Help! I Am Done Buying My Students Pencils

Do not die on this hill.

Illustration of a teacher struggling with buying students pencils

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I know this probably sounds mean, but I’m done buying pencils. I’m done with the principle of it, I’m done with spending my own money, and I’m extra done with students telling me, “You’re out of pencils” like the pencils are straws at a restaurant. I know it’s a silly hill to die on, but I struggle with conflicting messages like “Don’t spend your own money as a teacher!” and “Do what’s best for kids.” Isn’t what’s best for kids learning responsibility too? —Pencil-Pincher

Dear P.P.,

I feel like lamenting the pencil situation is a rite of passage for a teacher. At some point, we’ve all looked at our empty pencil cup and aggressively whispered, “HOWWWWW?”

I also struggled with the great pencil dance early in my career. I tried everything—exchanging pencils for collateral until they were returned, writing names on the board, you name it. They wasted a ton of my class time and ultimately did nothing to curb the behavior of coming to class pencil-less.

The only thing that worked? Releasing the struggle entirely. I found it was worth the $40 or so I paid for boxes of a bajillion pencils at the beginning of each year to not have to think about them.


If they can’t work without a pencil, we can’t make it harder for them to get one. Whether you’re a lucky soul at a school who will order them for you or if you need to buy them yourself (here’s a link), get them and save your precious mental resources for the things that really matter.

Note: I did notice that the year I ordered custom pencils that said “Return Me to Ms. Treleaven! I Miss Her” I got a lot more back, but even those weren’t worth the extra money to me.

Another note: I always have to borrow a pen when I go to the bank, the pharmacy, or a restaurant. No one ever shames me for it. (I also accidentally take their pen 9 out of 10 times.)

Sometimes it can feel like an observation is more than an observation—the whole “this isn’t about pencils, it’s about responsibility” thing. But in this case, I really just think it’s about pencils. (If it’s about anything bigger, it’s about school funding and how bass-ackwards it is for teachers to pay for anything work-related out of their own pocket.)

Do not die on this hill. We need you on other hills.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
Ever heard of schools being a family? Well, mine is literally a family. I teach at a middle school in a small town where the dad is principal, his sister is an AP, his wife is a counselor, and one of his daughters is a teacher (the other daughter works at our elementary school). The elementary teacher’s son is a seventh grader in one of my classes and is out of control. He says and does whatever he wants, knowing that he won’t receive consequences. I either get undermined when I try to establish discipline or retribution when I do succeed in treating him like my other students. His aunt, great-aunt, and grandmother have made it clear they’re against me and are constantly making my work life more difficult. I feel like they have to be breaking some kind of rules, here. Any thoughts? —Black Sheep of the Family

Dear B.S.O.T.F.,

Wow. This feels Shakespearean, and not in a fun way.

My first thought was, “Whoa, get yourself out of this school ASAP.” But something tells me you want this corrected—for you and potentially others.

First, I would talk to a union rep to see if they have any recommendations for how to proceed. Then, if you’re not already documenting, start keeping notes on everything. EVERY. THING. When the student misbehaves, make a record of what the student did, what redirection methods you tried, how the principal responded (or didn’t), etc. When the other family members are hostile to you, write down what they said, where you were, and if anyone else heard it. Whether or not your union can help you, you may need this information for your district or legal counsel.

Second, I would see if you can get your principal on board with some kind of faculty-wide conflict-resolution training as professional development. If your school doesn’t have the budget to bring in a trainer or organization, suggest a book study like The Anatomy of Peace or Crucial Conversations. By giving everyone common language and norms around conflict resolution, it’ll up the expectations for faculty behavior.

If that doesn’t work, send a whole-school email inviting everyone to a faculty book club on toxic workplaces and watch the chaos unfold!

(Please don’t do that. But it is fun to think about.)

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m in my second year of teaching fifth grade and am absolutely loving it except for one situation. Currently, there is a teacher who used to have a position that gave them a wide range of access to students’ personal information (grades, behavior reports, etc.), but is now in a position that should have more limited information. However, they still have this access. I’ll be talking about a student we had years ago, and she’ll say, “Oh, he’s still getting in trouble—I checked his discipline log the other day” or will comment on a family’s income since she can see addresses and look up home values. It feels like tattling if I tell on her, but it makes me uncomfortable that she can see student records she shouldn’t have access to. Do I bring this up to an administrator or leave it alone? —Battling With Tattling

Dear B.W.T.,

Nope. Don’t like that.

The access here is not the issue; it’s the abuse of it. These searches have no relevance to the teacher’s day-to-day tasks and are frankly tacky (in addition to a breach of privacy).

I would meet in person with an administrator you trust. Just tell them you’d recommend they examine the access levels of all teachers at your campus to make sure they’re appropriate for their role. Just keep it at that. They’ll catch your drift.

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Dear WeAreTeachers:
This year, in an effort to conserve energy, our district has said teachers can no longer have microwaves or mini-fridges in their rooms. Which, fine. We thought surely we could share these appliances by department or among a small group of classrooms. Nope! The only approved appliances for teachers are the ones in our teachers lounge. With overlapping lunches, this gets really crowded really fast. I had maybe six minutes to eat the other day between walking to the other side of the school to get my lunch and waiting for the microwave to be free. I need some perspective—is this a battle worth fighting? —Hungry for Answers

This week on Ask WeAreTeachers, we cover buying pencils for students, a toxic family running a school, and The Teacher Who Knew Too Much.