4 Horsemen of the Summer Apocalypse – The Back-to-School Supply List

It has arrived. The sign of the end of freedom. The end of long days filled with sleeping in, splash pads, library reading, and vacations. The dreaded supply list has made an appearance on the school district’s website. After a groan, an eye roll, and a silent prayer for your wallet, the .pdf is opened…

Who the freaking hell needs 5 dozen Ticonderoga pencils? That’s literally a new pencil every three days for each student. Do the kindergartners really need 104 crayons and 24 glue sticks? Heck, 5th grade wants 20 glue sticks… 3pkgs of dry erase markers? Added to our list this year is headphones – didn’t the schools used to provide those?

After the initial shock wore off, I started to wonder the reason behind the ever expanding school lists. Are the kids really consuming that many supplies each year? No, probably not. The more likely scenario (and I’ve polled a few teachers on this to get their side of the story – more results to follow, and thank you to all of the teachers who contributed their viewpoint) is that there is a growing number of parents, particularly in lower-income areas, that either can’t afford to purchase school supplies for their students, or just plain don’t care. So, how do these kids get their school supplies? By upping the amounts required on the list to ensure enough supplies end up in the community supply buckets, because you and I (and the schools) know that there are usually enough parents who will purchase the whole list without blinking to supplement the students whose parents won’t be sending enough supplies – or any at all. Maybe it’s just the district we’re in choosing to handle it this way – I’ve heard of some districts, oh the fantasy, that have a warehouse full of supplies for teachers to request when they need them, within a budget, and all parents are responsible for providing are the basic supplies – but I’m willing to bet there are others that go the same route as this one.

Now, believe me when I say that I am not resisting the need to buy school supplies – even for students whose education I’m not responsible for. Ask my kids’ teachers – I am one of the first parents to volunteer to bring extra supplies, and I constantly check in with them throughout the year to see if they need anything. Expo markers, paper plates and bags, pencils, extra folders, stamps, special requests for craft projects – I’m in. One of my kids was on a team last year, so some of supplies I brought weren’t just for her or her class, they were for two or more classes. And you know what, I don’t mind a bit. This isn’t a bragging statement, or an I’m-better-than-you-because-I-can-afford-to-buy-extra-supplies…because you know what, that’s not always the case. Of course, my family never does without the essentials, but there are plenty of things I could be spending my money on other than school supplies for other people’s kids. Suburbia is expensive. So why do it? Because I get it. I get that if parents don’t chip in past the amount needed for their own little darling, then either the kids whose parents don’t care or can’t afford to provide the necessary supplies will suffer, or the teachers will spend their hard-earned money on supplies. Usually, the result is the latter.

But here’s the problem with that… Teachers are employees of their school districts. Employees should not have to purchase supplies necessary to perform their job duties. Contractors do, and that’s perfectly fine. There are a few industries that are known for having employees provide their own specialty supplies – such as tools in construction work, and knives if you’re a chef. While that’s debatable in legality, many of these types of employees prefer this arrangement because they are able to purchase and use a brand they prefer and know will be maintained properly. There are also arrangements in some workplaces where employees provide things like their own coffee. Fine, that’s not a necessary tool to perform their job (of course I’m writing this from a Starbucks, so…). But if you walk into any office and ask an employee if their boss required them to bring in staples and pens for office use without reimbursement, the answer would likely be no. If the answer is yes, well that’s an issue for another post…

A Snapshot of Reality

However, it happens. Every school year, and I’d wager a guess that it happens in every classroom. I don’t think I’ve met a teacher yet who has gone one year in their teaching career without spending money on basic school supplies for their students. While this is noble, and admirable, and just the thing you’d expect from the personality of someone who is destined to become a teacher – it’s wrong. It shouldn’t be happening. Sure, if they want to spend some of their money decorating their classroom, or on a special project, go ahead. That’s the equivalent of bringing in your favorite stapler to the office, or of me using a design program I favor to complete my work. Actually, I think the teachers should be provided a stipend for these expenses as well. Some school districts do that, from what I gathered during my teacher-poll. However, these are typically the same budgets used for professional development and substitute teachers, which are two items most teachers would rather spend their budget on than pencils and paper. Rightly so. But the districts lumping necessary school supplies into professional training budgets means that one of the two has to suffer, which isn’t right. This leaves the teacher spending their own money on supplies so their students can learn, or spending time and energy coming up with creative solutions to keep pencils in their classrooms, particularly at the middle- and high-school levels.

