Are you one of “those teachers?”  The one who requires students to have a thousand specialty school supplies?

If you’re a teacher-parent you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t have kids yet and do in the future, you will soon. You’ll get a back to school supply list a mile long and you’ll look at that list and say “^%$^%$@#?”

The Specialty List (it varies with age level)

  • Crayola crayons. Not just crayons. Granted, Crayola is better than the waxy generics, but…
  • Elmer’s Glue. Don’t you try to bring generic!  (Glue exception: must be non-toxic. Beyond that, who cares?)
  • Four one-inch three-ring binders. Purple. Light green. Turquoise. Goldenrod. 
  • Cornell note looseleaf.
  • Personal-sized kleenex and a backpack-latch antibacterial gel
  • Seven small-sized paper clips.
  • Sixteen pencils, not mechanical
  • 6 tabbed notebook separators* 
  • A Cricut machine or label maker
  • Four green pipe cleaners, six soda bottles and a paper towel tube
  • A subscription to the Wall Street Journal, which we will be using instead of textbooks this year. 


In middle and high school it’s worse. Fifty-million dollar notebooks with tabs and stickers and sheet protectors… a five-subject for one teacher, and a folder with a three-subject for another. Color coded. A specific calculator. A pouch. A marble composition writing journal.

As a parent, I’ve been getting school supplies for several years, and as a teacher, decades. At the end of the year when I clean out my son’s backpack, I notice one thing–none of that specialized stuff got used. A few pages from each notebook have doodles and a note or two, that’s it. As a teacher, nothing comes close to locker cleanout day to see what American students waste.  It’s ugly.

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

Students ask this on Day One, even after I tell them and give them a tiny sheet.

“I told you. Something to write with, and something to write on. Or, if you prefer, a document in Google or a note on your phone for my class. Whatever works best. Whatever you choose, bring it or charge it. That’s all.”

I don’t want them to waste money buying a five-dollar notebook for my class. I want them to have that money to sneak in candy and gum.

They don’t believe me. “You sure? Because I need (they list seventy specialty supplies) in the other classes.”

“No need.” I say. “Notebooks are a quarter at Walmart and Staples this week. Google docs are free.”  I’m pretty cheap. They smile. Because their parents–like me–just went to that summer notebook sale. Every mom and dad in America buys 2 sets of each color notebook. The first for September, the second–we wrap them up for Christmas. We buy a set of composition notebooks, and three extra packs of looseleaf, just in case.

Then, tragedy strikes…

6 out of 7 teachers send a totally different school supply list. The only teacher who doesn’t is the PE teacher. We look at our summer hauls–not one thing we have is on that list.  Worse yet, we don’t find out until school starts.

When school starts, it’s too late. You’ve missed every single doorbuster and sale. That ship has sailed. Stores don’t have school supplies. They’re setting up for Halloween and Christmas.

There are two schools of thought on this. The first: Buy the stuff anyway.  This mom is okay with that. “You’re taking my kid for 180 days, I’ll buy you a Ferrari. You want a $10 yellow notebook, you got it!”  As a mom, I’d be okay with that, too, if the stuff got used. One year, it did. Teachers created a cross-subject notebook system that really helped my son.

The second school of thought: require only what you really need. I can do just as much with a recycled manilla folder and looseleaf, or a homemade masking tape tab on a 25-cent notebook.

“What color is this class?” kids ask.

Some kids came out of color-coded environments. English was yellow, social studies blue, math is red, science was green… Color coding works. There are studies that show this. Except–at a regional high school no one used the same colors. Nothing bothers me worse than when people mess with my colors and system, so I try not to mess with theirs.

“Since this will be your favorite class, I suggest you choose your favorite color.” That’s what I tell my color-coded students.

Maybe I’m wrong?

I never did like to be told how to organize. Perhaps I’m passing that on to future generations. Maybe others are right to require specifics. It may get you Teacher of the Year for the next decade, increase test scores across your entire state board, and land students jobs at NASA.

But if you’ve ever gotten That Specialty School List sent home as a parent, godparent, aunt, or friend or had to go out after Labor Day weekend to look for a “purple one-inch three-ring binder” when every shelf was picked clean except for black notebooks, you feel the pain.

Take an objective look at the lists of supplies you require for your students. Ask a few questions:

Will they use this. Fully?

Or is it part of my ideal school world and once reality sets in we won’t get to it. It’ll then be waste.

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

For example, most high school students have phones. Turn the calculator app sideways and it’s a scientific calculator. Genius! Kids really shouldn’t need to buy things they already have. (“But they could cheat.” Then give them harder, problem-solving activities where the math is the road to the final solution).

Is this a burden to get, or easy?

After everyone picks the shelves clean, will parents be able to get this color, exact style, or brand? Is it a financial drain?

Is this available year round?

See number 3. Some things are featured in August, but packed away after the shopping season.

Does this increase learning or make things easier for students?

…or is this my system of organization?  Ideally, it should be about student flow unless

Does it make my life easier in such a way that it improves the classroom flow?

If you answered number 5 “it’s my system,” that’s not a deal breaker if it increases the pace and flow of the classroom significantly and lets you do more with less time.

Is this something that students can share?

In the case of scissors, white out, colored pencils, and even internet-connecting devices, students can often share. There can be a classroom station with supplies long as students care for the items and return them. I have a rule–I will not replace broken and stolen items. If things break and disappear, it’s every man for himself. Adapt and overcome.

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 schoolwide policy. Can your school?

This is in no way a critique of your teaching.

Unless you’re the one who made me run around looking for that purple notebook. Other than that, it’s just a thought question to help everyone look critically at processes sand supplies, top down.

Here’s a true story from my first book.

One day, I was in the craft store behind two student teachers. They were upset because there was no glue. When I say “no glue” I mean “none of the stuff on The List.” Their professor or teacher mentor gave them an obnoxious list. Behind them, there was the Mount Everest of Elmer’s Glue displays–a doorbuster for five cents.

They finally found their five dollar glue, and I told them this: “Some day, you’ll get to make all the decisions in your own classroom. When you do, they will make sense.”

That’s the golden rule. “Does this make sense?” Sometimes a perfectly good supply, idea, assignment… makes sense only to me. That’s when a student says, “Can I use this instead?” or “Can I do it this way?”  When they do, it knocks me out of my teacher space because their idea is better. More often than not, I steal their idea and put it out to the class. I’ve trained them to do this. “Here’s where I was going with that. If you can come up with a better way, or if my way doesn’t work for you, you have to take action.”

That permission does something more than just improve the list, assignment, flow, or system. It gives students ownership. That’s a valuable career and analytic skill. Too many people are lemmings. We’ve got a crisis of creativity big enough it’ll get it’s own blog post. In short, students are frozen by requirements and tests such that across the board, I see more “obey” than “create” or “think.”  Every chance I get to give them autonomy, I do. And if they need help reaching that bar, coming up with a system, or taking ownership, I help them get there.

I want students to question me, right down to the last color notebook.

A notebook isn’t only a notebook.  It’s autonomy.

Parents can be at ease getting school supplies they can afford–or luxury ones. It’s their choice. Students can choose equipment and supplies that brings them joy. And I can still accomplish the mission–which is teaching an excellent class kids’ll remember for years to come.


[Here’s a link to the no-spend challenge. Stop spending your paycheck on your job today!]


Photo credit: Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash.