Check out these tips for finding school supplies at low prices or for free.
The principal escorted me, a first-year, middle school teacher, to my classroom for the first time. Excited, I walked in only to find bare walls, a file cabinet, an empty bookcase, a computer, desks, chalk, a stapler, and an empty tape dispenser. That was it. Where are the books? I thought. The posters? The buckets of supplies welcoming me to my first year? There were none. No books, bulletin board materials, paper, pens, markers, folders, or anything else. I smiled at my principal and said, “Thank you. This room has so much potential!” I hadn’t even received my first paycheck, and already I found myself at Wal-Mart with a $200 credit card charge for initial classroom supplies, an expense which continued to grow as the school year progressed.
In subsequent years, I found that the goodie bags provided to teachers at the beginning of the year — stocked with a few rolls of tape, a box of staples, and some sticky notes — just didn’t cover my classroom’s needs. I was continually surprised at how much money I still spent annually on facial tissues, student incentives and rewards, and necessary supplies and instructional materials. One year, my total came to $850. And I wasn’t alone. My colleagues reported spending, on average, between $300-$600 per year on materials. And during 2009-2010, according to the 2010 National School Supply and Equipment Association’s Retail Market Awareness Study, teachers spent $1.3 billion of their personal money on classroom materials, an average of $356 per teacher. After realizing how much money I was spending on my classroom each year, I decided to find other resources besides my credit card to stock up my classroom. Here are some strategies that provided more return with a lower investment.
Hit the garage sales. At the beginning of my teaching career, I acquired as many supplies as I could by hunting for garages sales on Saturday mornings. Within just a few hours, I typically came home with a backseat filled with printer paper, classroom decorations, books, and general supplies — many brand new — for a small fraction of the cost I once paid at the store. Over time, I discovered the deals sweetened when I mentioned I was a teacher, and finally, I started leaving my business card (also purchased with my own money) and said if they didn’t sell their school supplies, books, or other useful materials and wanted to donate it to a classroom, to please call me. Many times they called, and sometimes, they gave me the items right then, for free. Attending garage sales certainly took a few hours out of my Saturdays, but the process is easy, the payoff worthwhile, and the experience enjoyable.
Check the web. Web sites devoted to buying, selling, and giving proved helpful in acquiring materials. Certainly, eBay can provide materials under the retail price, but some web sites allow users to search for free items and post wanted ads at no cost. I signed up for my local group of freecyclers, a network of people who give and get items for free to keep them out of landfills, and I periodically scanned the list of free items offered in my town. Craigslist, a local forum and classifieds, also has a free section. On both sites, users may post wanted ads as well. Placing an ad or scanning through listings only takes a few moments, and I have had tremendous success with both sites. All it cost me was the gas to pick up the items.
When I needed media for my classroom, whether it was a book, CD, or DVD, Swap.com, an online community that promotes trading, proved helpful and cost-effective. Users simply create a free account and list the media they have to trade by entering the ISBN or UPC number, their “have” list, and media they would like to have, their “want” list. According to its web site, Swap.com currently has over 1 million members and over 2.5 million items ready to be swapped. When a trade is available, users are informed. All they have to do is ship their item to their swap partner. Labels can even be printed from the site, which saves you a visit to the post office. Swappers pay only for postage, which averages around $3.20.
Recently, Swap.com has developed the “Swap 4 Schools” program in response to difficult economic times that have caused schools to downsize their budgets, which in turn affects the amount of personal money teachers spend buying their own classroom materials. This initiative allows school employees to build a want list, and swappers can donate and ship their items directly to the school. Although it may take weeks or months for a trade to become available or to receive a donated item, using Swap.com is an easy way to build a classroom book, music, or movie library.
Hook up with community groups. Local organizations may be willing to gather classroom materials for educators as well. For instance, Jaycee groups are devoted to serving their community and are likely to help. Currently, the Jaycees where I live are collecting supplies to support teachers in a nearby elementary school. Local PDK International or Delta Kappa Gamma (DKG) chapters, whose mission is to specifically support educators, may be interested in sponsoring a school supply drive or even a specific project. For instance, one DKG group with which I am familiar selects a student teacher every year to receive $500 for classroom supplies and an outfit to wear while interviewing. Within the schools, student- or parent-centered organizations may assist. Organizations such as the Key Club and Interact exist to serve others, and other organizations typically have a service component as well. Although organizations may want to serve a larger population of teachers rather than an individual, any amount of classroom supplies can offset personal spending costs. The only effort it typically takes is to contact the organization’s president or other representative and ask.
After 13 years of teaching, I moved from being a teacher to an administrator. I remember looking at my classroom before the swarm of needy teachers descended to carry off my furniture, posters, and supplies. The items I purchased during my first few years of teaching had long since been replaced. My walls were not bare at all, and the shelves overflowed with books and materials. I was able to marvel not at how much I had spent, but at how much I had saved. Before you know it, your walls and shelves will also be full, and if you take advantage of some of these resources, your wallet may not be empty.
Christie McWilliams-Abendroth is a doctoral student at the University of Houston who has taught secondary English/language arts for 13 years. She is also a PDK Emerging Leader.