My name is Caroline and it has been five days since my last stationery purchase.

7th August 2015 at 01:00
Teacher Caroline Ross has a problem - and she's not alone. From the simple perfection of Post-its to the joy of personalised planners, she runs through the top five stationery items no educator can live without

It was a moment of weakness in the aisles of a well-known high-street store. I saw them and I had to have them. Now I am the proud owner of a set of Frozen-themed pens.

I am a 46-year-old secondary school teacher, so it was not the lure of happily-ever-after princess narratives - nor a desire to support Disney's new feminist zeal, which the film professes to celebrate - that drew me in. Rather, it was the pens themselves. I have a problem, you see: I am absolutely fanatical about stationery.

Gel pens, fineliners, calligraphy, fountain, biro, cartridge, highlighters, notebooks, folders, files, dividers, rubbers, pencils, gold paper, sugar paper, felt tips.I could go on. I want to go on, but I have a limited word count and I am assuming you get the idea: I don't just love stationery, I ? it.

Working in Hong Kong propelled my love of stationery into the stratosphere: Afro Ken and Hello Kitty sold me stationery as a lifestyle and I bought into it big time. Nowadays, my substantial collection is stashed in a storage tub secreted below my desk. I like to rest my feet on it like a self-appointed Queen of Stationery, casting her eye over quite frankly shabby pretenders.

And yet pretenders are actually quite thin on the ground. We, as a profession, are an extraordinary bunch of stationery aficionados. We obsess about it, we protect it like each rubber and pen is a family member, and when that rubber or pen is taken what we feel is grief. Grief and anger.

I have seen full-throttle arguments over a stolen pen, with tears flowing down crumpled, devastated faces. It must seem mad to an outsider, but for teachers this is an entirely acceptable situation. So what is wrong with us?

Emma Kenny, media psychologist, broadcaster and writer, has an explanation. She says that teaching is a fundamentally organised profession and that teachers project power on to stationery in the belief that the more tools we have, the more control we can exert.

In a job where you so often feel powerless, this theory has frightening resonance: what if our only way of feeling in control is to brandish a pencil and scratch a memo into our overfilled planners?

But Kenny's not finished yet. She says that teachers also enjoy the ritualistic nature of preparing for the new academic year by buying huge stockpiles of stationery. Ultimately, she surmises that stationery is our weaponry.

This affliction is not solely found among the ground troops - those teachers sparring in classrooms, where the stationery cupboard is the arms bunker and each highlighter is a grenade. Stationery embraces all echelons of education, and reaches into every nook and cranny, whether primary, secondary, further or higher. It worms its way into headteachers' offices, senior leadership meetings and even governors' get-togethers. Stationery does not discriminate; it enslaves us all.

Yet some of us are better able to feed our habit than others. My school has a craft bank: at the mere mention of it teachers go weak at the knees. Only a chosen few have the keys to this treasure trove: I've applied but been put on a waiting list. Pen purgatory! I look at those teachers with a craft bank card and feel real hatred as they pass by, brand new Pilot G207 Retractable Gel Rollerball in their jacket pocket.

And primary teachers, too, are among the chosen few. There are more excuses for collecting creative consumables in primary schools than in secondary. The lie of "getting them in for the kids" is more readily accepted.

There is, of course, the odd miserable teacher who just doesn't get it. When I canvassed the staff at my school for this feature, one colleague renounced stationery to the horror of all. Blasphemy poured from his lips. He claimed no urge for colouring, highlighting or sticking. I refuted his argument on the basis that he teaches drama, where the scope for stationery is narrow unless Julius Caesar, after being stabbed with a highlighter, bemoaned: "Et tu, Brute? The pen is mightier than the sword."

Or should that be the Post-it? All stationery is not equal in the eyes of teachers and my guess is that pens wouldn't make most people's top five favourite stationery.

But what would? You may think that we could not, should not, impose a hierarchy on stationery: they are all our children and we should love them all equally. I think the opposite. So let's rank them.

1 Post-its

I fear for Post-its. Although, if you were to stick your head around the door of any classroom, you would think my worries were misplaced. The inventors of these garishly coloured, sticky-stripped notes tapped deep into the psyche of the teaching profession and delivered something that seemingly no educator can live without.

The uses are many. Here are the ones I managed to fit on a Post-it:

l Notes for students, notes for colleagues, notes for ourselves.

l Name badges, book labels, bookmarks.

l Fridge reminders, desk reminders, cupboard reminders.

l Classroom resource, classroom decoration.

l Impromptu, boredom-defeating flip book.

In the act of writing on a Post-it, in our tiniest and neatest or biggest and blockiest handwriting (it depends on the purpose and there is no middle ground), we feel empowered, we feel something has been ticked off the list, we feel we have achieved. And in an education system that constantly informs us that we are useless, that sense of achievement is invaluable. So we cling to Post-its as if they were the last teabag in the staffroom.

And yet the novelty has well and truly worn off for me: I have Post-it fatigue. A course I'm currently attending uses Post-its as the "fun" element of each session. I inwardly groan when those multicoloured sticky notes are triumphantly held up for group work.

Then you have the digital threat. Alice Edgington, a primary teacher in Kent, reveals how technology is creeping in. She is a Post-it devotee, scouring the land for the most vibrant ones she can find, because they are invaluable in the discharging of her duties as a teacher of infants. But she tells me that apps are sneaking up on Post-its, providing more immediate and flashy feelings of achievement.

