In my first year of teaching, the department ran out of lined A4. No problem, thought I, we’ll just get some more in right? I mean, you can’t have an English department without paper, right? Especially as, for some reason, there weren’t any exercise books and students' work was done on A4 and put into those awful paper/card hybrid folders. A4 is pretty much essential to learning and we can’t have the kids not learning, right? That’d be ridiculous, right?
Owing to budgetary constraints, there was no more money for paper. Which left us teachers in a bit of a quandary regarding the whole teaching and learning lark. Bit difficult to complete coursework if there’s nothing to complete the coursework on. So what did we do? Well, we ended up buying it ourselves, didn’t we? It was either that or everything would’ve gone to pot. The team clubbed together and headed on down to Woolworths (yes, I’m that old) to buy as much of the sweet, sweet parchment as we could get back to our classrooms to make sure the kids were alright.
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'Teachers are shoring up budgets'
I’ll be honest, I felt kind of good about myself. I was going above and beyond to ensure those in my charge would get what they needed. So what if we were a few quid out of pocket. It was for the kids, right? You can’t let them go without, right? What kind of teacher would you be, right?
Unfortunately, things haven’t changed all that much. During the NEU teaching union’s annual conference, teacher Jenny Jones revealed she had spent in excess of £700 on school supplies. Now in comparison, my donation to the cause was meagre, but it seems we are still in the position that teachers are shoring up budgets when the ends aren't even close to meeting each other.
But the show has to go on. The kids can’t be let down. And if it takes teachers dipping into their own pockets then so be it, right?
No. No, actually.
Stop filling the holes
I was wide-eyed and naive when I used my own money to make up a deficit left by someone else. I thought I was doing something charitable, something good, by using my own pay to bridge the gap that left the children I taught in the lurch.
But the problem was (and seemingly continues to be) this: if teachers keep buying the things that children need to learn, if they keep using their own pay to ensure the holes in the system are filled, then there will never be any systematic impetus for change.
The education system will continue, full of holes, weak, in disrepair, but still able to function sub-optimally because of the goodwill of those within it. Staggering ever onward, lame and wheezing but pushed forward on a sputtering engine of misplaced goodwill. I don’t think we’re helping kids if we do that. I think we’re perpetuating a system that doesn’t care enough to fund our future properly.
Don't pay – get angry
If I could talk to the naive bugger I was when I started, I would tell him to get his damn hands out of his pocket. I’d tell him to get angry instead. I’d tell him that no matter how good it made him feel that he wasn’t to spend one penny on paper or anything else that should be covered in the school budget. I’d tell him to refuse. And keep refusing. And start yelling to anyone that would listen about what was going on.
And I’d tell him, although it would be painful, that if the kids didn’t have any paper then so be it. Perhaps if the engine actually stopped, maybe people would feel the need to actually fix it. Perhaps next year’s kids would have enough paper.
Tom Starkey is an education writer and consultant