  I wanted to share a little bit of what I learned from this questionnaire, as well as share some of the thoughts of those who participated.

Of the small sample of teachers who participated, all work within schools within central Illinois and work with students aged preschool to high school.  All participants have worked within the school for a range of years, from 2 years to twenty plus -- so I knew I would get some fantastic feedback as I kept on reading.  I asked why they chose to become teachers.  Overwhelmingly, the most common responses were, "I enjoy helping others achieve their goals" and "It was my calling... I've known I wanted to be a teacher since I was young."  Even outside of my focus group of teachers, I hear this a lot from others in the teaching field.

I really wanted to dig a little bit deeper into my participants [which perhaps I'll dive into my findings in a later blog], but instead I focused more on the back to school topic.  Of my participants, 75% of them are parents.  I asked if the fact they are not only teachers but parents of children who have teachers effects the way they treat the back to school craze.  The answer was a resounding YES.  I wanted to learn more about how the back to school anger, frustration, and related effect them.  The answers ranged across the board.  Ashley S, a middle school aged Special Education focusing on Social & Emotional Behavior, said when she sees the posts or hears the complaints, she thinks about the money she puts into her classroom.  "I wish parents understood [...] I have limited funds through school so a lot of the expense to run my classroom efficiently falls on me." Craig P., a middle school teacher in Normal, IL, similarly added that he would like to show people the receipts he writes off for school in order to give them more perspective on the topic.  Several of the participants mentioned that they can sympathize with the complaints, but that they are aware of many programs to help those who struggle not only on a daily basis but especially during back to school time in order to get their children prepared.  Amy D., a middle school teacher in Normal, IL, added an interesting anecdote to the conversation, stating, "I understand the complaint, but there are no other professionals that have to purchase their own supplies. Teachers do spend lots of money on things to make the learning experience engaging and fulfilling. Parents will spend the money to help give their child the best education possible."  I know as we continue to grow and advance in our own lives that we do what we can to give our children a better "life experience" than what we had -- not necessarily insinuating that our life WAS bad, but simply put that we want to always give better.  

I was shocked to find that of the participants, 60% stated that their school did not help to fund much of their classroom other than some basics.  I further questioned the participants as to what items they personally purchase for their classroom.  The list?

  • Notebooks
  • Pencils
  • Erasers
  • Lab supplies
  • Art supplies
  • Basic desk supplies
  • Glue
  • Folders
  • Motivational posters
  • Kleenex
  • Wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Colored pencils
  • Reading books

I don't know about you, but I think that is absolutely insane!  To think that as someone who works full time, my employer provides me with 95% of the above items so I can do my job, but teachers have to foot the bill for their classroom functionality items in order to do their job.  Per my participant group, 67% spend roughly $101-500 per school year on their classroom, while 22% spend $501-$1000.  The remaining 11% spend more than $1000 on their classroom during a school year, just so they can adequately do their job.

The final question I asked was if my participants could share anything with non-teachers, what they would say.  The responses?  I'll share some of my favorites.

"Taking time off is so hard. It almost takes more time to prepare for someone else to come in your classroom and teach than it does to just show up and do it yourself. Quit judging an entire school from that one story you've heard. There are usually 100's of kids in a school. There are bound to be some problems from time to time."

"Teachers and teaching are important! We have many jobs, not just providing an education."

"We may get the summers off but we are definitely working, attending professional development, planning, and purchasing supplies for our classrooms."

"We are in it for the kids. We are not trying to work against parents, but rather with them. It's a team effort. Plus I really, really wish non-teachers understood more of what is going on with the state and our pensions. We paid in, the state borrowed from our pensions. Now they cannot repay what was borrowed. We are not trying to take something that isn't what we didn't already pay or earn. We cannot ever get social security, even the social security of a spouse. It's a mess, an unfair mess!:

"It isn't simply hard work, but heart work. If your child has a teacher who they love, please make sure that teacher is made aware, because we put every fiber of our being into the opportunities we provide your children. We love them like you love them, and we never want them to be denied any resources that we can possibly provide them with."

So, I guess the point I'm trying to make?  EVERYONE gets it.  Back to school is HARD for a lot of reasons, financially being one of the biggest burdens.  Our teachers, however, are carrying the biggest burden.  If you can muster, I would recommend if you see a school item on sale to purchase it for your local school to have.  Every little bit helps and I can assure you the gesture will be appreciated.  Getting rid of books?  If they are appropriate for schools, donate them!  The teachers will love the additions to their library, just as much as the students will enjoy the wide selection. These may seem like small things but in the end they can make a huge impact.  Just think, if we all worked together to pay it forward to our community through helping our teachers as opposed to OPPOSING our teachers... our schools would be better stocked.  Our children would benefit more... not only from never having to worry about a lack of supplies, but from having less stressed teachers worrying about funding their classroom adequately.  Just think, with small gestures such as bringing in boxes of crayons, or a box of paper towel in to the classroom, you could make a world of difference in the lives of so many.  

Rather than adding to the problem, be the solution.  Let's work together to make this world a better place, one classroom, one teacher, one student at a time.

Amber Pond