Beg, Borrow, and (Steal)
Photo by Milan Vasicek
How do you equip your classroom with the stuff your students need for learning, and not spend a fortune? Check out these ideas!
By Collin Berglund
Think about your favorite classroom from when you were a student. Undoubtedly, you remember the teacher in front of the room. Keep looking: Maybe you remember student work lovingly displayed in scalloped trim on the bulletin board, the spinning wire wheel in the hamster cage, or the old rocking chair you used to plop down in front of for story time.
Then you became a teacher and walked into a classroom of your own for the first time. It had four bare walls and a ceiling—not only was there no Mr. Whiskers, there wasn’t even a pencil sharpener!
After hitting your school’s supply room and discovering it contained mostly stuff no one else wanted, you realized putting together a room that inspires learning isn’t as easy as it looks.
It takes innovation, perseverance, and more than a little creativity.
First, see whether your district grants teachers a budget to get supplies. Chances are it won’t be high enough for everything you need, but it’s a start. While most first-year teachers spend an awful lot of their own money on classroom supplies—$770 on average, according the National School Supply and Equipment Association’s 2008 survey—you can get the materials necessary to make a classroom comfortable without sacrificing your paycheck.
“The most valuable lesson I learned in college came from my first introductory education class: beg, borrow, and steal,” says Jason Hubler, a fifth-grade teacher in Indiana. “Whether it’s finding materials for a lesson, or lesson ideas themselves, these are words to live by for any teacher.”
Photo by Le Do
One of the best ways to get something is to ask. If you don’t get it right away, ask again. If you still don’t get it, ask someone else.
Hubler says grocery stores are often willing to donate to classes, but teachers should look beyond the obvious sources when looking for people to help.
“Offices often donate old equipment, supply houses donate leftover or opened paper, computer parts-makers often have test equipment,” Hubler says. “Many are happy to donate to a good cause and get the tax deduction to boot.”
Companies are often quite generous, but many school districts have a “Do Not Call” list of businesses that regularly donate. Before you start drumming up donations, contact an administrator or your district office to see if your district has such a list. If a business can’t provide the materials you initially request, ask if they have an educator mailing list so you can be notified of future bargains or educator discounts.
Dianne Cox, a middle school computer teacher in Kansas, says to look at auctions that are selling boxes of office supplies. Contact auctioneers to let them know you would be interested in taking boxes that don’t sell well. In addition, there are loads of treasures at low prices at garage sales.
“That is where I got my two classroom staplers for 25 cents each!” Cox says.
Looking for more leads?
A number of websites offer to provide teachers with free or heavily discounted supplies. NEA provides a list of resources that offer free lesson plans, posters, puzzles, and more.
Even the most experienced teachers inthe school remember what it was like when they were just starting out. Most would be more than willing to share what they have learned and acquired over the years with new teachers.
It can be as simple as advice for how to shepherd kids from point A to point B.
“How are you going to get kids from the classroom to the bathroom without causing a ruckus?” asks Aaron Merkin, a first-year teacher in Wyoming. “I went to a couple of teachers and asked if they had [advice]. A lot of them have things printed out.”
Merkin also recommends observing other classrooms not only for lesson plan ideas, but also to see what classroom materials they use. (That’s how he figured out the best uses for the overhead projector in his room that he wasn’t using).
When it comes to ideas and advice, some newbies spend considerable sums on books about teaching. Each book is slightly different, but only some are worth reading and even fewer worth paying for.
“There are books chockfull of great lessons, some that have one or two gems buried in them, and some that you’ll find useless,” Hubler says. “Instead of trying to buy them all, borrow from other teachers.”
Photo by Marcello Silvestre
Desperate times call for desperate measures. If begging and borrowing leave you short of your goal, it may be time to steal. Alright, fine, it’s more a metaphorical stealing. Don’t actually break any laws! You are setting an example for your students after all.
But taking something that works and adapting it for your classroom isn’t a bad thing. Hubler echoes Merkin’s advice to pay close attention to what other teachers are doing in their classes. You can pick up on what your colleagues are doing covertly, by looking at student work hung in the halls and attending class performances. Other times, it’s best to ask if you can sit in to see exactly what’s happening during class.
“It sparks ideas and gets you thinking,” Hubler says. “Sometimes you can ‘steal’ the idea yourself and use it in your classroom. And sometimes it inspires a whole new idea, based on the concept you saw.”
Cox takes the concept of (legal) stealing into the physical world, abiding by the age-old rule of finders keepers.
“At the end of school during locker clean outs, I always pick up leftovers from students,”
“We have a bag that goes around once in a while with a note attached ... take something out if you need it and put something in that you don’t need,” Cox says. “We pass it from teacher to teacher ... we hang it on the door knobs outside their rooms. We also place things in the teacher lounge with a ‘free’ take it note.”
Stick with the beg, borrow, and steal concept and soon everyone will be envious of your classroom. But remember that every year, someone is walking into that bare classroom and could use your advice—share your ideas on NEA’s discussion boards and be on the lookout for the teachers at your school who could use your help.
“As the years go by, pass on your own ideas, materials, and things you no longer use,” Hubler says. “It’s easy to accumulate too much and there’s always someone who would be thankful for it. Someone’s trash can be a teacher’s treasure!”
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