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The Cost of Classroom Libraries: A Teacher’s Dowry (and How You Can Help)

Teachers and their struggle for fair compensation have finally been making headlines. Stories long known in education circles are being heard by the broader public: teachers with second and third jobs to make ends meet, lack of upkeep with inflation, and out-of-pocket expenses for supplies.

A dark, hidden secret that still hasn’t had its moment in the spotlight: in most public schools, classroom libraries are almost always funded by teachers themselves. These vital tools for teaching children literacy skills and a love of reading are basically charitable donations made by already underpaid employees.

In what other industry would this be acceptable? Imagine a surgeon supplying her own bandages. Or a firefighter paying for the hoses. Donalyn Miller, an award-winning teacher, author, and staff developer, refers to this horrible phenomenon as a teacher’s dowry. Does a dowry seem old-fashioned, wrong, and absurd in 2018? You bet. And yet here we are. She said, “No one asks the basketball coach to buy the basketballs. Books shouldn’t be part of the dowry we pay to become a teacher.” I simply cannot stress just how true this is. (Links to some of Donalyn Miller’s books on the topic of childhood literacy and book access at the bottom of this post.)

“Build your classroom library” is probably written in every professional development book about reading written in the last 25 years. All teachers know the importance of being able to give students access to books on the spot. Teachers dream of being able to refer a student to just the right book at just the right time. You want to be able to give them access to copies of the newest books, best of the classics, from a variety of genres. You want them to be organized, in bins, on shelves, with labels, in a system that works well for you and your class.

Consider the cost: an inexpensive children’s book is $5. Times 30 children. A classroom library with just 5 books per student can easily cost more than $750.

Teachers get creative. They use Donors Choose or other crowdfunding. They use Scholastic Bonus points, if they have students that can afford it (by the way, the students that most need a kick ass classroom library are the ones that can’t afford the Book Club). But mainly, they use their own money. I’ll share with you the story of my classroom library and the dowry I carry.

When I was single, I bought oodles of books for my from-scratch classroom library because I chose to do so. I did it without even thinking. I did not put money into the retirement fund my school corporation set up. I did not pad my savings. I did not think about a future down payment on a house. Why? Because my students needed books. I was young. I was in love with my profession. I was insanely jealous of the teachers next door with shelves of books. I thought it would make me look like a better teacher to parents and administrators. But most importantly, I knew my kids deserved a classroom library that would better allow them to fall in love with reading.

Let me be clear: I was in a position to be able to do this. I was not saddled with student loan debt the way many teachers are. I lived in a city with a low cost of living, so my housing costs were reasonable. As I said, I did not yet have a family to feed. But should someone making $26,000 per year also have to spend $1,500 per year to do her job well?

Fast forward, 5 years later. My soon-to-be husband and I are having THE talk. The one that involves merging finances, discussing how the bills will be paid, and how much we will save. It became clear how much I was spending on books and not on building a solid financial future for myself.

On my first wedding anniversary, my husband told me he would build me something from scratch for the house we had remodeled together. I could pick anything. You know what I picked? Wooden shelves that fit the plastic tubs of books for my classroom. I cried as we stained them together- not just because of their perfect fit, that was great too, but because I managed to find someone that understood my passion for showing children the joy of reading.

Over the past ten years, I’ve taught 3 different grade levels. Each time, I basically started over to build an age-appropriate classroom library. The financial drain on my bank account continued because the more I bought, the more the kids read. And wrote. And grew. And loved. I was a book buying junkie, fueled by the need my kids had for more.

Students typically do not experience the joy reading can bring by only completing workbook pages, which IS provided. It falls on the shoulders of our teachers and librarians to remind students that the real joy is found between the covers of books.

When I took a job as reading specialist, I preached to an entire district of teachers that they needed wonderful classroom libraries. And I meant it. But I now cringe at the financial sacrifice those teachers may have made in order to make this happen and meet that expectation.

I shouldn’t feel guilty for advocating what I know is right. I should only feel anger that in today’s America, teachers are not given money for books, the most vital tool in education.

Now I’m a school librarian. As I spend less money of my own now, and instead spend down the library budget to the last penny each year on more books, I’m again reminded of Donalyn Miller referring to classroom libraries as a dowry. I really, truly brought a dowry into my marriage. Only it didn’t end the day we were married.

In America, we are holding our teachers financially hostage by promoting the importance of books but not providing the money to buy the books they know their students want and need.

How Parents and Caregivers Can Get Involved in Supporting Classroom Libraries

  • When you hear about a classroom teacher switching grade levels, whether by choice or not, PLEASE consider asking the teacher about his or her classroom library. Maybe you have something that could help, whether through financial means or a few books of your own you could donate.
  • Skip the lotion, mug, and ornament: purchase your child’s teacher a book to add to their library as a holiday or end of year gift. Bonus points for hardback… they last longer. Encourage your fellow parents/caregivers to do the same.
  • If you are involved in your school’s parent organization, advocate that some of the money raised in all those fundraisers be channeled back to the teachers in the form of bookstore/Amazon gift cards. Or host a book drive for book donations. What a great volunteer project for kids in the final grade of elementary, middle, or high school: a lasting legacy of some of their favorite books left behind for the children entering these schools!
  • If you have the means, please consider purchasing a book from the Scholastic Book Club if your child’s teacher participates. Chances are, that teacher desperately needs those points in order to add the books he/she knows will be a hit. Use the Book Club to buy birthday gifts for your kids, other kids, and for donations.
  • Please do not complain about the school supply list. Because if you don’t buy the items on the supply list, the teachers will buy the supplies and then they may not buy the books.
  • VOTE for candidates who support public education in meaningful ways (increased teacher salaries, as an example).

Thank you for your consideration of ways you can support better classroom libraries. Millions of teachers thank you as well. And thank you to all of those, including my husband, who have sacrificed financially (or used their stellar woodworking skills) to make possible the classroom libraries in which your children read. Let’s all do our part to change this antiquated practice of teacher dowries for something as basic as high quality books in our classrooms.

Disclosure: The below links are Amazon affiliate links to additional resources related to this post.

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