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Teachers' Free Labor, Out-of-Pocket Expenses Aid School Systems
Voice of Experience

Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Kathleen Modenbach reflects on how teachers seem so willing to give tons of extra time and wads of their own money to provide the best possible education for their students.



It was around seven o'clock in the evening. The school dismissal bell had rung hours before. I was leaving an elementary school after taking a class. I ran into a first-year teacher at the school who was just finishing her day's work -- or was that her night's work?

She proudly answered my dumbfounded stare by explaining she was new, and she had just finished getting her classroom fixed up. She had been painting shelves, cleaning desks, and sticking tennis balls on the bottoms of chair legs to keep them from noisily scraping the floor as her young charges moved them.

This tired young teacher didn't mention academics. Her day at school was complete, but I'm sure she had plenty of homework to do at the other end of her commute.

Having taught for more than 20 years, this encounter with an overworked, novice teacher caused me to reflect on all the free labor teachers provide -- all the effort for which they will never be compensated. I'm not talking about grading papers at home or taking on extra-curricular activities. Over the years, I've watched teachers paint their own classrooms, instruct their talented husbands in the art of building classroom shelves, and wire entire schools for technology.

I know of a school librarian who equipped her library with enough computers so each child in a class could work at a computer. No, she didn't spend big bucks, but she did make numerous trips to local thrift stores to buy second-hand computers and other computer equipment that she spent hours refurbishing. She found old printers too. Her son was able to put them into working order for use in the library.

High school teachers are often asked to write proposals for elective classes. Sometimes there is no money to purchase texts for those specialized classes. What do teachers do? After her proposal for an elective history class was approved, a social studies teacher I know used up her year's allotment of copy machine copies to duplicate materials for the class. But the school year was just getting underway. She spent her own money to make copies for the balance of the school year.

Those teachers are not alone. Teachers regularly pay to have tests and other important class materials copied because copy machines are out of order. They spend money on treats and goodies to reward their students. They buy cleaning supplies and such computer supplies as printer cartridges, long after the classroom fund has been drained.

Teachers have been doing this for so long that school systems have grown to depend on their generosity. Like the new teacher who worked for four hours after her students had gone for the day, many teachers feel it's expected of them.

No wonder there is so much teacher burnout. No wonder experienced teachers are retiring in record numbers. They're exhausted!