ON MY FIRST day as a teacher at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, I walked into my classroom full of hope. I opened the door to find a spacious room (I had been lucky in the classroom assignment lottery), but the room was filled with junk.
As I pulled at the drawers and cabinets, I was greeted by collapsing piles of decade-old, photocopied student worksheets, dog-eared books covered with mouse droppings, balls of paper, dead roaches and dried-out markers left by the teacher before me. In the way of new supplies, I was provided with the contents of a single paper grocery bag.
It contained (roughly) the following items: one package of wide-rule notebook paper, five manila folders, one package of 250 lick-and-stick folder labels, one box of staples (no stapler, yet a staple remover), a handful each of paper clips and rubber bands, a chalkboard eraser with a box of chalk and five dried-out red pens. This was what I was handed as a brand new teacher, and I was told to make this last for a year.
My case is not unique. Teachers across the country (and especially in our most burdened school systems) are faced with this dilemma. We are given little or no supplies for the school year, yet are charged to create classrooms that are bright, colorful and engaging and that meet the needs of a broad range of students.
As teachers, we are faced with a choice. We can choose to spend out-of-pocket money to create a successful environment for our students and to provide them with materials so that they can learn, or we can accept a year of staring at blank walls, reading excerpts from whatever books we can weed out of the decades-old file cabinet that was left in the corner of the room.
In my first year as a teacher, I was determined to help my students achieve. Their achievement translated into a $1,800 chunk out of my carefully budgeted living expenses.
Ultimately, it seems that we have lost sight of our priorities in public education. We have put energy and time into improving our standardized testing and acquiring technologically advanced materials for some of our schools, yet we have forgotten the impact of the little things, such as money for photocopies, markers, storybooks, colored construction paper and scissors.
In many high-need schools, the education of the students is being compromised not by the quality of the curricula or the talent of the teachers, but by a lack of basic tangible learning materials. Teachers have become obligated to shoulder this burden or they are deemed uncaring and told they are not invested in their teaching positions or in their students. Teachers who do not spend in order to create the environment that is expected of them receive poor yearly evaluations and may lose certification as a result.
In many communities, the bill for classroom supplies is sent home to parents. But as a teacher in the Baltimore City schools, I find that many of my students' parents are too financially burdened to provide the kinds of supplies their children really need.
It is clear that even our neediest school systems recognize such major necessities as classroom teachers, roofs, walls, heating systems and working plumbing. Clearly, those are all important for a successful school environment. But in focusing on only these major items, we are sacrificing the smaller details that add creativity and excitement to the learning process, the things that make school a place that is enjoyable for both students and their teachers. And in the midst of talk about teacher pay cuts and furloughs, we should remember that teachers already make financial sacrifices to compensate for the system's failures to provide.
Isn't there a point at which the larger community should recognize the importance of its youths and step in to provide?
Callandra S. Cook teaches the ninth grade at Baltimore Freedom Academy.