Come this new school year, consider taking time to help teachers in underfunded schools meet their students’ needs.

In the past decade, U.S. public education has undergone massive budget cuts, leaving many classrooms without fundamental resources. A recent study published by the American Federation of Teachers, a nationally organized union, cites a decrease in teacher’s salaries and an increase in teacher-to-student ratios.

And yet, the vast majority of teachers still spend their own money on classroom supplies. According to the United States Department of Education, 94% of teachers report paying for school supplies, without reimbursement. The same study calculated teachers spend on average $479 annually of their own money on classrooms, with 15 percent reporting closer to $800 annually.    

“Great classrooms don’t just happen” said Chris Pearsall, vice president of brand and communications at DonorsChoose, a nonprofit organization that has helped crowdfund over 600,000 classroom project requests. “Teachers rarely have more than a few supplies left from the previous year, so back-to-school season is when a lot of them stock up.”

As students return to school, here are some ideas for how you can help teachers. 

1. Expand classroom libraries

Help teachers expand their classroom libraries. Books are the most popular request on the DonorsChoose website. A lot of teachers love to request graphic novels or books that are coming out as movies (like Wonder or The Hate U Give), so that their students can connect with the material on multiple levels.

Scholastic also has “ready-to-go” classroom libraries for each grade level. You might consider partnering with other parents to purchase a collection for a local teacher.

2. Cover classroom basics

Classroom basics are often the first items teachers pay for out of pocket: pens, pencils, erasers, paper, cleaning supplies … they quickly add up, but they’re must haves for a successful classroom. 

3. Provide a 21st century education

“More than anything else, teachers crave technology for their classrooms,” Pearsall said in a blog post for DonorsChoose. According to the company’s findings, teachers consistently rank technology as the most urgent expenditure schools can make. Look through requests for tablets, smart boards, and more here.

As many students have limited or no access to technology at home, their school becomes crucial for acquiring modern computer skills. Getting early exposure to technology can help them prepare for future careers, and it also supports students with different, specialized learning needs. 

Accessibility is key, and tech helps teachers who have students with disabilities.

Accessibility is key, and tech helps teachers who have students with disabilities.

4. Help teachers start a school garden

Class gardens teach students about life cycles, nutrition and health, sustainability, and the environment, as well as responsibility, observation, and teamwork. 

If you want to do more than donate to a class garden project at DonorsChoose and bring an outdoor garden to your school, consider talking to school officials and plan to take on the responsibility of organizing the project, as not to put extra labor on already over-stretched school faculty. Use these talking points and this starting guide for those who need convincing. You can also get in contact with Real School Garden, an organization that partners with high-poverty schools to build community gardens.

5. Support the arts

Support art teachers in need of construction paper, paint brushes, instruments, and more. Funding for music and visual and performing arts is often one of the first departments to get cut from a school budget. Many students also don’t have the money for instruments or expensive arts supplies, and so rely on their school for these opportunities. 

6. Help teachers take students on an adventure

Teachers are constantly thinking of ways to expand learning outside the classroom, but it is not so easy to make this happen. Field trips can be time consuming to plan and expensive to execute. To help teachers broaden their student’s experiences, check out these projects on DonorsChoose. 

7. Support students who are struggling with poverty

A lot of teachers pay out of pocket for food and even clothes, shoes, and personal hygiene items for their students. With the right essentials, students can come to school clean, comfortable, fed, and confident, focused on their school work. This DonorsChoose link connects you with teachers raising money for their low-income students. 

Another option is to contact your local food bank (which you can use this link to find). Feeding America, an anti-poverty organization with a network of 200 food banks across the country, has a BackPack Program that prepares bags of food for low-income children. “For more than 15 years, the Feeding America BackPack Program has been helping children get the nutritious and easy-to-prepare food they need to get enough to eat on the weekends,” according to Feeding America.

8. Help teachers instruct their students on tolerance and diversity 

Teachers need help preparing students for an inclusive, diverse society. There are several crowdfunding projects on DonorsChoose focused specifically on tolerance and diversity. One teacher has asked for funding for a project that celebrates students’ heritages and diversity while another asks for picture books about tolerance. 

With recent teacher protests – most notably in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona – shedding light on the degree to which public school teachers are struggling to meet their children’s needs, it is perhaps time for citizens step up and show their support.

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