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Uncle Curmudgeon: Should Families Spend So Much on School Supplies?

Every now and then, I come across a letter from Uncle Curmudgeon, an old retired teacher, to his niece, Kennari, an aspiring new one. I’m happy to pass another along!

 

Dear Kennari-

Ah! The beginning of a new year! Flowers are fading in the garden. Trees are tiring. Days are still warm but aren’t quite as long or summery. And, I know from your last letter, that you have been busy as a late-season bumble bee getting ready for the first day of school.

You sent along your back-to-school letter for me to look at, and I pray you have not yet sent it out. First of all, on the third line, I saw a typo. Please remove the apostrophe from “book’s you read” lest you appear as confused about possessives as your Aunt Dot who insists on addressing Christmas cards from “The Gray’s.”

supplies
More importantly though, something else caught my eye. It is likely too late to do anything about this now, for surely you and your grade-level colleagues are all in on this together, but perhaps it’s something to ponder for next year. I was struck by the number and specificity of school supplies your students are required to buy: 1 pencil case, blue/black pens, pencils, colored pencils, 1 package of Sharpies, several fine line Sharpies, scientific calculator, 4 single subject notebooks, four 1” and 2.5” 3-ring binders (D-ring preferred!), 3 packages of subject dividers, 100 heavy weight clear plastic sleeves, and a refillable water bottle.

It looks like your students will engage in some wonderfully exciting and organized work this year, but this requirement for students to bring in these kinds of supplies (a practice all too common nowadays) is troubling.

Out of curiosity (and honestly, in an attempt to find something worthwhile to do during last night’s Sweet Meadow Acres for Retired Teachers association meeting) I looked up the cost of the supplies your students are required to purchase. Are you curious? It was $120, and that was a somewhat conservative total! I know that your school is trying its best to stretch every dollar, but have you considered how tough this may be on families? Surely, some of your families can afford whatever supply list you throw at them, but I bet many can’t. Many other families in the middle may be able to afford this, but I bet it’s a stretch. What if a family has four children? Should they need to spend nearly $500 on school supplies? That’s quite an imposition, don’t you think?

Likely, this practice is putting many students in an awkward position right from the get-go. You may see some self-consciously hiding hand-me-down binders or beat-up calculators from peers who come to school with the top-of-the-line materials. You may see others who come to school with no supplies at all since their parents can’t afford the cab ride to the office supply store, let alone the materials themselves, and don’t have the wherewithal to request the help they need. Just think of how these students will feel entering the school year—inadequate and already behind.

You (or your colleagues) may argue that your school has been doing this for years and that no one complains. Can you blame them? Imagine how hard it would be to complain about this sort of thing as a parent—when you’re trying to get off to a good start at the beginning of the year? Imagine the embarrassment of having to ask for financial help before the year even begins! (And, if your school is like many others, this is just the beginning. You’re likely going to ask people to donate to fundraisers, shell out money for field trips, and attend school events that require a fee. Have you and your colleagues ever totaled the amount of money that most families spend on school each year?)

Shouldn’t it be the school’s responsibility to provide students with the supplies they need to be academically successful? Isn’t this what everyone’s tax money is supposed to be for? When I was in the classroom (and the Earth was still cooling, I know), I had a small budget to use on classroom supplies that were outside of the norm (things beyond paper, pencils, scissors, stone tablets and chisels, etc.). I used this money to purchase specific materials that we would use as a class that all students should have. If I couldn’t afford it, we didn’t do it; I lived within my means. In fact, I told students they weren’t allowed to bring in their own special supplies unless it was for everyone to share. Anything that came through the door was for all students to use—so everyone had access to the same (and the same quality) materials. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in public education being equitable for all.

Interestingly, when I made this change as a teacher I had a few parents who expressed a sense of loss at the back-to-school shopping experience. (To me, this is like missing an intestinal bug once it’s gone, but who am I to judge?) So, I created a list of class supplies that people could purchase to donate to the whole class—materials we always needed anyway: extra clipboards, rulers, markers, glue sticks, tissues, etc. In this way, families who wanted to shop for school had a way to do so, yet no one was being required. No parent (or grandparent or aunt or foster parent) had to make the embarrassing request for help. No family had to choose between school supplies and groceries. And no child felt humiliated and inadequate on the first day of school.

As I said, this year this horse has already probably left the barn. If so, this would be a great time to raise this question for next year. It will give you and your colleagues plenty of time to think about a better system.

Speaking of better systems, did your cousin, Diane, have her septic system replaced? Is she back home yet? The last I heard from her mother, her welcome was wearing thin.

Yours truly,

Uncle Curmudgeon

  • Mike Anderson

    Mike Anderson is an education consultant, award-winning teacher, and author of many books including What We Say and How We Say It MatterThe Well-Balanced Teacher, The First Six Weeks of School, The Research-Ready Classroom, and Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn. Learn more about Mike and his work or invite him to work with your school or district through his website: www.leadinggreatlearning.com. Connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher.

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    Leading Great Learning

    Mike Anderson is an energetic, experienced, and highly sought-after educational consultant who helps facilitate great learning in schools all over the United States and beyond. He has over twenty years of experience as a teacher, consultant, presenter, and developer and has authored many books and articles about great teaching and learning.