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Challenge: Extraordinary Teachers

Why I Don’t Resent the School Supply List Anymore

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originally published at The Huffington Post

It’s almost that time of year when I’ll have to fork over at least $300 (but probably much more), on the annual school supply list for my three children. That’s not including the new clothes and shoes they will each need because they’re growing faster than I can keep up with. And $100 per child is actually on the very, very low side.

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen a shift from the teacher’s classroom wish list, to the school issued, mandated grade level supply list. We’ve gone from having classroom wish lists, each item neatly written on a cute paper apple, on a cute giving tree display outside the classroom, to a non-optional, typed, photo copied, and mass-distributed grade level supply list. We’ve gone from teachers politely requesting a few classroom-enhancing gifts, to the school commanding parents to send their children on the first day with more Target and Wal-Mart bags than they can possibly carry. Bags full of items such as tubs of sanitizing wipes (which often have to be a specific kind), large bottles of hand sanitizer, boxes of Kleenex, reams of notebook paper, printer paper, all sizes of plastic storage bags, batteries, glue sticks, packs of pencils and pens, 3-ring binders, and dozens of color-coded folders and spiral bound notebooks.

Ah, the notebooks - this is the one that always gets the kids, because they tend to pick out notebooks with cute or special interest pictures on the covers, only to discover that they can’t necessarily keep the ones they brought in. Because the notebooks are all put into one massive pile for the entire grade level and divvied up per classroom without concern as to who brought in what. Some teachers do manage to keep track, but with all the chaos that is the first day of school frenzy, I don’t know how.

But, I will dutifully send in everything. And though I will practically go poor in doing so, I will probably send in extra. The Expo markers, the dry erasers, more glue sticks than I thought could ever be possibly used in an entire school year… (seriously, do they eat these things for lunch every day?) and so on and so forth. I will send in enough for my kids. Maybe not all in one trip, or all in one day, but I will send in everything on that list at some point, and most likely will send enough to help supplement the classroom for the students whose parents can’t send in anything. I know that’s part of my accountability, and I get it.

Now, I know it may sound like I’m complaining. But, I’m actually not. Up until several years ago, though, I was absolutely complaining. I did not understand why the schools couldn’t even afford their own notebook paper or pencils. That just seemed preposterous.

Then I began working in the public school system, first as a volunteer on my lunch hour, then as a sub, then as a teaching assistant.

When I finally settled into a school that I absolutely loved for its community feeling and close-knit staff, I was fortunate enough to land as an assistant in the classroom of an elementary school teacher who taught me pretty much everything there was to know about being a public school teacher. Having previously only worked in private preschools, and teaching acting classes in the theatre, I had no idea how bare-bones the operation of public school was. Public school teaching really is a labor of love. The teacher I was placed with had just previously been selected teacher of the year, and was known to be the toughest teacher on the block. Nobody – I mean nobody – got away with anything in her room. She was not old, or “seasoned,” as they say, only just a few years older than me, and with three kids, just like me.

She had earned her sea legs working in alternative education with kids who were at school literally on their “last chance.” She knew every behavior trick in the book. She not only had eyes in the back of her head, but could actually see 360 degrees, all the time, probably even in her sleep. Her ears were those of a Norwegian Elkhound. The whole classroom could be talking loudly during snack and basically shooting off fireworks, but her ears could zero in and hear that one kid who quietly whispered something ugly to the kid next to him. She accurately predicted behaviors and issues months before they even happened, and she had a whole arsenal of tricks up her sleeve to deal with every possible childhood misbehavior.

She could outwit, outplay, and outlast anyone. One child who absolutely could not keep his chair on the ground ended up subject to her natural consequences. Since he couldn’t ever keep all four chair legs on the ground at the same time and was constantly falling over, she took his chair away. He had to stand up at his desk the rest of the day. Of course, she told him right away that all he had to do was ask for his chair back, and she’d give it right back. He knew this. But this kid was not going to cave. He was the type of kid who had something to prove, whose classroom “street cred” was on the line. For him, asking for his chair back was showing weakness, and he didn’t want that reputation. After almost a solid week of standing, he finally caved and with a humble little smile on his face asked, “May I please have my chair back now?” To which she replied, “Of course! All you had to do was ask.”

Lesson learned; I don’t think he ever tipped his chair and fell out on the floor again. But she knew these kids up and down, and knew that this type of discipline would work this way on this particular child. She knew he would choose to stand all week, and with that, she knew she would ultimately win the battle. But she wouldn’t have dared to try that tactic on a kid with a much different, more reserved nature. That’s one of the many things I loved about her. Her approach to discipline was not cookie cutter all the time. It was individualized, and it was tough - but you could never, ever call it unfair.

Though the class knew they couldn’t pull one over on her, at the same time, she loved those kids with all her heart, and in turn, they always knew it. The kids who most teachers would try to love but eventually just give up on? This teacher never gave up.

There was another child who tried everyone’s patience from day one, the kind of kid who is in some kind of trouble on a daily basis, with more than one teacher at a time. The kind of kid whose desk is butted right up against the teacher’s desk because he can’t be trusted outside of arm’s reach. I didn’t know if she would be able to make it through the year with this kid. I didn’t know if anyone could. I could see the frustration growing in her eyes as she tried every possible diversion and/or disciplinary technique in the books.

Finally, during the last two weeks of school, we were down to the wire. This kid was off the rails, as we say. I don't think he stopped talking or moving for a single 30-second stretch in two weeks. The other kids were growing real tired of him. I was talking to her about him, expressing my frustration and indecision about what to do with him, and thinking, “here it comes. She’s about to wash her hands of him and be done with him.”

As she opened her mouth to respond, I could almost hear those words before she said them – only, that’s not what came out. Instead, she said with a little smile, “You know… he’s kind of growing on me. It took a while, but I think we’re finally there.” I must’ve stood there dumbfounded for a solid two minutes, my jaw slack with disbelief. I had never before heard a teacher hold out hope for such a student all the way up to the last two weeks of school, when everyone, teachers, administration, and students alike are all just D-O-N-E done. This teacher was still waiting for that moment of connection, the chance to see this child through a mother’s eyes, the chance to love him. She was a perfect example of the type of person who absolutely should go into teaching in the first place, and never, ever retire.

Since that year, I have continued to work with other teachers who are exactly the same. There are more of these teachers than you can imagine. Teachers who consistently work overtime to the tune of 12-16 hours a day but aren’t compensated in any way for that – it’s just a job expectation. True, their actual “work day” may only be about 6.7 hours, but we tend to forget that they don’t leave when the students leave. They either stay at school, having their first chance to check e-mail for the day at 3:45 pm, and continue responding to e-mails until they are kicked out of the building at 10pm by the custodian, or they take their work home with them to finish in bed. Either way, they’re working until 10:00 or later, every single night – weekends, too – and back to school the next day by 7am or earlier, because that’s the only time they can meet with parents, and serve on all those required committees that have weekly morning meetings.

We’re talking about teachers, who do a year’s worth of work in nine months. Teachers, who we think are so lucky because they get their “summers off!” but in reality, many teachers spend their summers waiting tables, leading camps, or teaching summer school, because they don’t make enough during the regular year to save up for the long dry spell of no pay that is mid-June to late September. And if they aren’t working for pay over the summer – they are busy planning for their upcoming year, spending money they don’t have on new classroom items from the dollar bins at Target, or treasures for the classroom prize box. They are attending conferences, earning continuing education credits, or observing other current best practices in year-round schools – all so that they can make a difference and maybe get through to that hard-to-get-through-to kid who’s going to be in their class next year.

They’re doing all of this while their salaries are being negotiated and slashed, while their benefits are decreasing, while they’re losing things that maybe were taken for granted in the past, like teacher tenure. They’re looking for creative classroom ideas to keep kids interested and engaged, while still proving to administration the measures of their professional growth. They’re looking for new approaches to deal with the ever-escalating discipline problems while dealing with ever-decreasing amounts of freedom, freedoms that are being taken away from educators, making it harder for them to actually do their jobs. They're stressing over test scores, never-ending data, and making their numbers, while trying to also remember what's going on in the personal lives of twenty-eight young kids who need their guidance. They're doing all this while entire school systems are trying to figure out how to save millions of dollars for the next fiscal year. Teacher Assistants, the lifelines of teachers, who do so much more than clerical work now, panic every year as rumors begin that 50% of their positions will be cut.

