Educators Spend, Labor To Create Warm Environment For Students
BY O.J. EARLY
Hand-crafted cabins, a brown canoe and posters highlighting the country's most famous leaders all have a place in Tammy Turner Fox's classroom.
"I think kids know how much their teachers care when they walk into a classroom and see all the special details that have gone into making it attractive and a fun place to spend the year," said Fox, who teaches history to seventh- and eighth- graders at McDonald Elementary School.
Some of the items in her class were donated, gifts from students who appreciated the teacher that first read them the Gettysburg Address or explained how George Washington's men survived the brutal winter at Valley Forge.
But most everything else that fills Fox's room was purchased -- not with money from grants or other funds, but straight from Fox's own income.
"We are given some BEP (Basic Education Program) money to help out, but most of it is bought out of our pockets," she said.
"I would say that I, or any other teacher, would be shocked at the amount of money that we spend out of pocket. Many teachers presently at McDonald have got some of the cutest classrooms and have spent a fortune decorating them."
A study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association (NSSEA) estimated that public schools teachers spent $3.2 billion in educational products in the 2012-13 school year. Of that amount, $1.6 billion came directly from teachers' personal income.
Teachers in the Greene County School System receive $100 a year in the form of BEP money, Greene County Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk said.
Other money, such as federal grants, is sometimes available to teachers, she said. Those funds, though, can be difficult to get and are usually limited to specific purchases. Educators in the Greeneville City School System also receive BEP money, and have access to other funding as well.
"That's very minimal," Kirk said. "I got that money when I was teaching. It usually didn't cover all I needed."
Kirk met a local educator this year who had boxes of books sitting in her classroom. The teacher used her own money to buy the books from a used book store to fill her classroom library, she said.
"When they do the extras, it costs," Kirk said. "They want it to look a certain way and create a certain learning environment for their kids."
Filling classrooms with decorations and supplies may be harder for new teachers.
Third-year educator Brittaney Bible teaches kindergarten at Glenwood Elementary School.
Bible jumped from third grade to kindergarten, meaning that many of the materials she had acquired as a third-grade teacher couldn't be used for her now-much-younger class.
"All of my BEP money is usually spent in one sitting, not buying nearly as much as I would like for it to," she said.
"For me, I spend BEP money on educational games and manipulatives that will benefit my students. This leaves nothing to spend on making my classroom more inviting for my students."
Bible said she has spent at least $500 of her personal money so far this year.
"Whether it's a creative space to prop a picture of family, or a comfy-pillow-stuffed corner, I do whatever I can to make my students want to come into my classroom and work in an environment that is not hostile, and is pleasing to the heart and mind."
Nationwide, teachers spent an average of $485 on school supplies in the 2012-13 school year, the study by NSSEA found.
The teachers reported, on the average, spending about $149 of their own money on school supplies, $198 on instructional materials and $138 on other classroom materials for the average total of $485 in the last year.
South Greene High School Principal Cindy Bowman isn't surprised.
"It's not uncommon at all," she said.
Bowman said most students today are visual learners, so having an attractive classroom is important.
"Many of the teachers I know will do all they can for students," she said. "Part of that is spending the extra money."
For Fox, who will retire in May, it's difficult to estimate how much money she has invested to make her classroom more inviting for students.
And that's fine with her.
"I don't think that any teacher looks at how much money they spend or why they spend it. They just want to make their room a place where children feel an atmosphere conducive to learning," she said.
"I have always loved a saying that I once read that said, 'They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.'"