Speaking of that, though a bit off-topic, do you even begin to realize how many creative ways teachers have of trying to keep pencils in their classrooms? Well, I found out during my teacher-poll. From an “orphaned pencil jar” full of mislaid writing utensils picked up in hallways, to “pencil challenges” spurred by rewards, to goofy-flower designs, to signs posted in the classroom encouraging students to return borrowed supplies, to selling pencils in the classroom – teachers have a hundred ways to try and make sure their students have the supplies they need to learn, and not many can say that they’re all that successful in the endeavor. Some even say they get backlash from their school administrators when they bring up the lack of supplies, and the best they can do is continue purchasing supplies out-of-pocket. This is…wrong. So wrong.

What Can We Do?

It’s a difficult problem to solve. Actually, if you look at it from the right angle, it’s a smaller scale of the taxes/welfare/government spending/perception issues we have in America. The people who can afford to supply provide for those who can’t, or else the children suffer. So how do we fix this? Can we even fix this? What should be done?

I see a three pronged approach, involving the states/school districts/PTA organizations (The Administration), parents, and students. Yes, even the kids have a role to play here, which is the biggest difference between the school supply list and the welfare debate.

1. The Administration

Okay, technically PTA isn’t really part of the administration in school districts, but I’m including the organization in this group because they have the ability to provide funding from sources outside of the parents’ wallets.

We seriously have to focus on increasing funding for education. For as much as this country, state, etc. pushes the need for education, there are so many countries around the world that are ahead of us. Now, that’s a topic for another blog, but one of the problems we have at hand is underfunding. I’m keeping this mostly at the state and local levels, simply because federal is an entirely different issue (why do we send so much money to other countries when we can’t feed kids in our own? why do we fund their education and medical systems when we have so many of the same problems here? Gah – another time…).

It’s the same story every year. Teachers are underpaid and overworked, but we can’t afford to pay them because the economy sucks, budgets have to be cut somewhere, there’s no money for extracurricular programs, we can’t afford to buy supplies. PTA wants to put an iPad in every classroom, or buy new playground equipment. Some districts can pay their superintendents an annual salary of $300,000+,  but can’t supply their students with the basics to learn. Skip the basic school supplies argument, what about printer paper, tissues, and headphones – things districts used to supply. Oh, can’t afford those either? Blah blah blah. Let’s just make the parents spend more money, that’ll solve everything, right? Add a few extra dozen items to the school supply list. Parents aren’t providing supplies anymore? Oh well, just increase the amounts asked for again; someone will eventually bring what’s needed. Next year I imagine we’ll be seeing ‘toilet paper’ as a requested supply item.

I’m sorry, but I live in Texas – football is a religion here, and you rarely see an underfunded football team. Schools have budgets earmarked for technology that have to be met. PTAs do fundraising every year, and often times it’s for a goal that is nice and all, but is it really necessary? There’s money somewhere. If you can’t afford the basics – pencils, Kleenex, Expo markers – then what are you doing buying things that aren’t necessary. There’s a huge debate about this for welfare spending – people have strongly held opinions leaning toward controlling what people on welfare can spend their money on. “Why should they get food stamps when they’re driving a Navigator and carrying a Coach purse?” We have the same situation in the school district. Do we really need an iPad in every classroom if our students can’t afford pencils? Yeah, I get it, this generation is going to need experience with technology, future of America, and all that.

Here’s the thing – my generation was born before the Internet became a thing. We didn’t have a tablet in every classroom. We barely had a computer in every classroom. I didn’t see a mobile laptop station till middle school. Or a smart phone till high school. And guess what – this generation is creating apps, inventing Facebook, designing websites, and pushing the growth of technology that some are insisting kids need access to in elementary school. Guess what. They don’t. I promise, they’ll be fine. It’s great if they can have access to technology, but it isn’t imperative. It’s not going to matter a lick if they know how to code when they can’t even spell “Objective-C.” It is not going to hurt their educational development to buy less iPads. It will hurt their educational development to not have access to basic writing instruments. Unless you can make the argument that the school districts and PTA have the funding to put an iPad in every child’s hand, and that all future school work will be conducted via tablets – then buy them some damn pencils.

2. The Parents

Now, The Administration is not going to change overnight. Even if they did, you’re a parent right? You love your children? Want them to succeed? How on earth do you think they’re going to do that if you don’t give them the tools?

As a consultant who deals with management issues, one of the most important things I tell my clients is something I learned years ago from a mentor. In order to successfully manage your employees, you have to do three things: 1, make your expectations clear, 2, give them the tools to do the job, and 3, hold them accountable. The same three rules apply to parents who care if their children receive an education. Sure, teachers need to do the same, but the parents have to be there, every step of the way, following those three rules. The 2nd rule is the one we’re discussing – give them the tools to do the job. Your child can’t learn if they can’t notes, do their homework, study for their tests, etc. If they don’t have the basic school supplies, none of this is possible.

Really, I get it – there are some parents who, as hard as they work and as much as they want to provide their child with everything they need to succeed, they can’t. There are also parents who know their child will be supplied with pencils and paper at school, and so they just don’t bother. But either way, is it fair to put that burden on the parents who have the means? Why should I have to buy twice the supplies my kids need to support yours? I’m already having to buy supplies the school districts should be supplying, now I need to pay for your kid’s stuff too?

Here’s the thing – I wouldn’t mind doing it… if I were asked. I have many parent friends who I know would absolutely be happy to help out if another child needed it. They’re the first parents I ask to help organize class parties, because they’re 100% reliable and have amazing, helpful attitudes. But if you want someone to help you, you have to ask them. You have to tell them what you need. You’ll get more help by simply saying please than you will forcing people to contribute. That’s why there are thousands of people who are happy to donate money to their church, charitable organization, etc. but are the same people who balk at the $20/year of their tax dollars going to welfare recipients.

People like to have control over where their money goes. They like to feel good about sharing what they have with someone in need – but that feeling isn’t the same when they know their hard earned money isn’t being put solely toward their child’s education. They know that there are parents who will abuse this system of community supplies and not bother spending any money on school necessities for their kids because someone else will have provided it. And it makes the whole process bitter.

So parents – to the best of your ability, send school supplies with your kids on the first day of school. At least buy them some damn pencils.

3. The Students

Now, what happens when the district provides the funds, parents can afford to send the supplies they’re supposed to, and do, teachers still shell out their own cash for school supplies, and kids still come to class unprepared. That, my dear students, is your fault. One of the things you’ll have to learn in life is responsibility – how to keep up with your own stuff, be prepared for the job you’re doing (school, at this point), and if you fail at that and someone is nice enough to help you, thank them and do not abuse the privilege. If you’re past elementary school and you happen to be out of supplies, ask your parents first before asking your teacher. It is not your teacher’s job to buy your supplies, and they do not get repayment for doing so. So…

Keep up with your damn pencils.

Tying it Together

So we know the problem, but how do we make this system more functional? I’m not going to pretend I have a magic solution for that. However, I will say there are some steps that could be taken to prevent this system from crashing entirely, but each side would need to do their part to make it work…

State, school districts, administrators – You are a broken system. Figure out where your priorities are. Budget enough money for paper goods and Expo markers in schools. Quit making it so difficult for teachers to get the supplies they need to practice their craft and educate the children of the state. Because guess what – if our education fails, all of the border control, homeland security, and infrastructure in the country won’t keep the state from imploding. Quit wasting money and spend a little extra in the school systems.

PTA – We, as parents, greatly appreciate the contributions you make to the school. I’m a big supporter of PTA, proudly place membership every year, volunteer in the classrooms, and participate in most of the fundraisers. Heck, my kids have been top sellers for a few of those fundraisers. But, as I mentioned previously, I think PTAs could take a better look at how they spend the funds. If a large percentage of the money you raise via fundraisers comes from the parents (and let’s face it, it does), then why not put some of that money toward programs that would alleviate the financial strain the school and state places on parents? Why not have a supply scholarship fund that would provide supplies to the low income students, rather than the schools shaking down willing parents at the beginning of the year for an excessive amount of supplies. Make it available to students whose parents have been approved for the Free and Reduced Lunch program, so there’s some accountability to who truly has the need. Advertise it, and allow parents who are willing make donations specifically for that cause. I get it, it shouldn’t be your job. But it shouldn’t be mine (or yours, technically, since most of the PTA board members are also parents at the school, so it does affect you personally) to be forced to contribute to community supply box. As an organization that works toward the good of the students, I would think this should be a vital issue. Maybe not in the wealthier districts (you know which ones you are), but if your school is poor enough to be asking parents to send $30 worth of pencils in August, you might want to reconsider how you’re spending your collected funds. PTA is such a wonderful organization, and it could be a huge advocate for students in this situation if properly directed.

Parents – Do you remember a time – or maybe your parents will – where you were given two pencils and some paper from your Mom and Dad, went to school, kept those same supplies for a couple of weeks, and then Mom or Dad gave you new supplies when you needed them? No big supply lists from the school demanding Mom and Dad send enough supplies for three kids. Parents used to be responsible, for the most part, for their own children. They used to teach their kids responsibility, and if they ever got a call from a teacher letting them know that their precious darling never came to class prepared, they would supply the discipline and provide a lesson in responsibility. Yeah, um, can we get back to that please? If you know you can’t provide the supplies required, at least make sure you’re teaching your kid to appreciate what’s given to them by others. If you can afford to provide and don’t because you know they’ll get the stuff they need from the teachers, then you’re a lazy, entitled asshole who is the primary reason for the system – which used to be perfectly functional – collapsing. You should feel ashamed. And finally, if you’re a parent who gives their kid every advantage you can, has their whole supply list ready on meet-the-teacher night, and pays attention to the school/class/teacher/student needs throughout the year, keep up the good work.

Teachers – Keep trying to hold students accountable. I know, it’s difficult, and you are all doing your best. I know there’s no magical way to actually teach kids to keep up with their supplies, just like there’s no magical way to make parents send them. The best ideas, in my opinion, I’ve heard so far are to sell the supplies to students who forget them, “orphan cups,” or to have a class set that you allow students to sign out on a sheet when they borrow something, and then a few minutes before the class ends review the sheet and reclaim the supplies so they don’t grow legs and walk out of the classroom. No system is going to be perfect, and I know you feel bad when kids don’t have what they need. But for certain cases – when it isn’t a matter of parents not being able to afford to provide supplies – it may take a few times of students not being prepared to get them to be responsible. They won’t learn if there are no consequences, and once they graduate they won’t have a nice teacher to hand them pencils every time they forget. If they don’t learn now, and their parents can’t or won’t teach them, when will they? I know it shouldn’t be your responsibility to teach this kind of discipline and responsibility, but as a natural educator, I don’t think it hurts to try.

Students – We all have a job to do, a part to play in your education. Take ownership of it – study as hard as you can, come to class prepared, and have a little respect for the people who work so hard to make your future brighter. Really, we do this for you.

It’s Not Over

I don’t think one (incredibly long, sorry) blog post is going to spark an immediate change, but even if I make just one person think, share a helpful idea, or start an initiative for positive change, then little by little the educational system can improve. Yes, even if it’s just a school supply list.

Sigh. It’s not the end of the world. Just the end of the summer.