SHERIDAN — Megan Garnhart doesn’t give a second thought to buying classroom supplies for her students.
When the third-year teacher at Coffeen Elementary School walks past the back-to-school section of Walmart, she doesn’t hesitate to load her shopping cart up with $0.18 three-ring binders.
“When you see school supplies for that cheap, teachers love that. That’s like Christmas for us,” Garnhart said, laughing.
But even though $0.18 doesn’t seem like a lot, it begins to add up — especially when you tack on all of the other school supplies, decorations and everything else teachers buy for their classrooms.
Every year, teachers across the country spend hundreds of their own hard-earned dollars and countless hours on improving their classrooms and Coffeen Elementary teachers Garnhart and Brianna Reed are no exception.
For the two elementary teachers, their work begins weeks before students walk through the door.
Even though Garnhart has been in the same classroom for the past several years, every year requires a lot of work and money to get ready for the next group of kids. The days before they are required to head back to work consist of hanging bulletin boards, lesson planning and making the classroom as aesthetically pleasing as possible for the incoming students.
At the end of the year, teachers are required to stack their desks and clear off their bulletin boards in order for the janitorial staff to clean the rooms over the summer. So when the teachers come back into their classrooms in August, it’s back to square one.
“It takes a lot of time setting up your classroom,” Reed said. “All of the time we spend putting together the actual classroom is volunteered.”
It’s harder still when you first move into a new class. That first year can be expensive and time consuming for a brand new teacher.
“When you first get into a new classroom, there is no other way to describe it than unbelievably overwhelming,” Garnhart said. “It’s just a total blank slate.”
Reed said she estimates spending approximately $200-300 of her own money on getting her classroom ready every year. Garnhart estimates spending about the same.
Reed and Garnhart said they don’t spend their own money on their classrooms because they have to, they spend it because they want to.
“It’s just something that you just do. It’s not something I feel like I need compensation for, but it’s something I do to put myself at ease,” Reed said.
Scott Stults, assistant superintendent and director of elementary education at Sheridan County School District 2, said that all schools receive money from the district to allow teachers to purchase items for their classrooms. The amounts vary from school to school.
“We know that a lot of teachers like to spend some of their out-of-pocket money on their classrooms, but we certainly don’t expect or encourage them to do that,” Stults said.
Both Reed and Garnhart said that most of those funds are spent on books and other essential materials for their classrooms.
Fortunately, there are some incentives for teachers who spend their money on enhancing their own classrooms. Teachers can claim the Educator Expense Deduction when filing for their taxes which provides a maximum of $250 in tax credit per educator.
According to statistics provided by the National Education Association, 99.5 percent of teachers spend their own money on improving their classrooms. This accounted for $1.6 billion during the 2012-13 school year.
But even with the tax returns, the teachers aren’t reimbursed for the time they spend on getting the classroom itself ready.
Reed estimates she dedicates 20 hours of her own time prior to the school year just preparing her classroom — moving desks around, hanging bulletin boards or lesson planning for the opening days of school. Garnhart said she spent about six hours just making physical improvements to her classroom.
“You can’t just wait until the students walk through the door,” Reed said. “Because once school starts, you have to be ready.”
But even with the time and money spent it’s all worth it for the two teachers to make their rooms as comfortable as possible for their students.
“It’s just something that I have never thought of,” Garnhart said about spending her own money on her classroom. “You just don’t even second guess it. If it’s what the classroom needs, and it’s what the kids need you just jump on it and make it as pleasant as it can be.”