When I switched from teaching middle school to high school, my new district required all new hires to participate in a new teacher program our first year. Even though I already had 5 years of teaching experience, I took monthly classes with a professional development specialist whose job it was to help navigate teachers through that first year of teaching (which we all know is the toughest year!) The PD specialist who ran the class and came to observe us was phenomenal. I will be forever grateful for some of the nuggets of wisdom she shared with me.
One topic I remember coming up was the issue of students coming to school without paper or pencils. She said she would often walk into a classroom, see a student sitting there not working, and ask them why. Often times they would respond "because I don't have a pencil and my teacher won't give me one." She taught us "If your biggest obstacle in the classroom is a pencil, you are in good shape. JUST GIVE THE KID A PENCIL."
I know you know that kid. The same kid who comes in every.single.day without a pencil. And it's especially frustrating when the day before you said, "just keep the pencil so you have one tomorrow." And they still lose it. As I sat there and listened to her words I self-reflected... had I ever denied a student a pencil? Luckily I don't think I had, but I know I had made comments in the past such as, "Again? You just asked for one yesterday!"
Recently I came across this poem written by Joshua T. Dickerson that really spoke to me:
The reason I'm writing this blog post is because I shared it on my facebook page and it got quite a few shares and comments. A handful of teachers voiced their frustration with the pencil issue. Luckily enough, the author of the poem came across the post and chimed in on why he wrote it. His comments are shared here with permission:
"Around the beginning of each school year, my poem usually goes into heavy circulation and sparks numerous debates. People always ask me, why did I write the poem.
First I will start out by telling you, what this poem is not. This poem is not an attack towards educators. As a former classroom teacher, I know about the long hours, the challenges of teaching students, the frustrations, and difficulties. I have the utmost respect for teachers, administrators, and anyone else who serves in the education arena, who is striving to do their job in the correct way. This poem is not written for the children who do not make an effort to positively impact their own education. While reading the poem, you will see the tremendous amount of effort that the student is making. Educators are some of the most underpaid people in the world!
Now on to why I wrote the poem. I wrote the poem for those children in extreme poverty. Their are children around the world that do not have basic things that we take for granted. Lights, food, running water, heating, and air is not present in all homes.
I wrote this to give a voice to the students whose parents or guardians have not given them school supplies. In presentations the question always comes up, "what about the kids with iPhones and Jordan's"? My response is that younger children don't purchase those items for themselves. In reality we have children who are punished because their parents or guardians made the decision to buy those things. It's not the teacher's fault, but also not the child's fault. It is my wish that we would have a conversation with the child and parent before jumping to a conclusion that neither cares about education.
I wrote this for the child who may simply forget a pencil. As an adult, I've come to a meeting without a pen before. My own children have forgotten supplies. It happens.
When I present in high schools, people say that their children are older and should be held accountable. I agree. They should be held accountable. However, I always stress to not assume that the child has been taught the lesson of valuing school supplies. At least first have a conversation with the student and the parent. As a father, I realize that my teenager still needs parenting and coaching.
Finally, I wrote this to highlight poverty. Poverty exists and it has a tremendous impact. Those who are born and raised in poverty have a higher chance of dying at an early age, not finishing high school, or being incarcerated. Often times it is forgotten or conveniently looked over that years of research has shown that poverty is difficult to climb out of and nearly impossible to climb out of without an education. I pray that it inspires someone to continue the fight of working with students and parents that truly need us most."
I loved having the author's insight on the poem. So many things rang true for me as I read. Just because a student has an i-phone does not mean they can afford school supplies. Maybe the phone was a gift. Maybe they got it an unconventional way. Regardless of how they got the phone, why do we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking "poor kids can't have nice stuff?"
Another common complaint I heard teachers voice was "I give out pencils but they just break them." I think when this happens our immediate thought is "they don't respect people's property." And maybe in some cases this is true. But it could also be because they are trying to get attention from you. Or maybe they have already mastered the material and are simply bored. Next time this happens, ask them why they broke it, and calmly explain to them your perspective and why you feel frustrated.
Reasoning aside of why the student doesn't have a pencil, I wanted to share some tips on how you can handle the situation to make it less of an issue. Try one way that works for you and your class.
1. Try a collateral system.
All students at my school are required to wear school IDs on a lanyard. If a student needs a pencil, they just leave their ID on my desk and grab a pencil. When they return the pencil, they get their ID back. If your students don't have school ID's, they could leave behind headphones or something else from their backpack.
2. Try a sign-out system.
I've seen some teachers buy magnetic clips, put them on the whiteboard, and clip a pencil to each one. When a student needs a pencil they sign their name on the whiteboard and erase their name when the pencil is returned. (Download a free cute sign from the Lone Star Classroom HERE)
3. Try golf pencils.
While these aren't ideal because they don't have erasers they will do the trick. You can buy a box of over 100 golf pencils for a few bucks so you won't break the bank.
4. Try a reward system.
If it's not the majority of the class but instead the same darn kid every day asking for a pencil, try a reward system. Maybe they are forgetful or maybe they truly don't see the value in not losing or breaking the pencil. Regardless, some sort of reward may help. Tell them if they keep the same pencil all week without losing it they get a reward on Friday. It doesn't have to be big- maybe a piece of candy or 5 minutes of free time at the end of class- but if there is an incentive to not lose the pencil they just might keep track of it.
5. Sell them at cost.
During August back to school sales, I stock up on pencils while they are cheap. During those sales I can get a 10 pack of mechanical pencils for $1.99 (and wooden pencils even cheaper). If a student needs a pencil and wants to keep it instead of returning it at the end of class, I charge them a quarter and its all theirs. Note: Yes, there are often school rules about not being able to sell things on campus. However, as long as you aren't making a profit but just selling them at cost, you shouldn't have a problem with administration. If you are worried about this, check with admin first.
6. Get some donations.
If money for pencils is the issue, there are ways to not spend your own. First, I'd ask your administrator or department head if there are pencils you can have (there probably are). You can also reach out to parents or even do a Donors Choose request to get school supplies.
I hope one of these methods works for you! Because truly there are a lot of issues our kiddos are dealing with as teens, and fighting for a pencil should not be one of them. Have another method that works for you? Leave it in the comments!