As we descend the small staircase to her basement level classroom, Erin remarks with a smile, “you know, in 25 years of teaching, I’ve never once had a window in my classroom!” It isn’t stated as a complaint, but rather a badge of honor. She says it like a battle-wise veteran, a woman who’s seen some things. And after decades of teaching English Learners in public schools, I’m certain she has.
On a tour of her orderly, neat classroom, you get a sense that this teacher knows exactly what she needs to do her job and do it well. The desks are lined up in neat rows, with three textbooks stacked neatly at the front of each. We sit at one of the desks and I ask Erin if she spends her own money on any school supplies.
She kind of laughs and gestures to the wall. There are posters of vocabulary words in multiple languages. There are posters with affirmations about changing your mindset and maintaining positivity. My favorite feature is a “cell phone vacation station” made of a hanging shoe storage container, each pocket containing a different destination, so that when students need to step away from their phones, they can choose a “vacation destination” for it. (I vow to steal this to use at home)
Everywhere I look, there are creative touches that tell her students that they can do it, and that she’s got their backs. She looks at me and says “I bought everything you see there.”
We get to talking about how Covid has changed resourcing for her school, and she suddenly jumps up and says “Wait do you know what a Clear Touch is?!” Across the room I see a gigantic screen — I can’t believe I missed it when I walked in. I’m confused as to what this has to do with buying her own supplies.
She shows me this extraordinary piece of technology, saying “I’m basically like Wolf Blitzer on election night with this thing!” She’s moving lesson plans around with her hands on the screen, playing interviews and videos with a single touch, easily controlling the screen from anywhere in the room with a little remote control. Beaming, she says “this thing has changed the way I teach, honestly.”
But then she walks me across the room, and says “But I’m showing you that beautiful technology for a reason. It’s to your question about buying my own supplies — I want to show you something else.” She goes to a well-organized cart of supplies and pulls out a single box of pencil-top erasers. She says:
“See, Covid funding gave us some huge opportunities for technology — iPads for our students and video technology for our classrooms. And it’s so awesome. But when it comes to basics, I feel bad asking for erasers that cost $4 when they gave me this $6,500 piece of technology!
So I buy these things myself, because I don’t want to feel guilty for asking, and it’s just easier and faster to get what I need by paying for it and shopping for it myself. It’s not just about the money or budgets or resources.”
What I’m learning is that for teachers like Erin, the big stuff feels so generous, so transformative, and so unexpected, that she feels nearly beholden to spend her own money for the little stuff that she knows helps her students win the day. Like her windowless classroom or her hand-made classroom enhancements, paying for supplies is part of what she knows and expects in her role — a badge of honor.