Putting the classroom first

by Tanzi West Barbour

I remember when I didn’t have children but my friends did, they would complain about being asked to donate school supplies for the classroom. They didn’t understand why teachers just simply didn’t have “enough.” A number of my friends refused to comply with the request. 

And the teachers and classrooms went without.

I didn’t understand what the big deal was then and eleven years later, as a mother of two, I really don’t understand it now. I have become the sales-paper-scouring, newspaper-watching, running-to-the-store-when-I-see-a-good-price, back-to-school-supplies shopping mom. Which means because the back-to-school items are normally extremely affordable, I make it a point to buy extra – for our home, for the classroom, for the school supply drive somewhere, and for the students at our school who may not be able to afford the basics. 

I buy extra; not because I can, but because I believe it’s the right thing to do.

I was reminded of the lack that school teachers face when it comes to school supplies when I read an article about a teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma who stood on the corner of a busy street with a sign that read “Teachers Need School Supplies. Any Amount Helps!” It reminded me of how little most teachers have to ensure our children are receiving the best instruction possible while they are in their classrooms. What she did was revolutionary in my eyes. While we have all received the school supply lists with the requests for classroom supplies, this teacher took matters into her own hands for her own classroom. Her actions have since gone viral and have forced us to have the conversation about budget cuts – big and small – and their ultimate effect on the classroom and more importantly, the students in the classroom.

So, what do you do? When I was worked in a public school system in Maryland, I was a part of the Superintendent’s leadership team. I remember the budget cut conversations and community meetings. I distinctly remember asking about affects to the classroom. The two Superintendents I worked for told me that all cuts will affect every classroom one way or the other. So how do you choose?

How do you know when and where to cut? How do you do more with less and not lose anything in the process? We live in an education world filled with data. Critical decisions are made based on important data points. I remember talking with a principal one day a few years ago about the needs of his school. I asked him, “How do you decide what stays and what goes in terms of student support? Where do you draw the line?” He was very open when he told me that most often the cuts come to the teachers. Maybe they have to rethink professional development offerings due to cost. Or maybe every classroom can’t have color paper or a smart board or new textbooks this year. Maybe, just maybe they can get by with a part-time nurse and librarian. The principal put it as simply as possible, “Would you rather have a reading specialist or an endless supply of copy paper? Because unfortunately you can’t have both.”

Well on the surface it doesn’t sound like a big deal right? If the school can’t afford an endless supply of paper then surely the teachers can figure it out. But when you pull back the layers and dig deep into the spending these educators have to do in order to supply their basic needs, you realize they are spending more than $1,000 per year from their meager salaries. Divide that number by the number of parents in the classroom and you will see that a little donation goes a long way.

I feel like we’re in this endless cycle of “Whose Turn is it Anyway?” Whose turn is it to care about students enough that you want to protect the classroom whatever the costs? Whose turn is it to fight for policies and laws like Title IX that work to put educators first? Whose turn is it to also fight for equity in education so that the least of them can receive the most help and the most of them learn how to share their resources? Whose turn is it to look out for the underdog?

I find these issues in all types of education systems – traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, etc. When there is a lack, we need to engage. Whether it’s healthcare, housing, or education, when budgets are being cut, it’s our duty as parents and citizens to step in and fill in the gap.

I am all about taking it to the streets and finding solutions wherever possible. I salute that teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma just as I salute all of our educators who are going above and beyond to ensure our students, their students, have their most basic school supply needs met. I mean after all, it would be mighty hard to learn or teach without paper or pencil.