What Back to School Costs Teachers

children writing on blackboard...

It's back-to-school time, which means back-to-school costs. According to the National Retail Federation, the average family will spend $669 in school supplies, and this sounds about right for my family, except the breakdown is not what you would think.

My family's back-to-school budget consists of about $100 for my third grade son and a little over $500 for my husband, who is a teacher. Yes, teachers pay for supplies just as parents do; however, instead of supplying two or three kids, most teachers supply over 30 kids with tools and resources they need to learn.

My husband is a high school physics teacher who has taught for more than 18 years in four different states and both public and private schools, and no matter where he has taught, he has always paid for many of his classroom supplies out of pocket without being reimbursed.

A few years back, right after we got married and combined our finances, he made a trip to Home Depot for supplies he needed for a lab experiment and when he returned, I asked if he was going to expense the supplies and he laughed out loud at my question.

That day I learned about the worst kept secret amongst teachers; despite mediocre salaries, they still pay out of pocket for classroom supplies.

Recently, I asked my Facebook teacher friends about this practice, and I was shocked at the response that I got. It did not matter what age they taught or in what part of the country, they all seemed to spend an average of $700 over the course of a year for supplies.

Kate O'Driscoll, a second grade teacher in New York, responds, "I just spent $500, and my purchases include anything from a laminating machine to pencil boxes and classroom décor." Other supplies teachers indicated purchasing included printer paper and ink, pens and pencils for kids who forget them, rulers, calculators, or snacks for small groups they mentor.

This type of out-of-pocket expense is not limited to present day teachers, though, it has been going on for decades. Joyce McIntosh, a retired special education teacher from Pittsburgh shares, "When I started teaching over 30 years ago, I would spend at least $100 a year on supplies, and as costs rose, so did my out-of-pocket expenses."

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the estimated average annual salary for a teacher in the United States is $56,383, and in many states this average is down from previous years based on state budget challenges. If teachers are spending on average $700 on school supplies out of pocket, this represents 1.2% of their salaries, and I expect the out-of-pocket costs for teachers will continue to grow.

Recently NBC News shared a story on the growing burden of lengthy school supply lists for parents, especially those in low-income areas. If the schools won't pay for the supplies, and parents can't afford to outfit their kids with the supplies they require, who do you think will shoulder the burden?

As a parent, I hate to think of my son's educators facing financial strains just to provide him with a quality education. Amy Lecher, who is a fifth grade teacher in North Carolina, suggested that parents contribute to the box top fundraisers that most public schools run. "I have been given money to buy a few supplies from those. We typically split the total amount of money earned between the grade level," said Ms. Lecher.

DonorsChoose.org is the heavily-used Kickstarter for teachers who need help getting supplies for their class. There are requests from teachers in the St. Louis, Missouri region. Another post is from an elementary school art teacher in Philadelphia.

"In the end, great teachers want to give their students the best educational experience possible, and sometimes the only way to do that is to pay for it ourselves," says Bill McLay, a high school physics teacher in New York.

As you are lamenting on your ever-growing school supply list for your young ones, just take a moment to think about the amazing men and women who have contributed for decades and continue to go above and beyond to provide a stimulating and educational experience for your children at the expense of their own personal finances.

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