Teachers bring hope and courage to classrooms
Contact paper. Plastic boxes for crayons. Damage-free picture hangers …
If you’re a teacher, this list looks very familiar.
Poster frames. Dry-erase markers. Blank self-adhesive labels …
These are the kinds of items that don’t always make it onto the standard school-supply lists, but we buy them at the start of the school year so that the students streaming into our classrooms for the first day of school can feel welcome and at home. Safe.
Fluffy pillows. Comfy blankets. A few extra granola bars or pretzels for the extra hungry …
For some students, school is the only place that will offer two meals each weekday and the support of adults who are able to meet their academic and emotional needs with predictable routines. Other students simply need a place where they can let their intellects loose with the guidance of teachers who are ready to challenge them and allow them to struggle productively.
And that takes love, time, energy — and money.
In fact, it takes an average of $459 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, which took the National Center for Educational Statistics’ 2011-2012 Schools and Staffing Survey and adjusted for inflation to 2018 dollars.
This is money we’re not reimbursed for. Usually it doesn’t even take into account money from our own pockets for candy rewards, small toy incentives and special favors like special pencils, erasers or markers.
And the number fluctuates depending on where you live.
Teachers here in Illinois, for instance, spend a little less, with a state average of $439 a year. Teachers in North Dakota, where the poverty level is slightly under the national average, spend the least out-of-pocket, at $327. California teachers spend the most, at $664.
Not coincidentally, California has one of the highest levels of poverty in the U.S.
Those teachers, I’m sure, are shelling out for all manner of “school supplies” that are outside of the regular realm of loose-leaf notebook paper, pencils and sharpeners.
Last year I bought the following “supplies” out of my own pocket: snow pants, backpacks, stickers for class projects, jigsaw puzzles for students who reported having no educational toys at home, and yarn and hooks for a student who wanted to learn how to crochet but whose parents needed to economize with the family budget. I bought a supply of petroleum jelly and cotton swabs for mending winter-dried lips that cracked and bled at school.
This year I’ll be teaching mostly Latino fourth-grade students, and I don’t know what their needs will be.
Teachers never know.
For the most part, classrooms are a mix of students who find school easy, who get along just fine or simply don’t need any extra help — and those who come to school carrying an awful load of emotional or mental baggage that they’re not able to articulate on the first day.
The best educators seek to not make such distinctions — they aim to treat each student as an individual learner and not as the representative of a whole demographic whose income level, immigration status or family history will determine how well they’ll perform.
But most of the best — and even a lot of the middling and worst — teachers believe that their students are special and worthy of all the little extras that make school a place that can be full of wonder and fun.
Things like themed nameplates, bulletin-board displays and four-color glossy pictures so the kids can see their own faces decorating their classroom walls. Or comfy seats for students to read in so they don’t have to sit at their desks all day.
Large zip-top bags. Plastic crates. Electric pencil sharpener …
This year, I went “back to school” on Aug. 1, with full days of professional development to learn how to better teach reading and math. I also learned how to reach kids who might seem to not care but may actually just be hungry or sad.
But along with protecting students, teachers were also taught to protect themselves. We were shown how to get out of a chokehold, a hair pull and a fist strike in case a student attacked.
Most disheartening was that we were taught that our doors must be closed and locked at all times while we’re teaching, in case of armed intruders.
This growing climate of fear nationwide makes the list of back-to-school “must-haves” for teachers both free and quite precious: Empathy. Hope. And a whole lot of courage.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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