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Teacher Lida Mansilla at Jean Batten School, Manukau.

It began with a comment from a group of Auckland teachers at NZEI Te Riu Roa’s annual meeting last year about how much of their own money they spend on classroom supplies.

And it turns out they’re not alone.

A follow up survey by NZEI of more than 300 support staff, primary and early education teachers found an astonishing number dig deep into their own pockets – some for basics like food for hungry kids, but often just because they want better resources and a more inviting classroom environment to boost their students’ learning.

Even on conservative estimates, the survey indicates that teachers subsidise public education by more than $8 million a year. Some 87 percent of primary teachers and 85 percent of early childhood teachers spend their own money at work, as well as 53 percent of support staff; many of whom remain on low incomes. Of primary teachers, more than half spent up to $200 a year, 31 percent between $200 and $500, and 11 percent more than $500 – with one teacher saying she spent more than $2000. Only eight percent managed not to buy extras. In early education, 81 percent of teachers spent up to $200 a year, 13 percent spent $200-500, and six percent over $500.

Key Points

  • An NZEI Te Riu Roa survey has found educators pump around $8 million a year of their own money back intro public education
  • Teachers are buying everything from food for hungry children, to paint and curtains, games and puzzles, stickers, paper, and ink cartridges

For support staff the figures were 69.5 percent, 26 percent and 4.5 percent. Many teachers report that they receive a classroom allowance of $100-200 a year from their school’s operations grant, but that it’s nowhere near enough to cover their stationery and equipment needs.

One teacher reported paying for, “Stickers, paper, photocopying, a guillotine, a laminator, ink cartridges, fly spray, cleaning needs, a fan, and I will need to buy heater.” She noted that her school was wealthy in technology but not in basics.

A number of other teachers reported that technology needs were taking priority, and that classroom budgets had been cut this year. One senior teacher working in a low decile school told EA that in recent years she had been spending less because she had accumulated a lot of equipment, including games and puzzles, but this year she had moved into a new classroom. “Someone has taken the doors of the cupboards and now I’ve got to buy material to make curtains to hang on them, because I don’t want young kids to be distracted by all my gear. “In the larger cupboard, I want shelves. I’ve got a builder coming in and I am going to pay him. That’s where the money goes because the classrooms aren’t up to standard. I’ve just gone and bought curtain hooks because all the curtains are falling down.”

Some 27 percent of teachers expected to spend more this year than in previous years, 23 percent thought they’d spend less, and 44 percent about the same suggesting the trend will remain constant. Unspoken expectation but it’s not an issue that’s mentioned at teacher training institutions “nothing so practical”, was one comment, but there does seem to be an unspoken expectation in schools that educators will use their own money to top up spending where needed.

Only one teacher reported that the practice was banned at their school, though some did say they could ask to have some expenses refunded.

“We’re flexible,” says Karl Vasau, principal at Holy Family School in Cannon’s Creek, north of Wellington. “If there are things that teachers purchase that are essential for learning, we will reimburse.” For his school, Christmas and Easter are often the time when teachers will buy “little gifts” for their students. “And then there’s things like driving children to sports meetings, and driving to other meetings: teachers don’t get reimbursed for petrol. “And with things like laminating, if teachers want to keep the resources, they have to provide their own laminating pouches, and they’re $60-70 a packet.” Karl is reluctant to ask parents for school donations or to do much in the way of fundraising because “our community is so generous with money but then you think what are they going to go without to find this money.

Our average income is low.” Higher decile schools, in comparison, can and do ask for annual donations; one Auckland school, in the eastern bays, asks for a donation $425 per child per year to top up its operations grants. “We are privileged in high-decile schools in how we allocate our resources,” says Louise Green, the principal at Khandallah School in Wellington’s northern suburbs. Her teachers are provided with basic stationery, including laminating and photocopying, and $200 a year for classroom supplies. “Our teachers are our most valued resources. We pay for professional learning and resources, but even so teachers need to express themselves and to have exciting learning environments and they do spend an awful lot of their own money.

Difficult Choices

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Georgina Davis at Jean Batten School, Manukau.

In South Auckland the choices can be quite grim. “I’ve bought school stationery for children because you know the family, and you know it’s not going to happen. You think, what’s $12 or $16. It’s important they can all start together and all have the same things,” says Georgina Davis from Jean Batten School in Manukau. “But you don’t mention it, you just do it.” Her colleagues agree. “It’s a personal thing. There’s an expectation that if you want something more for your students than what the school can provide, we pay for it ourselves.” They also buy the occasional pie for a child they know is hungry; it’s not much but it’s something”. They’re concerned that the government will cut the fruit-in-schools scheme, as some children have come to rely on it.

But they’re not shy to employ some Kiwi ingenuity. A conversation at a local hardware retailer led to a donation of $120 of paint for classroom shelves, so long as the school sent a letter acknowledging the donation that the shop could display. Another teacher was at an ice-cream factory and saw some empty tubs, “I said, what do you do with your empties—and they gave me ten. I had to take them home and wash them but they were free containers with lids.” Georgina has her eye on bigger things. “I am working on this guy in a pet shop in Manukau city. I want this big fish tank for my class. We think fish tanks are a good medium for kids. I keep saying, ‘That would look really good in my class.’ And he says,’Oh, I’m thinking about it.’ So thinking about it is pretty good. “We think fish tanks are a good medium for kids. Not everyone has one, I haven’t.”