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What You See in Today's Public School Classroom Is A Mirage

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It's the first day of September. You bring your child to her new classroom, and as you say goodbye, you poke your head in the room. Everything looks great! You see neatly arranged desks. There's a SMARTboard at the front of the room. The walls are covered with beautiful paper or fabric and colourful borders.

Over to the side you notice a cozy, carpeted area with a comfortable chair and some cushions for kids to sit on. And books. Hundreds of books. On spinning book racks. On bookshelves. In baskets arranged by author.

Behind the books, posters about reading decorate the wall. There is even a lamp in the reading corner and some indoor plants scattered throughout.

If you look a little closer, you see that someone has put a lot of thought into organizing the space. Felt pens are separated from pencil crayons or crayons into various baskets. There's even an electric pencil sharpener with two jars next to it labelled in and out.

You probably think to yourself what a lovely place to learn for your child. And you are right.

Teachers spend many hours finding ideas for organizing and decorating classrooms. The dollar store is a regular stop in our neighbourhood. Because teachers know that an organized, efficient environment is essential to optimal learning. Even inspired learning.

But it's all a mirage.

What you do not see is the room's bare bones before your child's teacher came in over the summer and transformed it.

bc classroom

The walls are covered with fabric the teacher picked up on sale at the local fabric shop. It cost a little more, but the colour doesn't fade over the year, and students' art work looks so much nicer when displayed. Not to mention it hides the peeling paint or the blackboards that are showing their age.

Those whimsical borders are pulled from a stash the teacher has bought and collected over the years. Staples are removed and borders are saved because they cost about $6 for a package, and if you have a big bulletin board you'll need a couple of them.

The cozy little reading corner? The carpet, newly cleaned from its once-a-year shampoo, outlines the space nicely. Its frayed corners are carefully hidden under a bookshelf. That bookshelf, put together by the teacher herself in August, was a real deal. And when it was filled with these great little baskets she bought, and the books neatly sorted into categories, she was pleased.

What about those books you see? Your child's teacher is very creative at finding deals. Did you know that once a year libraries hold a sale of books they've weeded out of their collection? And Scholastic. Every month your child's teacher sends these orders home, and uses the coupons that come back from the amount parents spend to purchase new books for the classroom.

In the last few years, she has even started to use the year-end Chapters gift cards to buy newer books to fill out the classroom library. Or she reached into her own wallet from time to time to purchase new books from Kidsbooks as potential read alouds.

And the cushions? Bought by your child's teacher. She paid a little too much to have them embroidered with words like "dream" or "imagine" but at least she was able to find fabric to sew covers herself, so that saved a bit of money.

She also bought a box of 72 pencils after the year's supply for a class of 30 students ran out in January. After all, the total budget for a year's supplies is $400. She told the class she managed to find some extra pencils, but reminded them to be careful not to misplace them.

This year, she had to ask parents to buy a few things to help the students organize their learning as there just wasn't room in the budget for binders and tab organizers. She won't tell you about the hours spent trying to stretch that limited $400 on all the paper, notebooks, pencils, rulers, scissors, art supplies and paper clips needed for the entire year.

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B.C. Public School Classrooms
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The electric pencil sharpener was paid for with money generously provided by the parent advisory committee (PAC). It was a big chunk of the $200 they give classroom teachers from fundraising. So this year, when it needed to be replaced, your child's teacher chose not to submit that receipt in lieu of the science materials she bought instead.

You see none of this because your child's teacher has hidden it from you. Paid for by her, and sometimes indirectly or directly by you. There are no tax writeoffs.

You won't know that the SMARTboard (which was purchased through PAC fundraising) has a scanner attached -- that came from the teacher's home. She bought a new printer/scanner for home to make her lesson planning easier, especially for the student who needs work scanned into PDF form for the iPad he uses to level the playing field.

You probably won't notice that the best computer in the room is over 10 years old. You definitely won't know that the district tech team will no longer service two of the three computers as they are too old.

Instead, you will see a teacher who greets you at the door of her classroom and invites you to look around the learning space where your child will spend five hours a day, five days a week for the next year.

The teacher will smile and tell you how glad she is to have your child in her room this year. And she is.

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