Teacher holding a sign that says, "Teacher needs school supplies! Anything helps.'

By Jane Morris

When someone searches the term “teacher supplies” on Google, there are plenty of items that show up in the results. And for the folks doing this search, are they curious about what a new teacher should have ready to go on the first day of school? Do they wonder how much the average teacher spends on supplies for their students? (Spoiler alert: It’s a lot). Are they getting ready to homeschool their child and want to be prepared? Perhaps they are trying to be helpful and provide the teacher with some of the things they need without being asked. (A girl can dream, can’t she?)

Whatever the motivation, there’s no denying that teachers are in dire need of supplies for their students to participate in their learning environment. So what teacher supplies are must-haves, and what supplies can you go without?

The Numbers

First, let’s talk about how much money the average teacher spends on supplies.

When I recently asked my followers how much money they planned on spending at the beginning of the school year, I was surprised by how many of them declared zero or very little. But it was obvious that those teachers had made that decision more recently after feeling like there was zero appreciation for the time and money they put into their classroom.

It’s much more realistic to plan on spending a decent chunk of your own money on supplies. From decor, to rewards, to pencils, to everything in between, these expenses sneak up on you!

According to a recent article by the NEA, underfunded schools and the unspoken expectation “that educators will spend their own money on supplies and equipment are one of the major factors that drive educators away from the profession.”

The article also mentions that “well over 90 percent of teachers spend their own money on school supplies and other items their students need to succeed” and that “before the pandemic, educators on average spent around $500 of their own money on classroom supplies over the course of the year. That number is expected to be considerably higher this year to about $820.”

If the national estimate on teacher spending is correct, educators nationwide will be subsidizing schools $3 billion.Blackboard that says the average teacher spends $820 of their own money each year on school supplies.

Teacher Supplies: The Essentials

Most of the time these supplies that teachers are purchasing are extremely essential to the success of their classroom.

The bulk of teacher purchases is spent on paper, notebooks, binders, clipboards, crayons, pencils, dry-erase markers, glue sticks, and organizing bins. Many have to purchase their own soap and hand sanitizer because not enough is provided, or in some cases, none is provided at all. Many classrooms wouldn’t have a library if teachers didn’t buy the books and shelves themselves.

For teachers of the arts, their job would be nearly impossible if they didn’t buy the supplies themselves. Not all art rooms are provided with brushes, pencils, paint, or even paper. Colorado art teacher Rozx Gallegos says she’s already spent “$300 this year on organizing bins, new brushes, canvas boards…..and the year is young. I’ll spend another chunk before the end of the year.” Incredibly, one year, she even refinanced her house to purchase technology for her classroom. 

Extra Supplies

Some teachers buy tons of extra supplies for students because they will inevitably lose them, destroy them, or just never, ever have them.

I did that one year and felt my blood pressure rise every time I saw a kid snapping colored pencils in half for fun or leaving everything on the floor after class. Then there was that time a student pointed out an entire section of my ceiling that had about fifty of my pencils stuck in there after a sub day.

Some teachers will exchange the supplies for a student’s shoe, to ensure they get their stuff back in working order, but I’m trying to get my students to keep their shoes on, not encourage them to stink up my room even more.

Bar graph show showing where teachers spend their own money.

Air Fresheners: A Must-Have Teacher Supply

This brings me to air fresheners. This is essential for me because pubescent kids have a special kind of funk that burns the eyes and makes me lightheaded. They have plenty of decent ones at Dollar Tree.

If you want to use a plug-in, make sure you hide it from view because some administrator will tell you it’s a fire hazard (well, so are the fumes coming off that kid’s feet!)

Snacks

Another major drain on teacher cash is snacks for students.

Most kids of any age are hungry most of the time. Sometimes they forget to eat breakfast or pack lunch, but a lot of the time there isn’t enough food at home. And as any educator will tell you, a kid can’t learn if they’re hungry. And the school barely provides a nutritious meal for those students. Sometimes a granola bar from the teacher can make a big difference, and those costs add up quickly. 

Flooded classroom.

Decor

Many teachers choose to spend their money on decorating the classroom, which really does make a big difference in the mental health of the students and the teacher. But you have to be prepared to lose that investment quickly.

One teacher actually said, “I will admit that I spent 3K on decor, and after I hung everything up and got fully situated, there was a major flood. Everything was ruined.”

Another teacher commented, “I’m in my 21st year and I’ve spent over 1500 so far. But I’ve learned that I do it to make the place I spend the MOST time in comfortable and pleasant for myself. I’m worth it!”

I do fully relate to that but not enough to buy anything outside of a thrift shop. One educator commented, “I’m going into my 6th year and I’ve spent less than $100 total over that time. Do I have the most barren classroom in my school? Yes! Do I care? Yes! Do I care enough to spend more of my own money? F*** no!”

That probably sums up how a lot of teachers feel: we do care, and we wish we could spend more money but we don’t get paid enough and there isn’t enough appreciation to make it worth it.

Decor: Who Exactly Is It For?

I definitely fall into the category of spending too much on decor, but I see that as more for myself and my own sanity than for the students.

If you are into decorating, there are ways to do it very cheaply. Forget the cute teacher supply stores. Go directly to your local Goodwill on a discount day. You will find all the lamps, fake greenery, and all the decor you could ever want. Garage sales are a good idea too. And as sad as this might sound when a teacher resigns or retires, I ask if I can have their stuff. They’re usually happy that someone will get some use out of what they’ve spent so much money on.

Sign that mentions that a teacher doesn't care that they have the most barren classroom at school.

So What Do I Really Need?

The age of the students has a lot to do with the supplies you need.

A high school teacher doesn’t need much more than extra paper and pencils (tons of them- if you truly want to avoid aggravation on the first day). Yes, to have engaging, interactive, and relevant lessons, you will need more than that. But it’s not a must.

For teachers of elementary-aged kids or art teachers with no budget, it is definitely more complicated. If they don’t even supply you with paper or pencils, that’s a tough one, and it’s probably had you going the route of begging through social media (otherwise known as an Amazon list).

If you find yourself having to make a lot of decisions about what to spend your own money on, choose the things that will make your own life easier. Will name tags help you remember names easier? Will carts and baskets ease your nerves by making you feel more organized? Do you need a fancy planner to make things go more smoothly for you? If so, then buy those things, but assume that anything else won’t be appreciated and will be destroyed or thrown away.

Other Teacher Supplies and Advice

Looking for more teacher supplies, including those can’t-live-without-it items for your desk or classroom? Check out these posts below to help you make it through those first few difficult years.

Picture of Rozx Gallegos who refinanced her home to afford school supplies in her classroom.

What Are Your Must-Have Teaching Supplies?

Alright, teachers, it’s time for you to add your two cents to this conversation. What teacher supplies do you find yourself buying year after year? Also, how much are you spending of your own money each year to get your classroom in working order? Let us know in the comments section below.

Author Bio

Jane Morris is the pen name of a teacher who would really like to tell you more about herself, but she is afraid she’ll lose her job. Jane has taught English for over 15 years in a major American city. She received her B.A. in English and Secondary Education from a well-known university and her M.A. in writing from an even fancier (more expensive) university. She has a loving family and cares about making people laugh more than anything else.

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