Our public schools and our teachers are not valued in this country. It goes without saying that they are overworked and underpaid. If they were valued, the way we value things like sports and entertainment, we wouldn’t have gaping budget deficits. We would be able to provide teachers with basic necessities like reams of notebook paper and printer paper. Construction paper and electric pencil sharpeners would not be considered luxuries. You darn sure don’t often hear of financial crises for that new publicly funded, state-of-the-art, high-tech sports arena that may get used up to four times a year, and actually adds very little to the local economy. That’s right – we know where our American priorities are. We don’t dare take away our entertainment. But we think nothing of depleting everything from the very people who form our future entertainers, life-saving surgeons, lawyers, accountants, dentists, pharmacists, professors, computer systems analysts, software developers, executives, physical therapists, veterinarians, engineers, and on, and on, and on. We’re very adept at talking the talk for education reform, but we don’t walk the walk.

We can’t count on our public school system funding to change. That’s why it’s imperative that parents, at the very least, don’t complain about having to shell out $500 or so per year to invest in our children’s education and future. I can say from firsthand experience, it really sucks when your classroom has run out of tissues, and that poor little kid who’s had a cold for ten days (but has to come to school anyway because her mom has to work) has to use those gritty brown, school-issued paper towels to blow her nose all day long, her nose that has turned beet red from the inflammation and constant dripping and wiping. And the teacher has already sent home a newsletter and two notes begging for someone to please send in one more box of Kleenex and bottle of hand sanitizer because she’s completely out.

Shelling out money for school supplies is the bare minimum, if you can afford it. And many of us can. No one should be complaining about that duty anymore. Our teachers already know they aren’t valued and are picked apart and complained about all the time. They don’t need the addition of insult to injury when parents refuse – on the principle of the matter – to send in school supplies. We only have one designated week of Teacher Appreciation per year in which parents aren’t even required to participate. TA appreciation is practically unheard of. Same goes for specialist appreciation, office staff appreciation, cafeteria staff appreciation, Special Ed appreciation, etc. Some schools (like the one where I work) have absolutely amazing PTAs who show their appreciation for all staff at every single opportunity. You don't even have to spend money on those things. As a Teaching Assistant, handwritten thank you notes or drawings from kids are still my most treasured gifts of all.

If you’re a parent and you really want to make a difference, (aside from, you know, voting every time there’s an election), if you want to know how to show appreciation to your child’s teacher all year long, the teacher who has no money left because she just spent her last $10 on healthy snacks for that one child who never brings snack, is hungry, and on day ten of eating only fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria, then send in that box of Kleenex and hand sanitizer. And not just at the beginning of the year. Whether you can do it monthly, or just once around mid-year when flu season is rampant and teachers are out of everything, send in those supplies. Things you take for granted… a box of Kleenex (which can get emptied in one school day by a bunch of 2nd graders in winter), pencils, erasers, lined paper, copy paper, Clorox wipes, batteries, dry erase markers, construction paper – the list is endless, and each school has its own unique needs. If you’re unsure of what’s needed, ask your child’s teacher, or call the office. But understand that these things are not freely given from the school system to the classroom teachers.

Send in a few boxes of Kleenex and hand sanitizer in January without having to be asked. Replenish the classroom pencil supply mid-year with basic, good quality, yellow, #2 pencils. Understand that there is nothing greedy about your child’s teacher or grade level supply lists. Chances are, lots of it will come out of the teacher’s pocket anyway. This, on top of paying for lunch for the sweet kid who ran out of lunch money days ago and cried of embarrassment and disappointment when she was told to put her chicken nuggets back. That, on top of the teacher having just paid dues for the PTA, the hospitality committee, the bereavement fund, volunteer appreciation day, and Muffins for Mom/Doughnuts for Dad. That, on top of all the money the teacher just spent at yard sales on cool gadgets, stickers, books, and games, because she wants every child in her room to have the best possible learning environment. And maybe, just maybe, at the end of the month when teacher payday comes around, the teacher will have just enough money left over to pay for her own children’s school supplies.


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