Come this new school year, consider taking time to help teachers in underfunded schools meet their students' needs.
Historically, U.S. public education has undergone massive budget cuts, leaving many classrooms without fundamental resources. A 2018 study published by the American Federation of Teachers, a nationally organized union, noted a decrease in teacher's salaries and an increase in teacher-to-student ratios. The National Education Association, a nationwide advocacy network for public education, details a concerning educator pay gap, finding that educators are paid 81 cents on the dollar compared to other professionals with similar experience and credentials.
And yet, the vast majority of teachers still spend their own money on classroom supplies. According to the United States Department of Education, 94% of teachers report paying for school supplies, without reimbursement, in the 2014-2015 school year. The same study calculated teachers spend on average $479 annually of their own money on classrooms, with 15 percent reporting closer to $800 annually.
A 2021 survey by educator funding nonprofit AdoptAClassroom.org surveyed 5,400 educators and found that they spent, on average, at least $750 on supplies for their students annually — some of the highest reported numbers the organization has recorded. In 2022, educators are still navigating the complexities of maintaining classrooms that are both interactive and safe, amid global public health and safety concerns.
"Great classrooms don't just happen" said Chris Pearsall, vice president of brand and communications at DonorsChoose, a nonprofit organization that has helped crowdfund more than 2 million classroom project requests. "Teachers rarely have more than a few supplies left from the previous year, so back-to-school season is when a lot of them stock up."
Juan Brizuela, public relations manager for DonorsChoose, explained that the website exists to facilitate every level of support for educators nationwide. "The reason we exist as a platform is because we know each classroom, each teacher, may have a very unique need based on their students, where they live, how many students they have to teach in the classroom… you name it," he said. "We always like to say donors can donate to their favorite teacher, their child's teacher, a school they went to as a kid — we just ask donors to donate to whatever it is that inspires them."
Those donors are frequently made up of fellow educators and even large industry names. This year, DonorsChoose once again partnered with major donors to boost teacher fundraisers, including a recent campaign with support from Bill Gates that raised $7.7 million for classroom projects. But the majority of donors are just everyday individuals looking to support teachers how they can.
As students return to school, here are some ideas for how all of us can help teachers in tangible ways.
1. Help fund educational kits
Ahead of this school year, Brizuela says the number one requested category among teachers fundraising on DonorsChoose are educational kits, or interactive classroom activities that combine hands-on education and engaging play.
"Think things like kits and games that make learning interactive for the students," he explained, noting examples like multilingual versions of board games and outdoor activity kits.
Find a plethora of campaigns for these kinds of activities by searching the DonorsChoose website.
2. Get flexible seating into their classrooms
Many classrooms are seeking flexible seating and desk options for students — a form of accommodation that benefits both students with different physical needs and those that need different forms of stimulation to manage the classroom environment.
Popular flexible seating options include things like wiggle stools, which allow children to move around in the "chair" safely, and flip chair floor cushions, which bring students down to floor level. Flexible options don't need to be fancy, though, and can be as simple as floor rugs for classroom group activities. "For a lot of teachers, it's been one answer out of many for keeping students engaged, focused, and concentrated," Brizuela said.
The DonorsChoose website features more than 12,000 campaigns for similar flexible seating options.
3. Provide a 21st century education
"More than anything else, teachers crave technology for their classrooms," Pearsall said in a 2016 blog post for DonorsChoose. According to the company's findings, teachers consistently rank technology as the most urgent expenditure schools can make. Look through requests for tablets, smart boards, and more here.
Brizuela notes a continued demand for tech accessories, like headphones and even hard drives, as many classrooms gained new technology during the pandemic. He also added that technology doesn't just mean physical hardware. As we head into the 2022-2023 school year, many teachers are requesting funding for instructional tech, which includes things like academic games and other software that aids learning.
As many students have limited or no access to technology at home, their school becomes crucial for acquiring modern computer skills. Getting early exposure — in all its forms — to technology can help them prepare for future careers, and it also supports students with different, specialized learning needs.
