It’s Back-to-School supply shopping time!

I finally read the Back to School list for my 7th grader. I ignored it at first because I still have the last bin of stuff from my teacher hoarding days–enough notebooks for Declan to get a Ph.D.

I’m glad I finally read his list. Everything in my bin is…wrong. I have single-subject multicolored notebooks and folders. I have glue sticks and marble composition notebooks. He doesn’t need any of that.

“Four one-inch binders with the folders included and 16 dividers, four for each class.”  It’s the only thing I don’t have–like the Education Gods looked into my bin to mock me. So, off to the store I go. Because he didn’t want the black one on Amazon. He wants colors.

“Will he even USE that stuff?” asked a fellow teacher mom. Neither of us (as teachers) require kids to get a lot of specific stuff. We make do.

“Nope.” Or Maybe. But it doesn’t matter. Watch this mom before you read the rest of this article. Don’t skip this video. If you’re shopping for your kid, and you’re tempted to grumble about The List… watch this twice.


There are two types of teachers at school supply time.  The ones with The List… and… me.

“What do we need, Miss?”

Barely anything.. “Something to write with. Something to write on. Or, a dedicated electronic note file (translation: phone or computer). Use the system you’re most comfortable with. If you do not have a system, I will help you develop one.”

Not having a list looks very unteacherly. It’s not. It’s deeply rooted in excessive thrift and bad childhood memories.

First: I don’t want to trouble families. It’s twenty-five cent notebook season–how can I make you buy a ten-dollar notebook that will give your kid scoliosis. Especially now, when kids prefer phones and computers.

The second (and real) reason: I was traumatized by The List and notebooks in school. There were years I couldn’t afford The List. And a “traditional notebook” still makes me want to cry. Everyone learns and organizes differently.

“You’re going to be a failure.” If only I knew there were “differently organized” people. We really do succeed in life. I feel for the kid with the barfing backpack. Sometimes that kid needs help–other times he’s far better off than me. He know where every paper is…unless I touch it.

My system was this: one marble composition book per year so I wouldn’t rip out the pages. I dated the corner of each entry. Some were notes, more often, doodles. To this day, I can use any of the notebooks–years later.

I never call a kid a disaster. I learned to ask–and listen. I help kids diagnose their learning style and develop an organizational flow.  I ask, “Is that system working for you?” If not, we find one that does. This may look like chaos, but it’s actually individualized instruction. I am teaching skills to organize, self-assess, and adjust. These are skills they will use in life.

By leaving the list up to the student, I get a happier kid. Many students are gifted organizers–I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a kid come in with colors and tabs who gave me elements of their system.

This doesn’t work for everyone–teachers or students alike. Some teachers need tighter systems, and many students thrive from having uniformity and structure.

Back to “The List…”

My kid’s in middle school.  Looking at his list, I can predict they’ve got a coordinated, highly-organized system–four color-coded notebooks, tabs, and highlighters screams of uniform notes and formatting for each class.

Upper elementary and middle school are perfect times for developing systems. Kids can learn a good foundation then by the time they get to high school I can start to discuss learning styles and individualization with them. That’s impossible to do if no one before me has taught any type of system. And so, I not only cheer my middle school counterparts on, I worship them.

I support their list. As a mom, I will buy the stuff on it, and then some.

I predict a great year.

TEACHERS: Here’s how to avoid shopping for basic supplies kids need:

  • Keep your supply sheets as short as you can.  The less essentials on there, the more likely you are to get it.
  • Have a wish list at the beginning of the year, but do it by sales. This is easy if you have a website or texting service for parents. “Notebooks are on sale at Walmart. If you send in a couple extra, we’ll get them to kids in need.” Or “Sadly, it’s flu season. Help us keep your family healthy by sending in a couple kleenex… now on sale with at Costco!”
  • Ask what you can order from school a year ahead of time–if there’s a department budget and you need journaling notebooks, try your best to put in for them. Use words like “literacy,” “integration of (nonsense with nonsense),” “higher-level (doohickeys).”  Use an education buzzword generator if you have to. Pull out all the stops.
  • If all else fails… ask yourself this… “What’s the workaround to getting this done without reaching for my charge card?” Do that.
  • Adjust your systems. Maybe you want kids to have the same journal. If that means you’d have to buy them, don’t. Make a uniform journal page instead. One year, our math teacher ran out of lined paper. She was not given more. She found a lined paper template and in a copy request for 1000 (We got unlimited copies but couldn’t order supplies). Genius! Most would’ve gone and bought more–and it wasn’t sale season.

