In my last editorial, I wrote fondly about my first few weeks of teaching. What I left out was the financial trouble that I quickly found myself in.
Through my time in university, I was fortunate to live at home, relying mainly on transportation provided by a sturdy bike and a monthly bus pass. My first teaching job, however, was out of town, so the financial responsibilities of real life hit me quickly.
I needed a car and car insurance. I needed rent and a damage deposit. I needed new work clothes, furniture, food and gas. By the end of my first month of teaching, after at least six weeks without a paycheque, I had my first overdraft and my first line of credit.
Despite all the financial outputs that I had to deal with, I still found around $300 to purchase supplies to outfit my first classroom.
The idea of teachers spending a great deal of their own money on classroom supplies is not foreign to most readers. Last week, we asked teachers on our Facebook page to tell us what they had spent so far on their classrooms to prepare for the new school year. The response was incredible.
More than 110 people shared the post, 40 left comments and we also received a number of emails. Most of the people who left comments spoke about spending anywhere between $200 and $1,000 for their classrooms. Teachers buy things like posters, books, bulletin boards, stickers, storage bins and some bigger items like rugs and furniture. Some teachers even mentioned purchasing regular office supplies like paper, pens, staplers, tape and whiteboard markers.
I understand that there may be a blurred line between a school board’s responsibility to equip classrooms and a teacher’s desire to add value, but there are many examples of legitimate expenses being picked up by teachers without compensation.
Of course, the spending always goes up when teachers encounter a new classroom, grade or course assignment. One teacher said she spent more than $1,400 in her first year, while many others said a change of assignment would easily push spending up to and over $1,000.
There is no obligation for teachers to purchase such things for their classrooms, yet we all do it.
As a classroom teacher, one of my favourite lessons was the introduction to conic sections in Math 30. I would purchase boxes of ice cream cones and challenge students to visualize the different two-dimensional shapes they could create by cutting the cones open and examining the cross sections created. The students would hypothesize the results and then test their ideas by actually cutting the cones apart. It was a strong, hands-on activity that would aid in visualization and recall. The students also enjoyed the ice cream treat that inevitably followed.
As a professional, I felt that the activity was engaging and valuable to learning. Could I have taught it differently and with less cost? Sure, but that didn’t matter to me. Could we have entertaining and engaging classrooms without the various posters, bulletin boards, stickers and activity rugs? Sure, but as teachers, we want to do our best for our students and we want them to have a strong educational experience.
On the one hand, much of it is discretionary spending that comes with being a professional, and on the other hand, it is third-party subsidization of education. Along with school fees, fundraising and charitable donations, a significant amount of educational spending comes from tertiary sources. Our schools struggle to afford the basics of education and so teachers, parents and the community are left to find ways to enhance the educational experience with their own money and efforts.
Periodically, politicians will pick up on this issue, and if they really want to go after teacher votes, they will offer tax deductions specifically for teacher expenses. In 2012, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives offered a $500 annual tax credit (amounting to up to $50 in returned taxes). In this federal election, the Liberals are offering a $1,000 tax credit (amounting to up to $260 back). Such moves would surely be welcomed by teachers, but they don’t fix the underlying issues. In fact, they may serve to entrench and legitimize the situation.
And yet, at the end of the day, gaps will always exist, and I am sure teachers will continue to attempt to fill them. So, maybe, at least getting a tax credit out of it will ease the burden.
I welcome your comments—contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.