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Why are teachers paying for their own supplies?

Hannah Kingsley-Ma
Teachers search for free school supplies


This story originally aired in August of 2016. 

There’s a warehouse in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood stuffed with the severed legs of aging mannequins, screws of various sizes, and large pieces of real fur.


It’s called Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts (SCRAP), and it's a non-profit recycling center. While it might seem like a necessary pit stop before Burning Man, at this moment it’s full of another crew of diehards: teachers. More than 200 of them are here today for a free giveaway. The center set aside free donated materials that might be useful to teachers: things like binders, stacks of old National Geographic magazines, markers and picture books.

“I got a bunch of tiles,” says sixth-grade art teacher Corbrae Smith, showing me the contents of the cardboard box he’s carrying back and forth to his car. “Paper, pencils, manila folders for portfolios. This is my seventh trip. I took everything.”  

He’s excited about this free bundle of goods. “I'm typically spending all my money on supplies,” Smith says.

He’s not alone. The average American teacher spends $500 annually out of pocket on classroom supplies.

Right now, California school funding is more robust than it was during the recession, when school budgets were slashed by $20 billion. Smith says his classroom budget’s pretty generous. So why doesn’t he make more arts supply orders through school? He tells me the bureaucracy of the process dissuades him. “It takes a long time getting reimbursed,” says Smith, “and sometimes we just have a need.”


He says after meetings, lesson planning and working with kids all day, filling out paperwork to justify purchasing paper and paint isn’t really worth it to him

Saving for something important

At a bin near Corbrae Smith, a preschool teacher withdraws in horror from a pile of plastic bottle caps.

Leni De Leon teaches preschool, and she won’t pick up anything an infant or toddler could swallow. Her school, Holy Family Day Home, is one of the oldest preschools in the city; it mainly serves kids from low-income families. She takes her job as their first teacher very seriously. “It's like we have to feed that brain,” says De Leon. She’s committed to giving students positive experiences so they know “this is what a school is like, this is what a school should be.”


De Leon is eyeing color charts because she believes her classroom should be filled with beautiful things. “I want them to see materials they might not see at home,” she tells me. “I want them to get excited!”  

Mostly, though, she’s collecting practical items here at SCRAP: notebooks for teachers, staplers and index cards. She has a small budget for classroom supplies but says, “I'm just saving that for something really important.”

Maybe the CD player she and her colleagues use every single day will break, or they need to invest in a new computer. So when she can’t pick up the basics at SCRAP, De Leon usually just buys them.

“I just kind of spend along the way. I try not to keep track of it,” De Leon adds sheepishly. “Realistically, I don't want to know how much I'm really spending.”  

Rachel Castro, who teaches at a different preschool in the city, has already spent $200 at the start of the school year.

“I know that when you do your taxes you can deduct over $500,” she says.  “I'm usually over that.”

Whatever it takes

AnneMarie Thielen, the founder of SCRAP, thinks this is outrageous. She opened SCRAP in 1976 to help educators and artists source cheap materials, all the while reducing waste. The school district owns this warehouse, so SCRAP gets it rent-free. In return, they sell items at low cost year-round, and host these free giveaways for teachers nine times a year.

It all fits into Thielen’s philosophy that more should be available to educators. She remembers attending a luncheon once with bankers.  “I asked them, ‘Do your employees pay for supplies to do their own work?’” Thielen says. “Why would teachers have to pay for their own supplies? It is a disgrace.”

A few free packs of glue sticks and some crayons might seem like small donations, but Thielen knows that over time these things add up, especially as the rising cost of living is becoming prohibitive for many Bay Area teachers.

“We need to really protect teachers because teachers are essential,” Thielen says.  

Preschool teacher Leni De Leon agrees. She says she knows she’ll go above and beyond to make her students’ experiences positive, and so will educators everywhere. “I think teachers are just kind of giving people,” she says. “We just do whatever it takes out of our pocket.”

That may be the reality, but De Leon also resents the unspoken expectation she feels from many non-teachers: that doing her job well has to come at her own expense.

“‘You should just do it because you love to do the job,’” she imagines them saying, and she wants to shout back, “No! No! No! I cannot stress that enough.”

What De Leon wants, she says, is true respect for the important and difficult work she does. Maybe that starts with her not having to buy her own Post-Its.

Editor's note: KALW's license is held by the San Francisco Unified School District

Crosscurrents San Franciscoeducation
Hannah Kingsley-Ma is a reporter and producer living in San Francisco.