4. Expand classroom libraries
Help teachers expand their classroom libraries. Books are the most popular request on the DonorsChoose website. A lot of teachers love to request graphic novels or books that are coming out as movies (like Wonder or The Hate U Give), so that their students can connect with the material on multiple levels.
Scholastic also has "ready-to-go" classroom libraries for each grade level. You might consider partnering with other parents to purchase a collection for a local teacher.
5. Cover classroom basics
Classroom basics are often the first items teachers pay for out of pocket: pens, pencils, erasers, paper, cleaning supplies — they quickly add up, but they're must haves for a successful classroom.
6. Help teachers start a school garden
Class gardens teach students about life cycles, nutrition and health, sustainability, and the environment, as well as responsibility, observation, and teamwork.
If you want to do more than donate to a class garden project at DonorsChoose and bring an outdoor garden to your school, consider talking to school officials and plan to take on the responsibility of organizing the project, as not to put extra labor on already over-stretched school faculty. Use talking points like these, and this starting guide for those who need convincing. You can also get in contact with groups like Out Teach, formerly REAL School Garden, an organization that partners with high-poverty schools to build community gardens.
7. Support the arts
Support art teachers in need of construction paper, paint brushes, instruments, and more. Funding for music and visual and performing arts is often one of the first departments to get cut from a school budget. Many students also don't have the money for instruments or expensive arts supplies, and so rely on their school for these opportunities.
8. Help teachers take students on an adventure
Teachers are constantly thinking of ways to expand learning outside the classroom, but it is not so easy to make this happen. Field trips can be time consuming to plan and expensive to execute, and became nearly unfathomable during the country's public health crises. To help teachers figure out ways to broaden their student's experiences, check out these virtual projects and in-person adventures on DonorsChoose.
9. Support students who are struggling with poverty
A lot of teachers pay out of pocket for food and even clothes, shoes, and personal hygiene items for their students. With the right essentials, students can come to school clean, comfortable, fed, and confident, focused on their school work. DonorsChoose can connect you with teachers raising money for their low-income students.
DonorsChoose also has a specific Equity Focus designation on its site, launched in 2021 to address growing racial socio-economic inequality, which allows donors to filter through schools where at least half of its students identify as students of color and at least half of the students come from low income households and receive free or reduced price lunch.
Another option to support teachers and their students is to contact your local food bank. Feeding America, an anti-poverty organization with a network of 200 food banks across the country, has a BackPack Program that prepares bags of food for low-income children. "For more than 15 years, the Feeding America BackPack Program has been helping children get the nutritious and easy-to-prepare food they need to get enough to eat on the weekends," according to Feeding America.
10. Help teachers instruct their students on tolerance and diversity
Teachers need help preparing students for an inclusive, diverse society and ways to teach about current political and social issues. There are several crowdfunding projects on DonorsChoose focused specifically on tolerance and diversity. Teachers have previously asked for funding on projects that celebrate students' heritages, things like picture books about tolerance, and activities about identity and racial justice.
This also extends to teachers seeking to make their educational environments more accessible and identity-affirming for students with disabilities and LGBTQ+ communities. Check out the DonorsChoose #rainbow Giving Page for campaigns that "focus on queer history, queer and trans representation, queer student community, the intersection of race and queerness, and projects that actively welcome queer youth."
Brizuela says that many educators are specifically seeking out more culturally relevant books and learning materials. "We've really made note of how many teachers ask for identity-affirming resources, and more often than not, it is books, whether that be books about Black history, books that focus on LGBTQ+ and queer figures in history, how people made a difference in different communities — We see them all."
With recent teacher walk outs, protests calling for children's safety in classrooms, and threats on the existence of gender diverse and queer communities in public schools, it's clear that teachers still need all the support and solidarity we as fellow citizens can muster.
UPDATE: Aug. 8, 2022, 12:26 p.m. EDT An original version of this story was published in July 2018. It was updated with additional reporting by Chase DiBenedetto in August 2022.