School & District Management

For New Teachers, Classrooms Aren’t Just Blank Slates. They’re Blank, Expensive Slates

By Ross Brenneman — March 27, 2016 6 min read
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For new teachers, an empty classroom holds a world of possibility. As they are quick to learn, those bare walls can demand major investments in time and money. But part of the problem, experts say, might be that new teachers get little guidance in how to outfit their classrooms. But experienced educators say new teachers don’t need to be left to fend for themselves.

It’s no secret that teachers spend a great deal of personal money on classroom supplies—industry studies suggest educators spend an average of $400-500 each year on such materials.

“You learn where the thrift stores are,” said Stacey Torres, a teacher at Willard Elementary School in Pasadena, Calif.

Know the Classroom Before You Fill It

When teachers first get assigned a classroom, they may see it as a blank slate. That’s not always a good thing, if teachers start buying before they understand their students.

“At the beginning, it looks very different than it would three weeks into [the year],” said Sonia Covarrubias, also an elementary teacher at Willard. Covarrubias has an intricate, colorful organizational system for her room, a result of observing her students’ initial classroom behavior for the past 15 years.

She’s learned to invest in tubs and community spaces to cut down on student possessiveness over space and supplies, and to speed up instruction: “If they had a desk and there were five books in there, it could take a kindergartner 10 minutes to find one book. It would take 10 minutes to open up to one page.” That meant investing in communal bins where she can separate out materials.

Investments aren’t always about money, too—teachers might also need to budget time. Torres changes seating in her classroom every month so that students get used to learning alongside peers that they might not gravitate toward naturally, much the way adults may have to do.

In addition to understanding that rooms will change, teachers who do start buying things should learn to think about practical over pretty, setting aside the urge to attain a “complete” space, experts say.

“You look at your classroom and it’s just got the one poster with a cat hanging on a tree and maybe the alphabet at the top, and you keep feeling like, ‘I need more stuff in here,’” said Roxanna Elden, a teacher and author of the book See Me After Class. Elden said that new teachers may be susceptible to pressure to “catch up” to veteran teachers. “A teacher in a dollar store is a dangerous situation.”

That’s part of why Anne Koroknay’s house fills up with so many boxes of classroom stuff every summer. Koroknay, an ESOL teacher at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park, Md., made the transition from high school to elementary school two years ago, meaning she’s effectively had to create (and finance) two different approaches to classroom design.

Koroknay works at a low-income school that provides a lot of the supplies her students need. But things that aren’t covered add up quickly, especially classroom library books and her own personal supplies.

“I definitely don’t remember anybody in my undergraduate classes saying, ‘Hey don’t spend that money on beer, you’re really going to want it for Post-It notes,’” Koroknay said.

The Subtler Effects of Classroom Design

For all the time and money teachers put into their classrooms, a lot of them say that their approach is modeled on trial and error—what students respond to and what they don’t. Beyond the necessary day-to-day supplies like pencils and paper, though, there’s very little research to say what kind of impact classroom design has on instruction.

And that’s where the classroom space becomes an equity issue, for teachers and students alike.

Maureen M. Berner, a professor of public administration and government at the University of North Carolina, said that since local infrastructure often depends on local government, a community with many different schools is likely a community with different conditions between those schools.

“Who gets their street plowed first? What schools are going to get helped first?” Berner said.

As at least one major federal study has shown, poor school conditions may well trickle down to classroom conditions, demanding more of teachers while providing less for students.

Koroknay said that her local PTA has been exceptional in its generosity toward her school, but Covarrubias said her experiences have shown that teachers looking for help with classroom materials may need to help recruit parental input. She noted that when parents pressured administration with what to buy, principals responded, but parents at previous low-income schools weren’t always able to organize.

Where to Cut Costs

In addition to the thrift store, there are many ways experts suggest new teachers can cut costs. Elden said to find out what schools already offer, noting that she’s bought several things over the years only to find those same things handed to her the next day.

For Koroknay, she balanced investing in her classroom by cutting how much she invested in her professional materials, namely, books.

“The things that I thought I would need were professional books,” she said. “You know: 50 Must-Have ESOL Lesson Plans. And those I would look through briefly, but when it came down to it, the best resources were the ones your colleagues shared with you. Because they were tried and true and you knew where they were coming from.”

Then there’s grant funding. Jessica Prayer, a teacher at Northside Elementary School in Elizabeth City, N.C., estimates she’s won around $100,000 in grants, and filed about 100 of them in her 11 years teaching. While about three-quarters are through, she’s also won grants from the National Education Association and math and science foundations.

She said she decided to invest the time when she likewise decided she couldn’t invest in one more pencil: “I refused.”

But grants can be tricky, she noted. Teachers who pursue that path have to make sure they’re organized enough to collect all information that a grant requires. They have to budget, report paperwork, and understand the grant’s rules. Districts might also have their own rules in place about grant money, she said, either because they want to be aware for tax purposes or because they want to know what their teachers are doing.

As for what grants are successful, Prayer said teachers have to understand the game.

“I don’t think about what it was that I wanted. I think, how are my odds in favor of me receiving this grant?” she said, noting that teachers should tweak proposals around what kinds of things funders might prioritize.

When all else fails, Torres, the Pasadena teacher, said new teachers shouldn’t be afraid to ask colleagues.

“As new teachers, you don’t always ask, and I learned early on that it was OK. The worst someone could say to you is no.”

Image: Anne Koroknay, a teacher at Rolling Terrace Elementary School, in Takoma Park, Md., has a lot of classroom stuff. Credit: Swikar Patel for Education Week

More on classroom investment and new teachers:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.