Post-its take pride of place in our affections for the moment, but for how long?

2 Drawing pins

A former employer from the primary sector had a fixation with drawing pins, so much so that he had a drawing pin policy. In addition to triple mounting each individual piece of artistic perfection, we had to securely affix said items with equidistant precision. Hailing from the secondary sector and having earned my stripes in staple gunning, I frequently received nul points on his display-inspection rounds.

Yet the drawing pin - the most basic and untechnological method of getting work to stay on a wall - has an innocent charm. While the world is awash with change, we can be sure that a small gold pin will always secure a symbol of student achievement to a display board. It won't jam like the staple gun, it won't have a meltdown like the interactive whiteboard, the paper won't peel away like when you use a trendy new glue.

No, drawing pins are solid and dependable and unchanging, and they may be the only thing like this in education nowadays. And so we love them.

3 Highlighters

Gotta love 'em.and gotta catch 'em all, to use the language of all young Pokmon masters. Highlighters not only emphasise key words and definitive paragraphs but their pretty colours also light up my face as I flick through exercise books, admiring the symmetry of neon pink or blue boxes.

Alex Quigley, director of learning and research at Huntington School in York, and author of "Why I hate highlighters" on his Hunting English blog (see bit.lyHighlighterBlog), argues that they are an ineffective tool in the classroom. Highlighting may look like learning, Quigley says, but it is an adornment that "very rarely achieves more than glorified colouring in".

In his blog, Quigley makes reference to a 2013 study by John Dunlovsky et al (bit.lyEffectiveLearning), which finds that highlighting is often ineffective and can actually be detrimental to understanding of a text.

Well, stuff the research. I have 32 highlighters - sadly all yellow - and they have an impact every single time they are used, helping students to achieve their potential. Even better, they look pretty.

4 Rubbers

As a child educated in the 1970s and 1980s, the term "rubber" was the cause of much hilarity, since it was also vernacular for prophylactics. Many a titter ensued if someone asked for a "rubber" in class, necessitating the use of the word "eraser" instead.

More recently, rubbers - of the less risqu sort - have become front-page news. In May, Guy Claxton, a visiting professor of education at King's College London, was reported in The Daily Telegraph as saying that rubbers were an "instrument of the devil". He believes they discourage children from making mistakes and claims that we are creating a "culture of shame about error".

Claxton's comments caused such a furore that they went viral - probably because rubbers are as entrenched in our culture as tea. John Coe, a spokesman for the National Association for Primary Education, told the BBC: "I think banning erasers is a draconian action."

I'm with Coe. Were erasers to be banned, how would I rub out my own mistakes on my candidate sheets? I have one specifically for that task, you see.

And teachers and students alike have used rubbers since time immemorial. Far from discouraging mistakes, rubbers permit them. In this age of unerasable online information, where our every moment is etched in history for all to see, is it any surprise that the simple rubber - which can offer us a private moment of error - is embraced wholeheartedly?

5 The planner

The enduring popularity of planners is easy to understand: they are the organisers of our teaching lives; a scaffold to brace us during the academic year and ensure we stay standing and stable. They paper over the cracks in our memory and assist us in appearing swan-like, serenely gliding through our working lives while furiously paddling under the water.

My planner is everything to me: the gin in my tonic, the sugary centre in my creme egg. I am my planner and my planner is me.

This rather grand statement is truer than it once was. You see, you can now design your own planner. It took me hours to seek out the best photos of my offspring and paste them on to a wide selection of provided templates. Two weeks later, I was ripping that package open and showing everyone - and everyone showed me theirs back. We ooohed and ahhhed over layouts and colour schemes.

This summer, you can bet your best pen that gangs of teachers across the nation will be holed up, meticulously completing their planners in preparation for the new academic year.

The planner may be propping up the list at number five now, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were a ruler among stationery by this time next year.

Caroline Ross is a teacher at a secondary school in Hampshire

A more official stationery top 5

The British Educational Suppliers Association was kind enough to survey its members to find out what types of stationery are most commonly purchased by schools:

1. Glue sticks

2. Drywipe pens

3. Exercise books

4. Laminating pouches

5. Blu-Tack

True glue

In 1967, inspiration struck for researcher Dr Wolfgang Dierichs when he saw a woman using a tube of lipstick. Two years later, the Pritt Stick - a new and mess-free way to apply glue - was launched

Swapping notes

It may be hard to imagine a time before Post-it notes. But although the weak adhesive that makes them so useful was invented in 1968, it languished in obscurity until the sticky notes were finally launched in 1977, under the name Press 'n Peel

Pinned down

Millions of schoolchildren around the world have Edwin Moore to thank for their work being celebrated on classroom walls. He invented the drawing pin, or "push-pin", in 1900

Rubbing it in

Hymen Lipman of Philadelphia was granted a patent for a pencil with an eraser at one end in 1858, although the patent was later declared invalid because the invention was a combination of two previously existing objects. That non-invention is now, of course, very popular indeed

Paper trail

Some bright spark has calculated that one pine tree can make just over 80,000 sheets of paper, which sounds like quite a lot but might not stop you feeling guilty when the printer jams

Clip club

Rather than having a single inventor, the paper clip as we know and love it evolved over time. The "Fay" clip was probably the earliest to secure a patent in 1867; the more familiar "Gem" design has been manufactured since the late 19th century

Pushing the envelope

What would schools do without window envelopes? Applaud Americus F Callahan of Chicago - he patented the idea in 1902

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today