Are you one of “those teachers” who makes kids buy a list of specialty school supplies?

If you’re a parent you know what I’m talking about–that school supply list a mile long.

“Mom, I need a pink, purple, blue, cyan, and black seven subject notebook, a set of 33 colored pencils, and an abacas blessed by the Dalai Lama.”

Are these things on your list?

Crayola crayons. Not just crayons, Crayola. Yes, they’re better, it’s true, and if I could draw a straight line while sober I’d care. But to mandate this is nutty.

Specialty Glue. Don’t you dare get generic!  I once watched student teachers pass up a pile of sale Elmer’s for something the professor wanted. Beyond “non-toxic” and “not permanent” who cares?

Four one-inch three-ring binders: Purple. Light green. Turquoise. Goldenrod. They were colors I’d never heard of and required.  Man, if a kid had a pencil and an oak leaf in my class, I’d be overjoyed.

Cornell note looseleaf. Don’t get me started on this one. This stuff’s expensive. I appreciate teachers who are gifted note-teachers. I am not. When I was still spending on my classroom, I’d get those nickel packs of looseleaf in the fall. Cornell paper is really expensive. I don’t want to buy it for my kid who’s going to use the margins to draw video game characters, so I wouldn’t make a parent buy it, either.

Odds and ends: 

  • Seven small-sized paper clips.
  • Sixteen pencils, not mechanical.
  • 6 tabbed notebook separators
  • Four green pipe cleaners, six soda bottles and a paper towel tube

I’ve seen everything from a specific calculator (“We have calculators on our phones.”), different size and shape notebooks for every class, specific folders, rulers, and writing journals. In one school, “no mechanical pencils.” was a rule.

As a parent, I’ve been getting school supplies for several years, and as a teacher, decades.

Most years, at locker cleanout, and the last day of school when my son brings his stuff home, I find this: half didn’t get used.

Especially those specific folders, notebooks, and papers.  In school, there are dumpsters of this stuff. At home, one backpack of stuff I hunted down, but turned out not to be that critical anyway.

“Miss, what do we need for this class?”

That’s their first question. I say this, “Something to write with. Something to write on. Or, if you want, a document in Google or a note on your phone for my class. Whatever works best. Bring it and charge it.”

“You sure?” They don’t believe me because they have a list of obscure things that are no longer on sale because the sales end right when schools start.

That’s when every mom and dad in America buys 2 sets of 25-cent notebooks and all the other things–one set for September, and I wrap the second set for Christmas.

When school starts, it’s too late. You’ve missed every single doorbuster and sale. That ship has sailed. Stores are well into Halloween and almost at Christmas. It’s impossible to find the right color five-subject notebook after the first day of school.

This mom is okay with the teacher list. “You’re taking my kid for 180 days, I’ll buy you a Ferrari. You want a $10 yellow notebook, you got it!”

But for me–I can do just as much with a recycled manilla folder. I don’t need anyone getting anything special for my class. I might be wrong–I’ve seen so many teachers with folders, stickers, labels, and systems that were beautiful–I wish my brain worked like that.

But, it doesn’t.  And that stuff can be expensive. You and I both know your school isn’t going to pay for that, either.  So, teachers, take a look at your required supply list and ask these questions:

Will they use this. Fully?

If not, look for other options.

Is there a better-priced option that works just as well?

I watched a kid panic because he didn’t have a calculator. “You have a phone.” But, the phone wasn’t allowed. Ask, “Why not?” A chem teacher I know bought a class set of calculators when she probably only needed a couple if she allowed kids to use the tech they already had.

Is this a burden to get, or easy?

After everyone picks the shelves clean, there is only a limited selection of supplies unless you Amazon them, and that can get expensive.  Specific colors and styles can often be a burden.

Does this increase learning or make things easier for students?

Standardizing notes, color coding, and other supplies can be helpful, but sometimes supplies fit the teacher’s system of organization.  It’s worth thinking about whether that standardization is adding value to the learning.

Is this something that students can share?

The pandemic messed with this–but class or team sets of art supplies, shared scissors, white out, and tape can often do the trick.  Now, there may be a few more things to put on the list for the next couple years.

How can I get school to budget for this?

This is the golden question. My son’s school handed out things like specialty writing notebooks, agendas, and other things they required for a school wide policy. Can your school?

We’re not judging here…

Unless you’re the one who made me run around looking for that purple notebook after Target was empty. Or the professor who made her student teachers buy ridiculously expensive glue of a certain brand–that was right next to a tower of Back-to-School sale Elmer’s. (That story’s from my first book.)

Sometimes a perfectly good supply, idea, assignment… makes sense only to me. I trained all students to let me know when that happens–and it does on a regular basis. The only rule when critiquing my lesson-supply-system is they have to have an idea that’s better for the class or for them.

That permission isn’t only about cheaping out on notebooks, it’s helping students learn to hone in on how they learn best and to advocate for themselves. That’s a real life skill.

A notebook isn’t only a notebook.  It’s autonomy for kids, freedom from “I gotta buy a class set” for you, and joy on the face of every parent who didn’t have to hunt down something dumb that never got used.

Photo credit: Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash.