Thrifting Tips for Teachers

Teachers spent $1.3 billion on school supplies in the 2009-2010 school year, according to David Nagel in this well-cited article.  Breaking it down, that’s an average of $356 of teacher’s own money spent on supplies like paper, arts & crafts, pencils, glue, etc. & instructional materials like teaching aids.  That’s a lot of money!  Add in the fact that a public school teacher’s salary is typically lower than average, and it sounds like even more.

Teachers spend their own money for their classroom because they want to have materials to help their students.  My sister is an elementary teacher and pointed out that buying your own supplies & instructional materials allows you to hang on to them, even if you change grades or schools.  When you look at it that way, it seems a bit more like a good business investment.

I graduated in 2009 with a TESOL certificate (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and I have purchased a few thrifty finds to help students who are practicing English.  My sister Alicia teaches elementary at a non-traditional private school (Mountain Mission School) with experience in Pre-K, First Grade, and now Second Grade.  She has a ton of experience shopping thrift stores, especially for her classroom.  (Thanks, Alicia – you were a HUGE help in writing this article!)

Whether you are a teacher yourself or want to thrift some items for a beloved teacher you know, these ideas for finding secondhand classroom gems might yield a better bang for your buck.

Decorating Your Classroom

You may not have a lot of time or leeway to decorate your classroom, but every teacher deserves to give their space a little personality.  Whether you rock a bulletin board or barely have time to slap up some posters, check out these classroom style tips.

Alicia’s advice for teachers who shop thrifty is to, “Get creative.  Use your imagination.”

One of Alicia’s creative ideas for this school year is to decorate her classroom with a variety of habitats like arctic, cave, grasslands, jungle, and ocean.  It fits with her overall theme of journeying around the world.  Each habitat area has associated activities or tasks, such as writing in the grasslands or picking out books in the jungle.  She’s had fun seeking out different elements to incorporate into the habitats, most of them from thrift stores.  She furnished her jungle with some fake leafy vines.  She’s purchased a lot of stuffed animals to deck out the habitats, even finding some less typical animals like an armadillo and a llama.  For the overall theme, Alicia stocked up on old maps, globes, and wall pictures with a world-traveler theme.

Fabric makes a great bulletin board background because it holds up better than paper and can be reused for many different boards.  Fabric samples, curtains, tablecloths, bed sheets – these could all be large enough to work for bulletin boards.  It may help to measure your bulletin board and write down the specs so you can compare to the fabric yardage.  Don’t be afraid to buy a remnant that is smaller than your board – perhaps it could be combined with another to create a cool effect.  Think contrasting colors in half and half, or use a border to split different fabric swatches and create a more sectioned layout to feature different items.  Old wallpaper can be transformed into letters for your bulletin board, a freestanding alphabet, or even whole signs.

Storage containers like bowls, bags, and purses are ever useful.  You may find some neat storage cubes or other solutions.  Don’t forget those nifty office knick-knacks for keeping your desk organized – you’ll need something to keep your pencils corralled and your paper clips contained.  While you’re at it, why not thrift a quirky knick-knack to decorate your desk?

My friend Jennifer suggested furniture as a possible need for your classroom.  This can be a bit of an investment, but depending on the circumstances in your school, maybe you’d rather bring in some furniture to supplement the school owned furniture.  Shelving is forever useful, or perhaps some reading chairs that have been refurbished with a new coat of paint.  A few key pieces of furniture can really bring in an element of your personality and make your classroom feel more like a second home for your students.

If you are stuck on ideas for your classroom, my friend Caitlyn (who recently scored a job teaching special needs pre-K kiddos – yay!) suggested checking Pinterest for creative ideas.  There’s already tons of inspiration for bulletin boards, displays, crafts, and more – some ideas for decorating the home could even be repurposed for your classroom.  Start with Caitlyn’s Classroom Ideas board and get pinning!


For Every Classroom

Books are a key component of any classroom, young or old.  Even if your school already has a library, you’ll want to build your own as well.  They are useful for lessons as well as free reading time, depending on your children’s age.  Books are cheap and they’ll be used heavily, so condition doesn’t matter.  Sometimes teacher books can be a good buy; even if it doesn’t go with the curriculum, page through to see if it would make a good supplement.  It’s a good idea to make a list of titles or authors for your age group or any planned lessons you have, as well as keep track of what you have already bought.

Baby-sitters Club Book and Sweet Valley Twins Teacher's Pet Book

BSC and Sweet Valley Twins books – ah, nostalgia!

Learning center kits are expensive.  You can save by buying the books and materials separately.  Build out your desired learning centers from items from thrift stores.  Twister mats, muffin tins, old magnet letters, playing cards, and dominoes can all be repurposed to fit into a learning center.  Buy learning center books from your local store or online, and look through them before you go thrifting so they’ll be fresh in your mind.  Make a list if it will help you focus, but be open-minded as you search the racks to see if you can come up with your own twist on the book’s suggestions.

Arts & Music

Beads, ribbon, paint, or other crafting supplies can come in handy – whether they are for the kids to use on art projects or for you to decorate things for the classroom.  Often you can find bags of miscellaneous craft supplies at a low rate.  Art supplies or kits that include watercolors, colored pencils, and other drawing tools can frequently be found at the thrift.  As long as they are not too empty, they’ll work great for your kids.  Blank computer paper is great for drawing or coloring – sometimes you can get lucky and find a whole ream of paper for just a couple bucks.  Coloring books and crayons are ever useful in early elementary classrooms.

Music teachers can benefit from discarded sheet music often found near the books and magazines section of any thrift store.  Sheet music can really add up, but you can make a pretty good collection of classic songs from thrifted music.  These would be great for things like individual or small group sessions or competitions.  You may also discover some great classic recordings on LPs, CDs, or even DVD theatrical performances – perfect for leaving with substitute teachers when you have to miss class.  Non-music teachers may be able to incorporate musical elements from CDs or movies.

School House Rock Multiplication Rocks VHS

More nostalgic goodness – School House Rock!

Games & Toys

Toys are a great buy – just wash them thoroughly before use.  Check for any potential choking hazards – these are usually listed on the tag or box.  Stuffed animals liven up your room nicely, and other toys can be re-imagined into learning tools.

Games and puzzles can incorporate learning in a fun way.  Check for parts before buying, but an incomplete set could be repurposed, or you could try to custom-make replacements on the fly.  Like toys, check for choking hazards if you teach younger children.  Simple puzzles are easy to check if all the pieces are there.  Games may be fully complete, but if they are missing a few pieces, get creative.  Games don’t have to be used as what they were intended – you can strip out the parts to reuse in a new way.

When I taught ESL, I kept my eye out for simple word-based games.  Even if the rules stipulated more difficult game-play, I would make up new games according to my students’ skill level.  For example, take the letter tiles from a Scrabble game, forget about the crossword style play, and create an easier game to teach spelling.  I used a thrifted Up-Words game in my ESL classroom.  Up-Words uses the crossword style game-play like Scrabble, but has the additional option of stacking letters on top to create totally new words.  This helped my students learn that words that are spelled very similarly might sound a lot different – and it helped them practice vowel sounds.  This rhyming game was another great tool for helping learn sounds of tricky spelling.

Ideal Rhyming Game No. 2400

This rhyming game only cost 25 cents at a church rummage sale

Flashcards are another great buy – these sets don’t need to be complete to facilitate learning.  I used alphabet or word sets in ESL to help students practice letter sounds and English vocabulary.  It’s easier to buy a set than make them yourself, and they can be extremely versatile.

G is for… Gun?! Yikes! This one I took out of the deck…

School Supplies

Last but not least, don’t forget school supplies.  It’s a good idea to stock up at the back-to-school sales at the box stores, but don’t overlook the thrift!  There are frequently blank notebooks, binders, and odds & ends that will be useful to supply to the more forgetful of your students.  School supplies also make a great and practical prize box.  Prizes can be cheap at the thrift – look for traditional prize box staples like stickers, small toys, or pencils.

Final Notes

Alicia advises to be picky about what you ultimately decide to buy – just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean you have to buy it.  Be choosy, especially if you’re a thrifting newbie.  Otherwise, you’ll lose money by purchasing things you don’t need or won’t be able to use, and all your stuff won’t fit into your classroom anyway.  This doesn’t mean don’t take risks, but it does mean be realistic about your curriculum, space requirements, and the importance of the item relative to your set learning goals.

If you take a chance on something and it ends up not working for you, don’t throw it away – you can regift it to someone who might find a niche for it.  Repurpose things whenever possible.  Offer it to another teacher along with any suggestions for incorporating it into his or her classroom, or give it to a non-teacher friend who can put it to good use.

Class Dismissed!


More ideas in the’s Donate School Supplies To A Classroom In Need article

Diane Tunis describes some great ideas for using thrift store purchases to enhance the classroom in this article for the National Association for the Education of Young Children – Thrift Shop Purchases Enhance Children’s Learning  [PDF]

2 Responses to “Thrifting Tips for Teachers”
  1. Katherine says:

    I simply LOVE that owl tree! I have no plans on being a teacher, but I feel like I could put that in my house, somehow.

    Anywhooo, (see what I did there) I think people in any field could find ways to be more thrifty and let their personality shine through, especially in this economy.

    • natfee says:

      Bahaha, I love your owl joke! (Owls are one of my favorite animal motifs. I would totally put that bulletin board in my house too!) You’re so right – I hope people find more creative ways to be thrifty, no matter what field they happen to work in. Thanks for reading, Katherine!

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