PARENTS: Here’s how to save:

  • Shop for the year not the fall. Buy double what you need plus one. Here’s why. You’ll wrap up the second half for birthdays or holidays. The extra one is because one will be destroyed somewhere along the way.
  • Buy good quality stuff. You’ll replace it less often. Cheap backpacks, pencils, pens, and folders die quickly. Go for the good quality at sale time. Aim for backpacks that do multi-year duty. Trade lunchboxes with parents whose kids outgrow characters. Gift your good-quality “I don’t like that show anymore” one around, too.
  • Use discount sites like Overstock, Ebags, and Poshmark. You can get backpacks, bags, lunch boxes, and other things there. If you leave stuff in your cart and click away, you’re bound to get a 14% coupon from Overstock or $10 off from Ebags. Poshmark is hit or miss–you’re buying from other people. But, I always score big there. Now, they have kid and home stuff, too.


One final word for those more fortunate…

Parents: in the spirit of the video above, do this… if you can help out, do so.  Get one or two extras while you’re shopping for your kid. Or more, if you can. Maybe you get ten extra notebooks at Walmart for 25 cents each. Or… while you’re noticing your own toilet paper is dangerously low, pick up some hand sanitizer or kleenex for school as you’re rolling your cart toward the two-ply.

Or even… get a couple store gift card and stash them away for times you see a need at your child’s school.

Give it to the person you think can distribute or use items:

  • The principal: If there’s a kid with a tough story, the principal will know.
  • Guidance: ditto
  • The teacher: You should be giving the teacher a gift certificate for the liquor store. But a little stash of stuff or a gift card will be nice, too.
  • Community organizations. Look for the good, effective ones in your area–many stuff backs and things.
  • Clergy or religious organizations: Your local minister, priest, rabbi, or imam will know if there’s a family in crisis and probably has a stash for these things.

Items schools can always use:

  • Classroom supplies: notebooks, paper, folder, pencils… the usual stuff if you see it on your parent shopping journey.
  • Socks, underwear, clothes: Especially at an elementary school. Not only are there kids in need, but someone’s going to have an accident.
  • Funds for field trips: Especially for those five and ten dollar trips–as a mom, I sent in enough for another kid who “forgot” their money. This is a big help.
  • Paper products: Kleenexes are the big ones.  A classroom will always appreciate a box or two. A six-pack can buy your kid into college.
  • Grocery cards. We have had homeless kids, kids suffering fires, transient families, families with no heat, water.

Sponsor a kid:

  • Our local school principal makes backpacks for kids in need. If you call up and ask for genders and ages, you can usually get an idea of how to stuff it. Have your student help! It’s a great activity to do together. When we do this, I let Declan help shop for supplies and I do the backpacks separately to avoid having him be able to identify students–or, we shop for a different school.

Teacher warning:

As a teacher, you can’t save the world. Back-to-School is the time when you’ll face the greatest temptation to overspend. Don’t! You have to take care of your family and bills. We are not spending our paychecks on our jobs while we punt our bills. But, as a parent or community member, these things break our hearts. If you have room in your budget that normally goes to charity or donations, this is a great place to start.

If you’re a teacher-parent doing the No-Spend (on school) Challenge but you have room in your charity/donation budget, that’s totally legal! You are not violating this challenge. Just allocate for it specifically, and make the world a better place, as you do every day you walk into your class:)

If you don’t have a budget for this, don’t worry! Teach your heart out and change the world:)