'I'm a teacher buying school supplies for kids who can't afford them. It's crippling me.'

In 2019, the agent I used to complete my tax return questioned me. They wanted to know why I had suddenly claimed almost double my usual work-related expenses – from $3500 to $6000. 

I sent them a photograph of the receipts, an itemised list and an explanation. Here's the explanation:

"I'm a teacher.

"I have been a high school teacher for the past decade. But in the financial year in question, I switched to a primary school. And I'm back in a secondary setting now, in part because I can't afford the financial (or emotional) load of working in a school with many (amazing) disadvantaged young children."

Here are some of the work-related items I spent my personal money on in just that one tax season: 

Let's begin with the largest single expense of the year: a $250 vacuum. Now you might be wondering why I didn't use the class budget for this. It's because I didn't want to share the vacuum with anyone else. Any purchases made using school funds are for everyone to share – but I'd learned from experience that once you let your vacuum go for a walk with a student from another room, it never comes back the same. Add on to that: $10 bike lock for the vacuum. Because you don't want it used on your absent days or when you're not looking, for the same reasons.

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Same with the $70 electric pencil sharpener and $100 multi-page stapler I bought mid-way through the year – for my own sanity. Teachers rationalise these purchases for their own wellbeing. And I don't begrudge the government for not providing every classroom with an electric sharpener. This isn't about blame. It's in the interests of disclosure, education and empathy for teachers. Because, they're leaving the profession in droves. And none of us want that. So it helps to understand one of the many challenges they're facing. 

Next up on the teacher's personal shopping list are 'luxury items' – like adorable pens – often purchased by teachers for their personal use at school while they buy more cost-effective options for student use. Of course, they're allowed to buy pretty pens, lanyards and reward boxes using their budget... but if you ask most teachers whether they'd use their last $20 of class money on pretty pens to brighten up their time while marking student work, or craft products, most will choose the latter. Because teachers – on the whole – truly do have their students' best interests in mind most of the time. And that brings me to the next part...

An aspect of teaching that isn't documented enough is the emotional toll it takes on teachers and how this further drains their personal funds. Let's consider *Kara: she hasn't brought in food to eat all week. While the canteen provides basic sandwiches for kids without food, the psychological damage that's doing to her is the bigger problem. What kid likes to ASK for food? To be seen receiving handouts? And so, to avoid appearing to favour any one student, I provided a fruit basket for any student in my class who wanted it. Add $10 a week for 40 weeks to my deductibles. And then I added muesli bars to the mix because I could see how much behaviour improved when they were fed (refer here to the above part about teacher wellbeing!). Of course, there are rules now that prevent teachers from giving ANY food to students – and I can see why these were needed. It also would have saved me some money. But I do wonder how Kara is getting on...


Class budgets COULD cover apples and muesli bars. And while you could argue that parents do in fact pay fees to have school supplies provided – as a parent, I'm expecting that to be pencils and craft glue.

The next category is second-hand purchases. You see, for many completely understandable reasons, schools don't reimburse teachers from class budgets when they buy second-hand materials. But teachers want bang for their buck. They're often not going to spend $200 on a new play kitchen when they can get the same fancy one for $20 on marketplace. Then they see some little plastic kitchen items at Kmart and throw them in the basket. It's only $5. (But it all adds up!). 

And you could argue, well that's on teachers – they need to be more pragmatic. But we're not in the business of moneymaking. We're teachers. We're in the business of helping young people thrive. And if the opportunity to buy an enormous container of old craft supplies from a garage sale for $20 pops up – you bet I'm buying it. (Another thing that can't be reimbursed by the class budget because... no receipt).

Emotions and money drain slowly from teachers all year. But then there are some practical concerns that stretch the budget even further. Most schools do not allow teachers to use their budgets toward the end of Term 4. It absolutely makes sense and I am not disparaging this practice at all: Term 4 is the time to consolidate the year's spending and plan for the next.

Listen to The Quicky where we chat with a current and former teacher to find out why so many people want to leave the profession they love. Post continues after audio.


But what happens when you get a great idea at 3am when you can't sleep, for an art activity you could do on Friday afternoon now that the end of the year is approaching and Little Jimmy is hopped up on candy canes all day? Speaking of which – you've seen the best Christmas craft idea on Instagram – a gift for parents from their spawn – and you'd loveeeeee to do it with your class. It's just $30 for the supplies you don't already have. Plus the $10 you spent on the 'right' size staples for the staple gun when you were at Bunnings last week. But you stupidly used your Fly Buys on the purchase and now you can't claim it, either. Because, government purchases – understandably! – can't enable personal gains for the employee. It opens the door to all sorts of maladministration. 

It all adds up. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that in 2023, The Australian Education Union (AEU) announced that after a national polling of principals, teachers and support staff, 85 per cent of public school teachers are spending their own money for school-related reasons - with the average amount being just over $885 a year. (And, double that for the primary teachers!).

It's something to consider, the next time you donate a bag of leftover stationary or paint-stained plastic play kitchen items to your local charity shop (where they may end up binning your possibly unsellable odds and ends). If you're in communication with a primary school, check if they'd like your items first. And if Mrs. K asks parents if they can send in glue sticks toward the end of Term 4 – now you know why. 

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

Feature image: Getty.

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