How to figure out what you really NEED to buy for your classroom

August and September are very expensive months for educators as we try to navigate all the back-to-school advertisements. Often we need to buy basic supplies like pencils and paper for our students. We see adorable decorations on Pinterest that we need to buy craft supplies for. We see awesome books we need to purchase, both for our classroom libraries and for our own reference. And we see activity after lesson after poster or game from TeachersPayTeachers that we suddenly realize we can’t live without.

So where should you spend your money in order to get the most bang for your buck?

First, I want to make it clear that you do NOT have to spend any of your own money on your classroom in order to be an effective teacher. Fact. Don’t be pressured by all the adorable classrooms you see online and feel like you’re “supposed to” buy all these decorations and color coordinate everything in your classroom. Don’t worry about what everyone else is getting. The items you need for your classroom will be different from what everyone else needs. No two teachers are alike, no two groups of students are alike, and so no two classrooms need to be alike.

The materials you already have will do just fine. The teacher is the element that makes learning feel magical. Your presentation, personality, and enthusiasm can hook kids into activities that don’t have adorable clip art on them or center materials that aren’t color-coded.

How to figure what to buy for your classroom: 3 criteria to consider

Before you buy anything for your classroom, I strongly advise you to look carefully at your finances and set a reasonable budget that your whole family can live with. There’s nothing worse than buying things for school and having to hide them from your husband so he doesn’t know how much you spent, right? Make a logical decision what kind of budget is reasonable for your situation, and decide in advance how much money you would be comfortable knowing that you’ve spent at the end of the year. I prefer a quarterly budget, actually: I break my annual budget down into 4 amounts, allocating more for the beginning of the year and other times when I know I generally need a lot of things. Write your budget down and don’t exceed it. If you do go over, do so knowing that you will force yourself to go under that amount the next year.

Keep in mind that there will always be more things you think you need. Just as you’ve had to accept that you can’t buy an item from every single fashion trend, you have to accept the fact that you can’t buy every classroom material that’s on the market…and that’s okay. Not buying things for your classroom doesn’t make you a “bad teacher” any more than not buying a new outfit makes you a bad dresser. Don’t feel guilty about saying no!

I think that if you’re spending money out-of-pocket on your classroom, it should be for one (or more) of the following 3 reasons:

1) It makes you happy.

Make a Pinterest board of all the stuff that would be fun to have, set a budget for yourself, and then allocate money from your budget only to the things you love most.

Yes, our classrooms should be centered around our students’ needs, but you’re a real human being with real needs and emotions and feelings, and you’re spending 40 hours or more a week in this room. You have every right to make your classroom feel like your home away from home. It should be someplace that you enjoy going to. If decor is important to you, then make your classroom someplace that brings a smile to your face, and that feels comfortable, cozy, and welcoming for you and your students.

Similarly, if it makes you happy to have beautiful centers or color-coded book bins in your classroom library, then the financial trade off will be worth it. Just be careful not to impulse buy, because then you’ll end up not being happy in your personal life when you find you can’t buy the things you want and need outside of work.

Choose every item that enters your classroom with intention. To adapt from a William Morris quote: Don’t bring it in if you don’t know it to be useful or or believe it to be beautiful. Too much decoration and stuff is going to create a distracting learning environment for your kids and will just become more clutter for you to clean and organize and maintain.

2) It saves you time and energy.

Time and energy are our most precious resources as teachers. I would not hesitate to trade $3 for a form that would have taken me hours to create on my own. My free time is worth way more than $3. I would not hesitate to trade $15 for a complete unit of hands-on activities that are aligned to my standards, rather than spend every weekend for a month compiling one activity here, one from here, one from there, and then figuring out how to tie it together.

Free is not always better, and high-quality resources often cost money. Let’s not download everything we see for free on the internet, staple it together into a packet of worksheets, and call that our unit lesson. Let’s be thoughtful about the activities we have our students completing. Just because it’s free on the internet does not mean it’s high quality or worth doing.

Be intentional with every single thing you bring into your classroom. No junk, even if it’s free. You and your students deserve better than that.

There are a lot of freebies out there that are total garbage and a waste of your students’ time. I think it’s smarter to pay the $5 for what you really need, make it yourself, or do without it. We have to be thoughtful in our lesson planning and make sure we are teaching with the end goal in mind, always looking to what our students need to know and how we can best support them in meeting objectives, rather than what’s cute and free and staring us in our faces online.

3) It directly and profoundly benefits your students.

Get the most for your money by looking for items that are open-ended and versatile. If you’re buying materials with your own hard-earned money, they should be things that you can use over and over again. A set of worksheets that you can only use at Thanksgiving might not be the best use of your money.

If your budget is $25 this month, and you’ve got ten things on your wishlist, I would suggest picking the ones that will directly and profoundly benefit your students on an ongoing basis. Look for things you can use every single day, or repeatedly throughout the year. Look for things that your students are going to be nuts about, and that are going to get them so engaged in the activities that they won’t want to stop learning. Look for things that help kids understand the concepts that you find the most difficult to teach.

Ultimately, our classrooms are about our students. Be intentional when you shop, and look for things that directly and profoundly impact them.

Remember, your teaching strategies matter more than your teaching materials. Kids learn best from teachers who care about them and are passionate about their work. Fancy materials are just the icing on the cake.

You don’t need it all, and you don’t need it all right now. Your classroom is a work in progress. Let the room evolve as the kids start taking ownership of it. Add to it together. Think carefully about what to keep, what to buy, and what to toss out. And in everything you do, be intentional.

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!


Next week: How to be pro-active with uninvolved & over-involved parents

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go!  A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kathy August 16, 2015 at 5:11 pm

I really enjoyed this post. I never thought about having guidelines like this over what I purchase or download. I do know that I past on a huge amount of resources to a friend of my who was moving to third grade (I taught third grade for the 7 of the last 8 years). It was so freeing giving her all those books, centers, and lesson resources. I knew she would see it as a treasure trove since she was moving down from sixth grade. Personally, I have moved to preschool and am extremely jazzed about meeting my students this week in Home Visits. I have resisted gathering supplies and am happy I didn’t. When I do purchase I now have great guidelines to make meaningful decisions.


2 Angela Watson August 19, 2015 at 11:46 am

It does feel good to give away stuff you’re not using, doesn’t it? Especially when you know someone else can use it. It’s great to be left with only the things that you and your students really need, and not all the “just in case” stuff.


3 Karen August 16, 2015 at 11:36 pm

What a great post, Angela! I especially like your reminder that we should be teaching to a specific end goal, and then discern what we can do/use to get our students to that goal. It is easy to get sidetracked with “fun” and “cute” that don’t really match our goals, and then some of the important stuff gets pushed aside because of lack of time. Planning a lesson is kind of like filling a jar full of rocks–put in the big rocks first (important objectives), then the smaller rocks (less important/review objectives), then fill whatever room (time) is left with sand (the “oh this looks fun but still might teach them something activity”).


4 Angela Watson August 19, 2015 at 12:24 pm

Thanks Karen! I love your analogy of filling with the big rocks first. I have heard that used in relation to time management, but how wonderful to use it in relation to lesson planning, too!


5 D August 30, 2015 at 9:03 pm

Ang, you are so practical and resourceful. I am so glad I bought your book, “The Cornerstone.” The Holy Spirit’s breath is all over that book.


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