What Back to School Costs Teachers

What teachers pay from their own pockets for basic supplies

children writing on blackboard...

It's back-to-school time, which means back-to-school costs. According to the National Retail Federation, the average family will spend $669 in school supplies, and this sounds about right for my family, except the breakdown is not what you would think.

My family's back-to-school budget consists of about $100 for my third grade son and a little over $500 for my husband, who is a teacher. Yes, teachers pay for supplies just as parents do; however, instead of supplying two or three kids, most teachers supply over 30 kids with tools and resources they need to learn.

My husband is a high school physics teacher who has taught for more than 18 years in four different states and both public and private schools, and no matter where he has taught, he has always paid for many of his classroom supplies out of pocket without being reimbursed.

A few years back, right after we got married and combined our finances, he made a trip to Home Depot for supplies he needed for a lab experiment and when he returned, I asked if he was going to expense the supplies and he laughed out loud at my question.

That day I learned about the worst kept secret amongst teachers; despite mediocre salaries, they still pay out of pocket for classroom supplies.

Recently, I asked my Facebook teacher friends about this practice, and I was shocked at the response that I got. It did not matter what age they taught or in what part of the country, they all seemed to spend an average of $700 over the course of a year for supplies.

Kate O'Driscoll, a second grade teacher in New York, responds, "I just spent $500, and my purchases include anything from a laminating machine to pencil boxes and classroom décor." Other supplies teachers indicated purchasing included printer paper and ink, pens and pencils for kids who forget them, rulers, calculators, or snacks for small groups they mentor.

This type of out-of-pocket expense is not limited to present day teachers, though, it has been going on for decades. Joyce McIntosh, a retired special education teacher from Pittsburgh shares, "When I started teaching over 30 years ago, I would spend at least $100 a year on supplies, and as costs rose, so did my out-of-pocket expenses."

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the estimated average annual salary for a teacher in the United States is $56,383, and in many states this average is down from previous years based on state budget challenges. If teachers are spending on average $700 on school supplies out of pocket, this represents 1.2% of their salaries, and I expect the out-of-pocket costs for teachers will continue to grow.

Recently NBC News shared a story on the growing burden of lengthy school supply lists for parents, especially those in low-income areas. If the schools won't pay for the supplies, and parents can't afford to outfit their kids with the supplies they require, who do you think will shoulder the burden?

As a parent, I hate to think of my son's educators facing financial strains just to provide him with a quality education. Amy Lecher, who is a fifth grade teacher in North Carolina, suggested that parents contribute to the box top fundraisers that most public schools run. "I have been given money to buy a few supplies from those. We typically split the total amount of money earned between the grade level," said Ms. Lecher.

DonorsChoose.org is the heavily-used Kickstarter for teachers who need help getting supplies for their class. There are requests from teachers in the St. Louis, Missouri region. Another post is from an elementary school art teacher in Philadelphia.

"In the end, great teachers want to give their students the best educational experience possible, and sometimes the only way to do that is to pay for it ourselves," says Bill McLay, a high school physics teacher in New York.

As you are lamenting on your ever-growing school supply list for your young ones, just take a moment to think about the amazing men and women who have contributed for decades and continue to go above and beyond to provide a stimulating and educational experience for your children at the expense of their own personal finances.

> More on What It Costs To Be a Teacher

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In my area various organizations ask for and receive donations of backpacks, lunchboxes, and school supplies for kids in need. Teachers also typically send home "wish lists" for things like boxes of tissues, disinfecting wipes, etc which some parents may be able to afford to donate. When I taught pre-school, the teachers often bought wooden puzzles, educational toys and books. One mother in our classroom asked us at Xmas for a "wish list" and then asked each of the families of her extended family to donate one item. It really helped out and no one person was extremely burdened. I went to school in the 60's and schools supplied all paper, pens, crayons, and glue. Sometimes kids had their own colored pencils in higher grades. We didn't use staplers, we had a way of folding the corner of the paper & notching it that held. In 3rd world countries kids learn without a lot of fancy supplies. Classroom decor: kids should create it from their assignments!

August 25 2014 at 5:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I respect our teachers; my daughter is a 5th grade teacher at an inner city Catholic school. We have always contributed extra things to our granddaughter's classroom to help mitigate the out-of-pocket by the teacher. My complaint with the supply list is that it is way too specific! Come on! A certain KIND of pencil; a certain KIND of bookcover; a certain KIND of pencil holder; a certain COUNT boxes of tissues and rolls of paper towels; a certain BRAND of this or that. And no suggestion of where to purchase some pretty obscure items. It's absolutely ridiculous. Sometimes you have to go to 2 or 3 stores to get the SPECIFIC stuff the teachers want. Ease up.

August 25 2014 at 5:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My daughter began teaching at a NYC public elementary school, straight out of college. She walked into a practically empty room...no chalk, no books, nothing for the walls, or to keep students papers in etc. She lived at Staples and her father and I helped as well. She spent approx $1200 out of her own pocket on everything from copy paper, to folders, to books to build a classroom library, to the basics for what students lacked (pencils, glue sticks, scissors etc) She was able to spend that amount because she still was living at home. On the holidays I made over 2 dozen goody bags for her students....it was my pleasure, as she is in a school where almost 100% of the students qualify for free lunch. Over the almost 8 yrs she has been teaching, I have also sent in two fans, as the almost 100 yr old school did not have any AC until this past spring. As each lucky teacher got an AC...the fans were passed to those still waiting. MY list for next week already has staplers, construction paper, and cleaning and paper products..I am sure it will grow thruout the yr.
My daughter is in her room at 7:15 am and NEVER leaves before 3pm as most people sneer about. She was educated at some of the the best schools in the country and is planning on going for her 2nd masters degree this yr. She is dedicated , self sacrificing, caring and (with much effort) still determined to be involved in education. I would like to see some of these teacher bashers walk a few days in her shoes.RESPECT OUR TEACHERS!

