Did you move to a new grade/new school/new job (or any combination of these) this year? Are you thinking, "Help! I don’t have anything"? Believe me, whether you are new to the teaching profession or new to your grade, we have all been in your position. Teachers are notorious for spending out of their own pockets for their classrooms, but also for finding creative ways to turn "finds" into learning tools. As we begin the new year, I would like to offer some tips I have learned along the way for building a classroom on a budget.
Photo: The furniture for our reading area, including the bookshelves and the table, were all donated.
When I began teaching, I was nervous about the small size of the classroom library, which came mostly from my personal collection. Here are some ways I found to supplement my library on a shoestring budget.
I am pretty new to working for Scholastic, but I honestly have been utilizing their resources since my first year. A veteran teacher gave me this advice early on: Order books from Scholastic with your students, earn free books on the order, and put them in your classroom. One year, I taught The Hobbit, and my students loved the book so much, they ordered the Lord of the Rings trilogy in droves! I found myself with a $500 Scholastic order (still my record). With bonuses and saved points, I acquired 50 books for my classroom library, plus a refrigerator — which I have been using in my room for the past ten years.
Used & Closing Bookstores
Depending on where you live, there may be some phenomenal independent and chain bookstores offering used or inexpensive books. If you don't mind some dust, you can walk out with a bag of books for a steal. You might also watch for bookstore closings. I have found some great deals on books at stores liquidating their inventory. Bargain and closeout stores also offer books at good prices.
I always let parents know I will happily find a home for books they don't want or need anymore, in my classroom or another teacher's. I had one parent who had ordered books online and donated a duplicate to our classroom. I was really excited because it was a new release in a series several of my students were reading.
Some libraries will get rid of books to make way for new stock. Although they may not be brand new, these are a good resource until you can build your own classroom library.
Thrift Stores, Consignment Sales, & Yard Sales
In addition to clothing or household items, these venues often yield great books, puzzles, and games for your classroom. I had no idea about the world of consignment until I had kids; you can find terrific classroom items in these stores.
Several years ago, a book company near our school had a HUGE surplus and offered to donate books to classrooms of any type. At the time, I drove an SUV, and I filled the back with books, weighing the whole vehicle down. Because not many other teachers had shown up, I was permitted to bring some to other teaching friends — so I took every kind of book I thought we could use. I still have some of those books in my classroom, and the kids still use them.
Teachers Retiring, Moving, or Changing Grade Levels
In our district, when a teacher leaves or retires, he or she cannot take anything with them that they purchased with school funds. In addition, teachers moving down several grades won’t need all the same books, so they may be willing to loan or give books to your classroom. (If the move is temporary, just be sure to label all the loaners for easy return.)
Stores Closing, Remodeling, or Redecorating
As businesses close or make other significant changes, they will try to sell furnishings. But if you let them know you are a teacher, they might donate items in exchange for a tax write-off. These can include everything from bookshelves to wall decorations.
I have also asked stores for seasonal decorations once the holiday is past, and movie theaters for posters of popular book-based movies at the end of their runs.
Garage/Yard Sales & Flea Markets
You would be surprised at the kinds of things you can find for your classroom at these sales. I once got a life-sized suit of armor at a yard sale for $20; a fellow teacher had seen it, and knowing I taught world history and language, she called me on her way to school and gave me the heads up. My students LOVED it! I also had a parent find an Ionic-style column at a flea market and send it in — which was great for my Greek unit. I have even found office chairs that were much more comfortable than my school-issued one.
Parents & Family
If you let parents know you need certain items, some of them may already have those items and be willing to donate them. I had a sweet parent sew curtains and pillow covers for me. I arranged a donation between a family member who wanted to get rid of an old VCR and a teaching friend who needed one. Let parents know you welcome donations; they will surprise you.
My brother’s co-worker donated some sugar gliders (marsupials from the Southern Hemisphere) as classroom pets, but I didn’t have an appropriate cage for them. A parent had a cage in storage that is perfect, and he is letting the sugar gliders use it this year. One of our favorite substitute teachers brought in a chair for the classroom that the kids (and I) love.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask friends or family who are moving house if they have some things they would donate. That is how I got my microwave!
Don’t be afraid to ask businesses to donate for a project or event. A lot of businesses have surplus items or things they can’t use that are great for school use. I've received cardboard boxes and tubes, the ends of newsprint rolls — you name it. A parent who worked in a printing company brought in envelopes and scrap paper pads I could use to write notes on. It took me 16 years to use it all, but it was great to have!
As I was growing up, my city still had a number of farms and gardens, but with population growth, a lot of our farms have become subdivisions. Many kids have never seen vegetables or other plants in their natural state. Ask home and garden stores if they will donate plants or seeds at the end of the season. I have even asked gardener friends and farmers for samples of their produce.
I hope these ideas have been useful. I have found that overall, people are very supportive of education, and if they know you are going to use something well, they are willing to help. Just don't be afraid to ask!