MAXWELL:  The price of a teacher’s commitment

7/27/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A rarely told story is that our public school teachers are caring, generous professionals, a fact borne out in a survey recently released by the National Education Association at its annual meeting in Atlanta.

In 1996, the NEA asked teachers for the first time how much of their own money they spent during the last school year to meet the needs of their students. A whopping 94 percent said that they had spent an average of $408 on everything from stickers to pencils to pizza to shoes and clothing during the school year 1994-95.

Andria Overstreet, 26, a ninth-grade English teacher at Louisiana’s largest public school, said that the $408-a-year average is about right. Although her net income is about $17,000, Overstreet liberally reaches into her purse.

“I spend about $1,000 a year,” she said. “It’s well worth it if it helps the kids the slightest bit. I spend money on prizes and treats for the kids. It’s another way to motivate them. I buy candy, pencils, pens and stickers, too. I also buy lots of materials, especially paper to make copies. And I have to pay for copies. We’re given a certain amount of paper for the whole school year, but it’s not nearly enough. I always run out.”

Overstreet, in her fourth year of teaching, buys many books for her students. The real slap in the face, however, is that her department, which has 20 teachers, provides only two dictionaries, two VCRs and two overhead projectors. To make life better for Overstreet and her students, her father bought a VCR for her classroom.

“It all sounds trivial if you’re not in the classroom,” she said. “But when you need resources and materials, you have to get them. They make a big difference for your students.”

In Quincy, second-grade teacher Shannon Farran spends $800-$1,000 a year. A large amount goes to materials for crafts and cooking experiments, she said. She also spends money on books, stickers, crayon, pencils, prizes and items to post on her classroom door. Farran’s school district, like many others in rural Florida, has a mostly low-income, black student population. In fact, blacks account for about 97 percent of students.

“With poor kids, you really have to spend a lot of your personal money,” Farran said. “They come to school with so little. A lot of kids don’t have shoes or a jacket. You go on a field trip, and they can’t pay. Some teachers just choose to let them stay behind, but most of us would rather pay for their field trips than let them stay behind.

“Things like these are not necessities for learning, but they sure are necessities for living. Maybe they are necessary for learning, too. Children have to feel like they belong, that there is a place where they are important. The most disturbing thing, though, is that in my class of 25, only two students have backpacks for their books. The rest just carry their things in grocery bags.”

Although many teachers, such as Overstreet and Farran, spend their own money without complaining, others worry that their generosity is taken for granted and perpetuates a system that shortchanges students, teachers and society at-large.

Connie C. Cutliff, a fourth-grade teacher at Margaret Kinnan Rawlings Elementary School in St. Petersburg, who spent $2,625 last year, believes that Florida gets a free ride on the backs of teachers: “The district can do only as much as the state funding provides. Neither state nor district officials realize, or want to realize, the depth teachers go to for classroom materials and resources. . . . I learned to live a modest life years ago if I wanted to create the kind of learning environment for my students that I believe in. After 27 years of teaching, I have no regrets.”

Out of admiration for their efforts, I am listing the names of a few other other Pinellas County teachers I interviewed and the amounts that they spend each year (obviously, hundreds of other dedicated teachers give as much or more): Cecilia D. Summerall, $2,000; Tina Galloway, $1,500; Rhonda S. Carbart, $500-$1,000; Michele Tesney, $500; Shirley Scott Coleman, $750; Carrie Brendel, $100-$400; William M. Graveley, $500; Tim Rowe, $200-$500.

Here, too, are some important statistics from the NEA survey:

Teachers in large ($432) and medium-sized systems ($445) spent, on average, more than teachers in small-sized districts ($325) did.

Minority teachers ($454) spent more than white teachers ($400).

Teachers in the West region ($477) spent more than teachers in the Middle ($344) and Northeast ($353) regions.

Teachers age 30 and older (30 to 39, $377; 40 to 49, $440; 50 and older, $430) spent more than teachers under age 30 ($276).

Female teachers ($446) spent more than their male counterparts ($295).

Elementary teachers ($502) spent more than secondary teachers ($323).

Again, the most significant finding is that the overwhelming majority of teachers gladly spend their own money, as typified in the comments of Janie Guilbault, a Pinellas writing specialist with 27 years in the classroom. On average, she spends $500 to $750 a year.

“When I spend my own money, these are my choices that enrich my way of helping kids learn,” she said. “Mostly, I buy items for kids because I believe that their learning is based on the 3Ms: motivation, materials and me. If I want them to believe that writing is important, I must provide the writer’s tools.”