August 25 2014 at 4:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is crazy. When I went to school in the ''old days'' I came with a pencil, a pen, and a ruler, and maybe a three ring notebook. PERIOD. The school supplied the paper, one sheet at a time. I received a great education to include knowing how to write script which for some stupid reason they now call ''cursive''. They tell me that the kids do not need to know script (and it is not taught in many cities) as they do everything on the computer. If so, then why do they require them to purchase notebook paper? Also, I rode my bike to school - winter and summer. Now they all take an expensive school bus. The school building was totally open. Now they are all locked up like a fort.

August 25 2014 at 2:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Back to School Supply marketing is obscene. NO kid should think they need 'cool' shoes or must have a damn cell phone or tablet for school.
Our kids earn their own allowances and buy their own supplies and they LAST!! Maybe appreciating what they cost is a more valuable lesson than what is 'cool'.
A new blue notebook.... a backpack if theirs has been cared for but is worn out.... new pens and pencils... an eraser.... a lunch 'insulated bag' and new shoes. The rest (pants of dresses as needed due to growth or damage) we pay for.
The literally hundreds our stupid neighbor shells out is MOSTLY to replace the things their kids think are cool or they abused or threw away cuz they were 'last year'.
The preoccupation of what is 'correct' vs the learned lesson of 'value' is simply not a fair comparison..... yet most parents follow the TV ads and want to be heroes for spending..... rather than teaching.
sad.... really sad.

August 25 2014 at 2:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

51 thou, they make 20 thou a year more then me. Thou feels no sympathy.

August 25 2014 at 2:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As a ten year teacher I see two parts to this:
1. In California any school supply that is mandated must be paid for by the district. That they don't is illegal, but no one seems to call them on it.

2. All these things are not necessities, they are "wouldn't it be nice" things. Classes were taught for thousands of years without most of these things. Recently I have noticed that many teachers are shifting the costs to the kids/parents. I wonder what happens if the parent can't afford them - $600 is about an entire check for a welfare family.

The state gives money to the districts based on ADA - average daily attendance. The money goes to the classrooms on the trickle down theory, and usually there is not much left after every other budget need is satisfied.

The solution - teachers now make a reasonable amount of money, so if they have something speciat that they want the kids to heve they should continue to buy it, otherwise make do. If you are a parent and things get overwhelming, just say no - to the teacher and the principal. Teachers who need a lot of junk think that is what teaches, not them, they are wrong.

August 25 2014 at 1:44 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Amory Leigh Dinges

Our PTA is reducing the school supply list by purchasing certain supplies for thestudents in K-8th grade. The teachers have certain amount that we reimburse them for. We are blessed to be able to do this.

August 25 2014 at 1:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jo Lavender

I have contacted every congressman I can about this objectionable practice of expecting teachers to supply their entire class of students with pencils, papers, erasers, glue, scissors, pens, construction paper, various art supplies (for those schools that still permit any artistic endeavors), paper clips, staplers, staples, binding machines and supplies (for those books kids write over which parents swoon), cleaning supplies for the whiteboards, supplemental materials for the curriculum. Understand, these districts get MILLIONS in state and federal as well as local funds to keep the schools supplied with educational materials, operational costs, and special programs.

For instance, one inner city SoCAL school district, from which I retired last year, pays its Superintendent over $350,000 PLUS BENEFITS a year plus also paying an indeterminate number of deputy supers, assistant supers, and associate supers who also earn six figures plus benefits. (The district keeps "reclassifying" job descriptions to avoid the public outcry over just how top-heavy in management it really is. All the while, this district claims the teachers it hires are "incompetent". (How does ONE district manage to hire so many "incompetent" teachers? Could it be the District's corporate clones are actually the incompetent ones?) This district also grouses about how much the teachers earn (avg $45,000 a year) and demanding they continue their education beyond the degree plus credential process. Small wonder teachers leave the profession within five years!

August 25 2014 at 12:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Schools started to unravel in the early 60's when school bussing was mandated to make things "equal". The cost of this overwhelmed most school districts. From there it was all down hill to our current state. The introduction of progressive thought into our universities has progressed all the way down to pre-school and has destroyed public education. My hat is off to the teachers who work long hours, put up with unruly kids( and their parents), pay for supplies, and have to jump through all the government hoops. I wish you all good luck in the future--your going to need it. This is just how I see things and I welcome any other views.

August 24 2014 at 10:29 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to motown571's comment
Erik Baran

No, schools started going down hill when the no new taxes crowd got their way and did nothing but cut funding for schools.

"your going to need it". lol Irony is such a wonderful thing.

August 25 2014 at 12:05 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Erik Baran's comment

That is why we are spending record amounts of money every year on education and not using the money to EDUCATE. It's NOT the no new taxes bunch. It's the DEMOCRAT RUN schools that spend obscene amounts of money on "administration" instead of education.

August 25 2014 at 12:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

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