Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What No One Will Tell You When You Come to Work at the DOE, Part 7: Practical Tips on Stocking Your Classroom

Hi friends!

I was kidding last week when I said that I was contemplating a post on how to spend your $150 windfall from the DOE, but then I thought, "Why not?" New teachers face a LOT of start-up costs in getting their classroom setup, and, just like almost everything else in this series, no one told me how to defray the costs. It's possible, with a little imagination and free time, to get a great deal of stuff for your classroom for free or very little money. FREE? Did I say FREE? Yes. Keep reading.

First, MAKE A LIST of what you will need. You should have a sense of what you will need from my very first post about setting up your classroom. Try to make this list after you talk to your new colleagues and assess what your school will give you in way of start-up materials. Some schools will give you things like bulletin board paper, a stapler, chalk, etc. Well, all schools are supposed to. Which is not to say that they all do. Check with your colleagues and figure out what you will be expected to bring yourself. Also casually inquire as to what they may be throwing away. It's worth a shot.

Start by cleaning out your apartment/house and/or the apartment or house of any friend or relative who will let you. I have younger siblings who still live at home and I have no compunctions about swiping their unwanted books or unused school supplies for my own use. Particularly if you're teaching ELA, you can never have enough books for your classroom. Be aware that there is a relatively good chance that if you donate your own books to your classroom library, you might never see them again, so bear that in mind before you put it out on the shelf. Used magazines are fantastic not only for kids to read, but to cut up for collages and projects. One of my generous relatives passes on all of his issues of Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, which, as you can imagine, are great gifts for boys with short attention spans during independent reading time. One of my colleagues has made a summer tradition of raiding her mother-in-law's attic for decorating supplies. Most of your friends and family members probably have some stuff they'd love to have removed from their homes.

Next, try Freecycle. If you don't know what Freecycle is, it's a beautifully simple little Internet system: People post things they don't want, and you volunteer to take them! Wahoo! You can also post stuff you want in hopes that someone who is cleaning out their basement will find that very stuff. Depending on where you live, there are geographically specific Freecycle groups everywhere, including New York City Freecycle (which covers all five boroughs, so I hope you have a car or are open to long subway trips), Brooklyn Freecycle, Queens Freecycle, Nassau County Freecycle, etc. You can generally belong to more than one group and travel wherever you are willing to travel, but each group tends to have its own rules, so play nicely. I've been extremely lucky on Freecycle this past summer and have gotten tons of new and barely-used books, art and office supplies, even some spiffy new wardrobe items through it. You can Google or head to to find your group. Craigslist also has a FREE section you can skim if you have the patience, which I don't, but good luck.

Next, find a good 99-cent or dollar store. Don't get all snobby about them on me, either. I'm not going to spend money on brand-name stuff for kids to destroy or at least entirely use up fairly quickly. I get book baskets, hand sanitizer, silly little prizes, and much more at my favorite dollar stores. If you buy nothing else at your dollar store, buy your book baskets there, ELA teachers, because they're usually $2 or $2.50 each at Staples or a teacher supply store. And, like I told you earlier this summer, don't ask why your books have to be in baskets. I still don't know.

A quick word about teacher stores: DO NOT go into one for the first time on the expectation that you will buy lots of stuff. Yes, they will have many colorful, beautiful, fun-looking items, but they are generally NOT cheap. Bring a list, browse the first time, comparison shop (more on this in a second), ask colleagues, and ascertain how badly you need that cute pocket chart before you drop $35 on it. I would offer much the same advice about Staples, because I LOVE Staples. Take it from someone who has been sucked in by the sweet, darling teacher store more than once...

So if you haven't filled all your needs, wants, and desires yet, I advise you to comparison shop, particularly online. Websites like Classroom Direct may have better deals on nice teacher toys and classroom supplies than your local teacher store. But make sure you factor in shipping costs to make sure you're getting the best deal. Amazon generally has the best prices on new books, but always check eBay to see if you can get a nice used copy for cheap. Google Shopping (Froogle) can be helpful if the item you want is likely to be on sale in a few different places.

It may be cost-effective for you to join a wholesale club like BJ's or Costco. If you're new to NYC and you're shocked that we have them here, yes, we do. It's cost-effective for me because I also buy lots of nonperishable food and pet supplies there, but research your own family's budget. And comparison shop even with a membership there, because sometimes office supplies are cheaper elsewhere if, for example, Staples is having one of its fire sales that it has around this time of year.

For large-scale spending, look into DonorsChoose. You may be familiar with DonorsChoose through Stephen Colbert's show, as he has encouraged his viewers several times to donate to it. It's a website where if you have a big-ticket item or items that you want to implement a certain project or achieve a specific goal in your classroom, you write a proposal and post it on the website, and donors choose (that's how it works!) the projects they like to fund through donations large and small. One of my colleagues got a DonorsChoose grant last year and she was delighted.

My last tip is to read a lot--read things like Teachers' Update (yes, that boring-looking e-mail you get from the DOE every week), the union paper, your NEA and AFT magazines and newsletters, FellowBlast (for TFs), and the like. There are almost always opportunities for grants, donations, free stuff, etc. listed in there. If you don't at least skim these things, you could be throwing money away.

So good luck with that $150 windfall. Don't forget to save your receipts, even after that $150 is long gone, because you can write off the rest on your taxes. Ask your accountant for more details because I'm not in the business of giving tax advice and then being sued because it's wrong.

Next week, I suppose I'll have to try to write about how to get along with your boss--i.e. your principal and AP. Or I may just tell you right now that your best bets are smiling and nodding, and bribery.

See you next time!

Miss Eyre

P.S.--New post on teacher evaluation coming this week at my blog. Go go go.
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