In the second volume in our series on American teachers, we're exploring the reality that many of our public schools are greatly underfunded, short on supplies, and are financially supported by teachers themselves. Take P.S. 132 in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City where the children's toilets are decrepit, old, and overflowing with waste. Or, even worse, a Philadelphia elementary school with a yearly budget of $160. Yes, $160 to support a school of 400 students for the entire year.
The school has no music class nor playground equipment. There's a single noontime aide for the whole school, so two teachers volunteer to watch students during lunch and recess. An upbeat school police officer is a plus, but she's also assigned to two other schools.
And the boxy, Cold War-era building is a worry, suffering from years of deferred maintenance. Leaks are common, and so is standing water and clogged toilets. In one basement classroom, poison ivy creeps up the unsealed windows. There are pests, too — a mouse once jumped out of eighth grade teacher Kara Yanochko's purse.
Most people will tell you that they have bought some necessary item for their job in order to make their lives easier. This is not out of the ordinary, even if it means eating the cost yourself. But the reason that so many teachers lament having to buy their own supplies isn't simple. Teachers face mismanaged budgets, lack of awareness on the part of administrators for teacher/student needs, and the knowledge that, without certain tools at their disposal, students simply cannot learn. If there were no need for supply money at schools, a website like DonorsChoose.org, a GoFundMe-adjacent place for crowdfunding teacher-student projects in schools across America, would cease to exist.
Hear it from the teachers themselves.
From an email submission about an actual rationing system put into place at a school:
Supplies. The elementary school has to ration paper. At the HS, we can have all the paper we want, but out copy machine is broken 80% of the time. High schoolers eat pencils, but lord help you if you don't have enough writing materials for students every day. I spend hundreds of dollars a year buying books for students and materials for class that the school won't cover. I'm lucky – we do have a supply budget. In schools without one, teachings spend thousands of dollars of their own money. I'm not being hyperbolic.
Teaching is the only job you'll steal supplies from home to take to work
I wish people who make education policy where actual educators. Special Education is in a sense under attack. The move towards standardization means that the powers that be want me to treat all students the same. The Education Sec. of the United States, Arne Duncan recently said something to the affect that special ed is a failure because students in SPED don't have the same outcomes as students in general education. He advocates just holding high standards and my students will overcome their disabilities and achieve greatly apparently. (Arne by the way has never taught a day in his life.)
I have a student with severe emotional disturbance and low cognitive ability. He spits, bites, and hits. His behavior has greatly impedes his education. His cognitive ability also means he struggles with basic phonics. And I'm magically supposed to have him reading at grade level. That's just one student out of my current 15 in my self contained behavior classroom.
There's a lot of money in these tests, grading of the tests, testing materials etc etc etc. I sincerely question most school reform ideas because most of it seems predicated on the idea that a lot of public money is going to enrich a very select few. Case in point, look at all the money going to EXTREMELY shady charter school operations for one example.
PS. I apologize for any and all errors. Please don't murder me.
From an email submission on available technology, or the lack thereof:
I don't have technology adequate for my job. The computers are dated, the LED projectors don't always work, the school doesn't have enough people handling tech support, so problem tickets can take weeks to resolve. I think the lack of technology, facilities and supplies is what surprised me most about coming from the tech sector and going into education. Common Core is supposed to be about preparing the students to work in our global economy and my students have computers that are 7+ years old. Their cell phones have more computing power.
According to my fellow sub, I was about to be the third substitute the students had had in their first week of school because the school had yet to hire a new Spanish teacher. She said that the school had had such low test scores in previous years that they were being looked at closely by the state (this turned out to be mostly true). As a result, they had fired about half of their teachers at the end of last year and had yet to replace them all. In their first week of class, the Spanish I students had learned to count to 10 in Spanish. They had no textbooks or workbooks, because only full-time teachers can request textbooks from the school. There wasn't a notebook, piece of scrap paper or pencil to be found. When students asked to borrow a pencil we had to ask other students to lend them one. Most of the technology in the room didn't work. The Spanish II teacher offered us a binder full of worksheets for the students but the school's copy machine was broken. Earlier in the week they had used the projector to project worksheets about the numbers 1-10 onto a screen, but now the projector was broken and regardless, the remaining worksheets required the students to speak basic spanish. And they couldn't cancel the class and move the students into classes with full-time teachers because they were required by the state to offer two years of Spanish.
I met a handful of other teachers, including two of the new teachers. When I mentioned the difficulties we were having they conspiratorially admitted that they didn't have anywhere near the support or materials they needed. A new math teacher told us that she had been hired late in the summer and told to take the first week of school off as a professional development week, to get to know the school, prepare her materials, etc. She stopped into her classroom halfway through the first week and asked the substitute what her students had been working on. The sub said "Oh, I'm a health teacher, we haven't been doing any math." She came to work the next day. Several teachers came in to use the copy machine only to find that it was (still) broken. One mentioned that things might be easier once the students received the Nook tablets the school would be handing out soon. I assumed that they were part of some company promotion or technology grant, otherwise why in the world would the school invest their limited funds on tablets when they can't keep teachers in the classrooms or maintain their existing technology?
An email submission about the dire lack of books in schools:
There were many problems with my school and unfortunately that affected my experience as well as the students. First, we were underfunded. My first year I was a new teacher without books. I had no guidance as to what I was supposed to do, and I relied on workbooks that I bought on my own to create lessons. I tried to be creative and I managed to have some successes, one being a "Poetry Hour" that the 6th graders put on for the school after developing their poetry portfolios. Unfortunately, most of my days were terrible. The kids didn't want to learn, discipline was a huge problem, the parents didn't seem to care, and the administration did not support the teachers. The kids fought all the time and there were times I felt scared for my own safety. I remember one time when I taught 7th grade, a student said he was going to meet me by my car and stab me. It just wasn't a good place to work. I hated waking up every morning and dreaded most of my days.
One teacher explains she spent $2,000 of her own money in the first year of teaching:
The cost. I spent over $2,000 on my classroom my first year. That includes: staples, tape, posters, baskets, file folders, bins, pencil sharpeners, bookcases, books for my classroom library, sticky notes, pens, pencils, folders, tissues, hand wipes, snacks, snacks, more snacks, movies, more books, whiteboard markers, a dongle, mp3 players for my special ed students to have audio-books, alarm clocks for my students who wake up late, tickets to my students' sports games, more books, my teaching books, printer paper, notecards, markers, colored pencils, colored paper, etc. I've already passed $800 this year— and I fundraised $600 from friends and family in addition. If you think I'm exaggerating, ask a teacher you know. She or he might even have some receipts to show you— I actually kept all mine from my first year. It was horrifying.
A little math problem on what teacher salaries should look like, from an email submission:
You may have read this before or already had it sent to you, but: Even if you consider teachers "babysitters" - which the worst few are in the least and the best many are laughably more than - their salaries would prorate out to sums much larger than what they actually make. Assume $3/hr x 30 kids x 7 hours a day = $630/day. They "only" work 180 days a year, so that's $113,400. And doesn't include the whole $5/minute extra that babysitting services are able to charge every time you're late to pickup your kid!
For what it's worth, I'm not a teacher myself. I do, however, come from a family of teachers, so feel their misery when people make light of their profession. I actually believe the work ethic I saw growing up from them - working late nights, weekends, vacations and giving their personal time and money (of which there wasn't much) towards their kids - has made me successful today.
As always, we are accepting submissions from America's educators, aides, and administrators. Please comment with your stories below or email me here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next up in this series, we'll take a detailed look at teachers' daily schedules.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock]