Communal Classroom Supplies – The Great Classroom Supplies Debate

Updated 12/16/22

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Individual Classroom Supplies or Communal? The Great Classroom Supplies Debate

Cats or dogs.

Android or iPhone.

Keto or Paleo.

While these are all relatable debate topics with passionate advocates on both sides, few topics provoke as much intense discussion among teachers as the Great Classroom Supplies Debate: individual or communal classroom supplies.

The question of who provides (and thus pays for) school supplies is one that teachers and parents have strong beliefs about. Worthy arguments can be made for either side, so let’s lean in and look at the pros and cons of each.

communal or individual classroom supplies


Communal Classroom Supplies

  • Students learn sharing and cooperation
  • Basic supplies (same brand, same amount) = fewer fights over “cool” supplies
  • Teacher has more control over central caddy supplies needed for each lesson
  • No hassle over labeling every item a student brings in
  • Less-fortunate kids aren’t singled out if they can’t afford to bring in supplies
  • Equal access to supplies regardless of ability or willingness to contribute

 Individual Classroom Supplies

  • Students learn to take responsibility for personal property
  • No shared supplies = fewer shared germs
  • Children can express individuality with supplies they’ve chosen themselves
  • Labels help prevent supplies from being lost or stolen
  • Only children who don’t take care of their supplies are penalized, rather than the entire class
  • Parents buy what they can afford

Supporters of communal classroom supplies feel strongly that sharing glue sticks, pencils, and scissors teaches children valuable lessons in cooperation. Those who prefer individual supplies believe just as strongly that students should learn to be responsible for their own pencils and notebooks. The debate has only grown over the past few decades as school districts across the United States have increasingly passed on to teachers and parents the task (and cost) of buying school supplies and have readjusted their budgets in the process. As a result, districts vary wildly in what supplies they’ll give teachers and what they’ll ask parents to contribute to each classroom.

A 2018 National Retail Federation survey reports that parents spent an estimated average of $122.13 on classroom supplies for each child (not including clothing, backpacks, or other back-to-school purchases). That total obviously varies depending on whether you’re buying crayons or scientific calculators, but either way, the cost adds up. And no matter what their income levels, parents across the board say they’ll do what’s best for their family.

And yet, it never seems to be enough. 94% of U.S. teachers spent an average of $479 each on school supplies out of their own paychecks without reimbursement in the 2014-15 school year, according to the Department of Education. Neither a family’s income level nor the school’s location in a rural, suburban, or city district changed the fact that most teachers spent their own money on classroom needs.

As the people responsible for managing class time and resources, teachers make supply decisions that help their classrooms run smoothly. But what’s smooth for one teacher might be chaos for another. While combining supplies into classroom buckets can be practical—no wasted minutes hunting for sharpened pencils—teachers who use communal classroom supplies hear complaints from parents who believe their children are using germy, sticky, or broken items.

Then there’s the problem of students who can’t or won’t bring items to school. Depending on how teachers handle classroom supplies, these children might be embarrassed, or parents who are financially better off might be angry over having to pick up the tab for extra materials.

Sure, some teachers receive a supply stipend, but that money often goes toward additional resources such as books, hands-on science project supplies, or hygienic items like tissues and hand sanitizer that tend to run out quickly early in the year.

So what’s the right way to manage classroom supplies? Some teachers ask parents for a donation to cover extras, and others look to school budgets to see whether additional funds can be used to buy those items. Many teachers opt for a creative combination of individual and communal classroom supplies while working within the school’s supply policy, the age of their students, their personal preference, time, and money.

Answers to the Great Classroom Supplies Debate are as individual as teachers’ management styles. What’s your solution?

Originally posted 2020

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