Being a public school teacher is the only job where you steal things from home to bring to work. Old furniture, newspapers, milk bottles, boxes, old machines. Teachers, in particular primary teachers, are masters in the art of transmogrifying other people’s junk into learning experiences. Partly because it’s fun but mostly because school funding never quite stretches that far.
Reading that schools are quietly dipping into operations grants to buy food for kids didn’t surprise me. Instead my first thought was; it isn’t just food and it isn’t just schools. Teachers often dip into their pockets over the course of the school year. Most people assume it’s paying for little extras like stickers and stamps but often we’re also chucking a few dollars at kids in our class who need a helping hand.
Based on a highly unscientific poll on twitter and my own experience here’s a sample of what New Zealand teachers dip into their own funds to pay for along with food:
- School shoes
- Pens, pencils, erasers, rulers, exercise books
- Apps for ipads
- Bus/train tickets
- Field/sporting trips
- Sanitary products
- Photocopying when budgets ran out
- Money for the bake sale/sausage sizzle
Yes often kids forget or lose things. But what was amazing about the responses on twitter is there are things on that list that that get taken care of in international schools.
I still remember having to pick my jaw off the ground the first time I walked into my current school’s resource cupboard halfway through the school year to see boxes and boxes of teaching supplies. Glue sticks, coloured paper and pencils, pens, exercise books, rulers, all there ready for me to use. It was the teaching equivalent of walking into a chocolate shop and being told you could eat whatever you wanted.
And it’s because things like stationary, money for school trips and bus transportation are now taken care of by the school, I’ve quickly forgotten that I used to have to pay for things.
And I think that’s the problem when people start talking about, ‘parental responsibility.’ Unless someone in your immediate circle of friends or family has experienced dire hardship, it’s all theoretical and abstract. Teachers, even in high decile schools that receive no funding for low-income kids on their rolls, deal with the reality.
And there’s nothing more real than a child in tears over the large holes in the shoes that the family can’t afford to fix or the kid trying to play down their disappointment at not being able to attend camp.
The thing that always bothered me is isn’t just the kids on benefits that are doing without. In New Zealand we’ve almost become accustomed to the idea that children living on welfare need help from private charities for necessities. No, the cases that really bothered me when I was teaching in New Zealand were the kids where the parent/s were working but had trouble making ends met. The parents loved their kids and wanted the best. But then you’d hear something from the kids about things going on at home:
- A family member is struck down by illness.
- A relationship breaks up.
- The car broke down.
- Reduced hours.
And you keep an eye out.
You try not to aggressively chase money for the school trip, you keep an eye on what their eating at lunch, you slip them a coin if you notice they’re not having a sausage at the sausage sizzle. You do this because those kids you teach are your kids. If a few bucks to buy a kid a pair of shoes at the warehouse keeps a kid in your class happy, you drop into the red shed on the way home that night.
I have no idea how much money I spent on extra bits and pieces, it would be at least a few hundred dollars a year. That might not sound like much to a lot of people but there’s also a lot of people who complain when it comes time to pay school donations.
Yes funding needs to change. Schools are being called on to do more with less. But fundamentally there’s a problem in New Zealand society when we’ve got too many families, especially families that are working, who are struggling.
I don’t know how to fix that… but I wish I could.