WHEATON – As hard as school might be for students who don’t have the latest cool new accessory, life in the classroom is even more challenging without pens and paper.
Debbie Willems is a first grade teacher at Washington Elementary in Wheaton, one of Community Unit School District 200’s poorest schools. In a student body where nearly 30 percent of children were classified as “low income” by the 2013 Illinois Report Card, she frequently sees students in need of basic school supplies, she said.
To fill in the gaps where parents and guardians can’t afford supplies, Willems estimates at least a third of the teachers at Washington spend money out of their own pockets on everything from pencils to lunch money to winter coats.
Teachers also work to keep their low income students from being labeled as “have nots.”
“I don’t want to draw attention to students I am buying for. I don’t want them to stand out,” Willems said.
Willems said that she spends between $200 and $400 every year on her students, often more.
Teachers, counselors, principals and aids who work in kindergarten through 12th grade can deduct up to $250 of any reimbursed expenses for school supplies, according to the Internal Revenue Service website.
Ellen Murphy, a teacher at Wheaton North High School who works with students who have emotional disabilities, said that she spends about $400 on school supplies and an additional $800 on snacks.
“A lot of the kids, if I don’t buy their supplies, they’re not going to get them,” she said.
Her relationship with her students is different from many teachers at the high school level, she said, but she estimated 80 percent of her fellow educators spent money on their students in some way.
Superintendent Brian Harris said that teacher contracts in the district allot $100 every year for the purchase of classroom supplies.
“Some teachers choose to go way above and beyond what the district expectations are. It’s not required – not a lot do, many don’t,” he said. “I don’t think the need is nonexistent at any school.”
Harris said that district staff monitor the needs of students at all of their schools and do their best to provide whatever materials may be needed by partnering with local nonprofits such as the Wheaton Rotary Club.
“Our teachers here and everywhere care about kids. That’s why most people got into this profession,” he said. “It’s just second nature for many teachers. If they see a kid in need, they’re going to help them.”
Both Willems and Murphy echoed Harris.
“For me, personally, it’s really important that students know I care about them beyond being students,” Willems said. “I go to soccer games and recitals and dinners. I want them to know that I care about them as people, not just students in my class.”