Last year 20 of Wyoming’s 48 school districts reported they had to reduce their supply and materials budgets, and this year that number jumped to 38, according to survey results compiled by the Legislative Services Office. As a result, parents may have seen the list of back-to-school supplies they’re asked to purchase grow to include things like copy paper and boxes of tissues. But a lot of teachers are pitching in with their personal funds too.
At Linford Elementary in West Laramie, Kayleigh Kenick was wrapping up a laminating project, with one hour to spare before her newest crop of 4th graders arrived to check out their classroom for the first time. She placed something special on each desk to make them feel welcome.
“Today is meet and greet and when they come in they will get on their desks a little package of cookies that says: ‘You are one smart cookie. I’m so glad you’re in my class.’” Kenick said, “It’s just a little gift from me to let them know I’m so excited they are here, and I can’t wait to grow and learn and spend time with them this year.”
Her attempts to make them feel at home didn’t stop with the cookies. Kenick has overhauled her classroom to make it more inviting. She repainted the traditional green chalkboards in fun colors, and she filled the shelves above the classroom sink with framed sayings like “home sweet classroom.”
Kenick is a self-described girly girl, but there’s more to her passion for interior decorating than just making things cute. She used lamps to create a mellowing energy. Some of her students really need that. “If I want them to come down from being really high energy I will turn all the lights off, and just have the lamps and the natural light, with the curtains open,” said Kenick.
She did get a budget to spend on the materials her students use, but the special touches that make her classroom more comfortable came out of her own pocket. This might seem frivolous but Kenick said it’s essential. She spends about $200 a year on snacks alone; to feed kids who were in a hurry and missed breakfast or for kids from low-income families where there just isn’t enough food at home.
According to a national survey of educators conducted last year, teachers spend an average of $530 of their own money and that average goes up close to $700 in high-poverty schools.
Kenik said with budget cuts she’s had to spend more. “You just never really know what’s going to happen. You try to plan for it as best you can.”
So she stocked up on extra essentials to buffer her students from that uncertainty.
“What this is getting at is that teachers do a lot of things that are really really intuitive and they may or may not realize that a lot of this is grounded in research,” said Scott Chamberlain. He is a professor at the University of Wyoming who specializes in educational psychology. He studies how kids feel in the classroom and how that impacts their learning.
“What the research shows is that kids are dialed into the fact that, oh my teacher really cares about me.” And Chamberlain said that has a direct influence on students’ cognitive energy, or the energy they invest in thinking.
“One of the things we know is that kids come to school and they have a lot of what we refer to as out of school factors,” said Chamberlain. “They’re donating a lot of cognitive energy to worrying about or being concerned with factors that you and I look at and think, ‘oh that can’t be the case.’”
But they could be concerned about things like their family’s financial stability or whether there will be anything to eat. Chamberlain said in some places kids might have to navigate violence on their way home, or face it once they get there.
“The more and more out of school factors the less inclined they are to learn when they are in the classroom.” But Chamberlain added that teachers like Kayleigh Kenik who create spaces where students feel calm and safe, can ease their students worries so they have more cognitive energy for learning.
Kathy Vetter is president of the Wyoming Education Association. She said over her 30-year career as a Wyoming teacher she and her colleagues often spent their own money even when their salaries weren’t going up.
“They just are willing to ensure their classrooms are inviting, good for learning, and are just a great environment to make sure every student they have is getting the highest quality education they can provide,” said Vetter.
She said there are often projects that help support schools by gathering donations from community members and local businesses, but more populated areas can have an advantage.
“And then you go to a really small community and they may not have the businesses there that are able to say hey we’ll match whatever the community pitches in.” She said that dynamic can be worse when economic times are tough.
And despite teachers best efforts, Vetter said, those kinds of statewide disparities are hard for them to make up for out of their own pocket. But she said Wyoming does have a good funding model designed to equally distribute resources across the state, that is if the legislature can figure out how to fund it.
Are you a K-12 teacher spending your own money in your classroom? Tweet at @WYPublicRadio using #wyoteachersgiveback and let us know how much you spend and send a picture of something special you’ve done in your classroom.