I taught in Southwest Philly for five years. Like every teacher, I spent plenty of my personal money buying classroom supplies but in an urban environment, you’re often supplying much more than pencils and paper. I kept an extra jar of peanut butter, jelly and a loaf of bread in my closet for a student to make her own dinner before she left for the day. I purchased a sweatshirt for a student who never had warm clothes to wear. I bought workbooks for a student’s mother who couldn’t read or write in English. I know teachers who did their students’ laundry because their uniforms were embarrassingly smelly. Things like this happen every single day in city schools.
Looking back at my five years teaching in the city, I can’t recall a single church or organization volunteering to help my students or classroom. Yes, we had plenty of teacher’s hustling to fund projects through Donors Choose. Many of us had family members who bought supplies and supported our classrooms, but I never had someone outside of my family approach me asking how they could help. So often it’s on teachers to be the salespeople of their classrooms and it’s just one more thing to add to their already overflowing plates. It’s exhausting.
I’ve been out of the classroom for two years now and I miss it. I miss being connected to the needs of my students. I miss being able to make an impact on a daily basis. While I complained about spending my own money on my students, I miss knowing the needs of people I loved and being able to respond immediately. You truly get connected to entire families when you’re a teacher.
Since moving to York, I decided I would be the person that I wanted and needed for my own classrooms. One Friday morning, I was texting Nate and told him I’d like to spend part of that week’s tithe helping a teacher in the city. Fast forward one hour later, and I’m standing in line to buy pickles for my brother’s family at the local farmers market. So random, I know. As the woman rung me up, I couldn’t help but notice how familiar she looked. “Were you the eighth-grade health teacher at Central?” I nervously asked. Sure enough, she was my teacher! Through our conversation, I found out her daughter is currently a first-grade teacher in the York City School District. I told her that just this morning I was talking with my husband about how we could support York City teachers and schools. I could not believe how beautifully God had orchestrated this meetup.
I emailed her daughter and asked her how I could help. I gave some suggestions of things we could purchase for her but ultimately left it up to her. She gave us a wishlist and we went as a family to shop for supplies. Honestly, it was so much fun picking things out for her students, especially knowing how much I would have appreciated this when I was teaching.
We loved the experience so much we did it again on the following payday. I went to the school district’s website and browsed the teacher directory. I picked a name at random and sent her an email offering to help. Her response while appreciative was somewhat suspicious. How did I get her email? Why her? Obviously, this isn’t a common occurrence for teachers in urban education.
Of course, ALL teachers need support. I bet every single person reading this knows a teacher. In fact, you’re probably related to one! Send them a text, email or Facebook message and ask them how you can help. Though, I really want to challenge you to think about and care for urban schools. I spent my last year teaching in a more suburban environment and all I had to do was share a supply request in my weekly newsletter and within days the parents had my classroom restocked. I wouldn’t have even felt right asking my parents to do that in Philadelphia.
If you’re not sure how to support a teacher you’ve never met, here’s a step-by-step:
- Go to the website of a nearby (city) school and search the teacher directory. If you’re having trouble selecting someone, find a commonality to connect with. Your favorite grade was 4th, you volunteer with special needs students at church, you currently have a 2nd grader, your dad was a science teacher etc. and use that as an introduction.
- Send them a message and explain why you want to help. I’ll post a stock email you can adapt below.
- Give suggestions for how you are able to help. We offered to buy classroom supplies (pencils, crayons, markers etc), books for their library, a class set of novels, supplies for a special class project, personal items for needy students (coats, shoes, hats, gloves) or teacher supplies (a personal laminator, electric pencil sharpener).
- Go shopping! This part is the best. Helping others is seriously life-giving. How sweet would this be to do with your whole family?
- Drop off the supplies. We just left them for the teacher in the front office. I didn’t want her to lose the time out of her valuable prep to meet with me.
- Send a follow-up email.
Initial Email: Hi! My name is _______________________. I’m writing because I would love to help support you and your students. I found your name and email on your school’s website. Give your connection. (I always said because I was a teacher and wanted to encourage a fellow teacher). Please let me know how I can help support you! (Give a list of ways you are capable of helping). Once I get your wishlist, I’ll go shopping and drop off what I’m able to buy at the front office. Thank you so much for doing the work you do. You make a difference every single day. Know that you are appreciated!
Here’s what the follow-up emails I send look like. This part makes me feel semi-awkward, but it’s important so I do it.
Follow Up Email: I’m so thankful to have been able to help you and your students in such a small way. Please keep me in mind as needs arise for your class. We’d love to continue to support you. I know my original email was pretty random, but my husband and I are Christians (we go to Church of the Open Door in East York) and we believe the most important thing you can do is love others, even people we’ve never met. I hope you and your students are feeling just a little bit more loved today. Have a great day and thank you again for teaching!
I really hope you give this idea a try. $25 could buy a new set of crayons, folders, or notebooks for every student in a classroom. Even $10 could buy some much needed dry erase markers or hundreds of pencils. Don’t limit your opportunity to love others by your insecurities that what you have to offer is not enough. What you are able to give is more than enough and desperately needed. Don’t talk yourself out of helping before you begin.
Let me know if you decide to try this simple way of being #PracticallyRadical. I would LOVE to hear about it!