With my mind on my money and my money on poster board and permanent markers

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY

So I’ve been thinking about money lately. As in, where’d all mine go? Oh yeah—I spent it on backstage passes for the upcoming NKOTB reunion tour. Step One: We can have lots of fun!

Actually, a hefty portion of my paycheck went into my classroom this year. Teachers of the world, sing it with me: Baby, I got your money, don’t you worry, I said hey. The list of expenditures (or needs) is a long one, from basic classroom supplies (such as Kleenex, books, yes, even paper) to “big picture” items (such as posters, furniture, Edgar Allen Poe Halloween costume, etc.).

No doubt there are teachers out there who steadfastly refuse to spend their own money on their classroom. I, for one, am not so resolved. I probably spent close to three hundred dollars on food alone this year. Is that freakin’ crazy? Please tell me, ‘cause I don’t know anymore.

It’s just so hard to know where to draw a line. On a personal level, I have no problem being thrifty. But when it comes to my students, I have a hard time saying no. I want my classroom, to be, you know, nice. That’s an understatement— I want it to be a “temple,” as one of my students recently put it while describing the ideal school. And if you’ve stepped into a typical urban school lately, “temple” isn’t the word that comes to mind exactly (try “detention center”). So I’ve invested in my classroom, figuratively and literally. It’s no temple, but it’s not bad either.

Of course, every profession comes with its own list of job related expenses. And by no means should teachers be exempt from this. But the problem is, teachers are tacitly expected to make up for the inequities of our educational system—inequities which are directly responsible for the so-called achievement gap. Shouldn’t that burden be a shared one?

The present arrangement simply isn’t fair to teachers or students. You say your district can’t find the money for a class set of The House on Mango Street? Well, you better get your ass to a Kinko’s and shell out a few bucks for your kids. Or just stick to the textbook instead. The textbook’s not terrible.

I’m not so idealistic to think that economics shouldn’t ever enter into the equation. Schools have a budget—of course they do. I just think it’s a travesty that teachers (especially teachers in disadvantaged communities) must so often make a choice between their students and their own financial solvency.

Two other related points worth noting: 1) Teachers are eligible for the $250 Educator Expenses Tax Deduction. It’s certainly a start, albeit a meager one. And, 2) Three teachers in my eight-teacher academy had their cars stolen this year. Three! Bad luck perhaps, but it reminds me that committing to teach and live in an urban environment means you will get jacked at some point. Especially in these desperate times.

Am I writing all this because I think teachers should be paid more? Not exactly. As you have probably heard, there’s a charter school in New York City that plans to pay its teachers $125,000 a year. That’s two and a half times as much as the national average. In order to offer such a groundbreaking salary, they are cutting from other areas. For example, the principal will make $35,000 less than the teachers. Plus, there will be no assistant principals, deans, substitute teachers, or teacher coaches; the teachers themselves will fill these various roles.

On the one hand, the idea that waving a six-figure carrot is the best way to assemble a team of excellent teachers makes me squirm a little. I’m also distrustful of any principal who earned his chops while founding a test prep company. But I do like the spirit of it—the willingness (and, by virtue of their charter status, the freedom) to examine and rework the school budget in creative ways.

I would be content with this: A thousand dollars a year. That’s it. A thousand dollars to invest in my classroom as I see fit (that last stipulation, by the way, is an important one). I’ll keep my normal teacher salary—just give me a thousand dollar annual stimulus to create a Poetry Corner in my classroom. Or to take my students on a field trip to a nearby museum. Or to buy cookies for Parent-Teacher night. Surely if a school in NYC can find an extra $50,000 per teacher (at least), my own district can find $1000/per.

Now who’s with me?

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6 Comments

Filed under Classroom Reflections, In The News

6 responses to “With my mind on my money and my money on poster board and permanent markers

  1. Doesn’t your school’s educational foundation take care of that kind of stuff? The school I attended growing up made grants to teachers for classroom expenses not covered by the regular school budget.

    As a taxpayer, I don’t think it’s right to raise everyone’s taxes to cover frills for the schools. But I have no problem making a voluntary donation to the school’s foundation in order to make the classroom a bit better a place.

    I’ve actually put a bequest to my alma mater’s foundation in my will.

    • I think I should clarify that things like art, music, PE, & foreign language instruction, school librarians, etc. are not IMHO “frills” to be covered by foundations but rather ought to be part of the regular school budget. If your school’s foundation doesn’t have money to make grants to teachers because it’s paying for the school music program, that’s a serious problem in my mind.

    • Alistair

      My district does have an educational foundation like Crimson Wife mentions. However, their funding is limited and teachers must write specific proposals in order to receive those monies. Last year, I think two teachers at my school were awarded grants. And then these grants must be used for the very specific project outlined in their proposal. I couldn’t, therefore, use the money to buy food or misc. resources for my classroom. I could use it to create a Poetry Corner, though.

      In regards to taxes, I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for raising taxes either. But I do think we should reexamine how our tax money is being spent. For example, here in California, we are something like 49th or 50th in the country in terms of money spent per student. But we spend more on prisons than any other state in the union. I know the actual math is more complicated than that basic stat comparison, but I do think the two statistics are related and indicative of some messed up priorities (and that’s putting it gently).

  2. I’m with you — but the best I can do is keep my kid out the classroom while paying my taxes. I think of it sort of like driving a Prius, just my small part to help out (only I don’t drive a Prius, BUT, I don’t drive an Hummer, either).

    It seems ridiculous to me that a teacher would have to spend his/her own money for classroom basics, but I know this has been going on for decades.

    Elementary schools in my (mostly affluent) area publish school supply lists that include many basic items for communal use in the classroom. I suppose that is one answer when parents can afford the items and will buy them. I am guessing this approach is not used past the elementary school level.

    I wish I had an answer for you, but instead I have a question. I don’t know if your school does this, but what about schools that partner with businesses. Who gets that money? I’m guessing it’s not the teachers and doesn’t help them defray basic costs. Maybe it’s alarmist, but I find it pretty disturbing — however, if it helps get the schools equipment and supplies that they need, maybe it’s not so terrible.
    http://www.commercialexploitation.org/factsheets/schools.pdf

    It seems to me that schools have gotten too complex – how can we simplify them so that teachers can do their jobs and teach?

  3. Actually, in 2005-2006, California’s per-student school revenue was 25th in the U.S., only slightly below the national average. It was above average in per-pupil income from federal and state sources and quite a bit below average in local revenues, because of Prop. 13.

    Now, one could argue that because of the demographics of the student population that the state’s schools ought to receive higher-than-average resources. CA has a much greater percentage of students who are low-income and/or non-native English speakers than most states do. So I would tend to agree with the argument that CA ought to be closer to the top rather than in the middle. But it’s a myth that CA is next-to-last in terms of school funding.

  4. Alistair

    California is 47th in per pupil spending according to Education Week which adjusts for standard of living. Here’s a link to the California Dept. of Ed’s response to the ranking: http://www.cde.ca.gov/nr/ne/yr09/yr09rel2.asp

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