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Hotchalk Global

news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Do You Buy Your Own Classroom Supplies? How It Adds Up, And Where Teachers Can Find Help

By Monica Fuglei

Classmates at lesson

A book for the classroom library, file folders and a basket to organize student records, or a great movie to reinforce a lesson: it might not seem like much, but teachers’ personal spending is big business. According to Education Week’s summary of a recent survey released by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, personal spending adds up to about half of the $3.2 billion spent by educators on school supplies each year. This averages out to about $485 per teacher.

Percentage of teachers who buy their own classroom materials: 99.5

Education Week highlighted how and where teachers spend their money, saying that 99.5 percent of teachers use their own money to help cover the costs of classroom supplies or materials. The NSSEA survey polled about 400 elementary, middle, and high school educators to obtain their data. Education Week provided this breakdown:

“The average educator forked out about $198 of their own money on instructional materials, $149 on school supplies, and $139 on other classroom materials, for a total of $485 last academic year, according to the survey.”

Red tape prevents reimbursement

Across the Web, social network and comment sections confirm the shared experience of the school supply burden. When the National Council of Teachers of English’s Facebook page hosted a discussion of the article, most respondents indicated that personal spending was an unspoken but common requirement of the job. On Education Week’s Ed Forum, teachers mentioned the red tape they must cut through to receive reimbursement as well as the difficulty of explaining the necessity of supplies that increase student engagement and understanding but don’t fit the standard concept of school supplies.  

Others mentioned the burden of covering photocopies when the school’s only copy machine was out of order or purchasing supplies for students whose families cannot afford them. Many teachers bring food for hungry students or provide memorable incentives to students, such as lunch with the teacher.

Are teachers who pay for school supplies part of the problem?

With tight budgets in most schools, teachers struggle with how to absorb or avoid these costs. Several educators argue that this is not their burden and thus have simply stopped spending altogether. They often simply make do with what they are able to procure from their school’s budget, fearing that increasing their personal spending would allow the school to justify passing this cost to the teacher permanently. Some teachers request specific supplies from parents as needed throughout the year and others enjoy monetary support from generous parent-teacher organizations.  

Two ways to get help with school supplies: Community and technology

For teachers who resolve to get the supplies that most benefit their students without depleting their own bank accounts, resourcefulness and creativity can pay off. Sharing, trading, and combining supplies with fellow teachers is an effective way to reduce spending; communication with colleagues is key to harvesting all available resources. Because it’s true that one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure, educators can also explore Freecycle or Craigslist to find what they need. 

Stay local or go national

The article “How to Get Free Teaching Materials” from Edutopia includes one very simple suggestion: Ask. Put the word out on a school’s website, Facebook page or other local online community. Neighborhoods are often filled with engaged citizens who may not have students in school, but wish to support classrooms.

On a larger scale, several nationwide education charities offer donors the chance to witness a need and see their contribution in action. These include:

Take a lesson plan, leave a lesson plan: finding and contributing to online resources

The rise in technological resources inside and outside the classroom can help teachers avoid some of these expenses altogether. There are many online resources for teachers; a few targeted searches can unearth useful wall art, maps, and even worksheets and lesson plans. A good way for teachers to reduce everyone’s expenses is to find these resources and even consider contributing to them.

In the end, some personal spending might be necessary. While many jobs don’t seem to have such expenses associated with them, the educators who do dip into their personal accounts often see it as a good investment to enhance learning and engage or reward their students.  


Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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