As a graduate primary school teacher about to embark on my first year in the classroom, I expected that January would be a busy month.
I knew there would be lessons to plan, curriculum documents to acquaint myself with and pages upon pages — upon pages — of laminating to do.
After careful deliberation, I put in notice at my office job right before Christmas, electing a departure date that I hoped would give me enough time to prepare for my new career while foregoing as little income as possible.
All the unpaid professional experience I’ve had to complete for my degree has left me kicking off the new year broke, you see.
And while I knew it would be busy, what I had not expected about January was that it would also be a very expensive month.
Being a teacher isn’t cheap
Already I have spent about $700 on my Year 2 classroom. The same day I signed my employment contract, I placed a large stationery order from Officeworks online so I could use AfterPay.
Other purchases I have put on my credit card. I have bought obvious things like picture books (24 so far, each ranging in price from $3 to $14.99), spare pencils (5 boxes for $4 each) and glue sticks (6 x $2.50 each), colour printer ink ($76.88) and more laminating sleeves (a pack of 100 for $20).
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I have bought some less essential items too, like a colourful rug to help define a space within the classroom for students to sit on the floor ($84.95).
Or the polymer bead “teacher lanyard” with a safety clasp (very important, I am told) for my keys and whistle, handmade by a teacher in Ipswich and purchased via Instagram with a summer holiday discount code ($15 plus $4.99 postage).
And I’m not alone. Madison, a graduate teacher in regional Queensland, has spent more than $1,200 setting up her Year 1 classroom, including $200 on shelving and other storage furniture.
Rhiannon, a graduate in Central West New South Wales, has spent about the same on her Year 3 classroom, and says she still has more to buy.
Katrina, a graduate in Brisbane, has spent a couple of hundred dollars, with a large chunk of this going to printing and laminating.
She says her start-up costs are lower now because, on the advice of a lecturer, she began collecting resources and supplies in her first year of university.
I have bought obvious things like picture books, spare pencils and glue sticks. (Supplied: Ellen Wengert)
Saving time has become a side hustle
I have tried to be savvy about my spending by shopping around and comparing prices. But this takes time and I have almost as little of that right now as I do money.
I do not, for instance, have time to create my own alphabet posters or my own visual timetable cards or my own birthday chart. As a result, I signed up for a teacher resource subscription service ($79 a year for the basic plan) which claims to save hours.
I tried to be savvy about my spending by shopping around and comparing prices. (Supplied: Ellen Wengert)
Saving teachers’ time is a rapidly growing market, with plenty of services cropping up in the last five or so years.
The number of time-poor, stressed-out teachers willing to spend their own money to reduce their workload has, in turn, created new entrepreneurial avenues.
It has become a steady side hustle for other teachers who sell resources — as well as colourful acrylic jewellery and the ubiquitous polymer bead lanyards — through their Etsy and Teachers Pay Teachers stores.
For these teachers, Instagram is a marketing tool, while also a supportive, close-knit online community.
Instagram is helpful — but it also adds pressure
Under hashtags like #TeachersOfIG and #AussieTeacherTribe, ideas are shared, tough days commiserated, and successes celebrated, alongside images of immaculately organised, impossibly bright and cheery classrooms.
Under hashtags like #TeachersOfIG and #AussieTeacherTribe, ideas are shared.
Madison says Instagram has added pressure to ensure her first classroom looks a certain way, and that this has influenced her spending.
I too have felt similar pressure, not wanting the kids in my class to miss out on things their peers in the room next door might have.
Technically, graduate teachers are under no obligation to spend their own money on their classrooms. Some schools provide start-up stationery packs or small cash budgets for essentials or will reimburse teachers for certain items.
Typically, this comes down to the school itself, and varies depending on what state and which education system you’re working in.
But from speaking to different teachers — both beginning and more experienced — it’s seldom enough.
My career may become prohibitive
I am frequently reminded by family and friends that all my purchases are tax deductible. Many of them, too, will be things I can use again next year and into the future.
Investing in one’s career, and particularly when it means investing directly in children — in my case, children at a school in a low socio-economic area — could hardly be considered a waste of money.
Nor are teachers the only ones expected to make such investments in their work.
Tradies, for instance, are often required to purchase and maintain their own tools — a pertinent example of it costing money to make money. But with rising living costs and low wage growth, particularly in the gig economy, the cost of having a job is increasing at a rate disproportionate to what many people earn.
I worry that should this trend continue, the start-up costs of a primary school teaching career, particularly when combined with the cost of unpaid professional experience, may become prohibitive.
I worry that should this trend continue, the start-up costs of a primary school teaching career may become prohibitive. (Supplied: Ellen Wengert)
And all of this amid recent calls from both the Federal and Shadow Education Ministers to implement reform in order to attract and retain higher quality teachers (the echoes of which I can still hear as I collate my receipts).
But that’s not my job. For me, for now, it’s back to the laminator and to counting down the days until I get my first teacher pay cheque.
Ellen Wengert is a graduate primary school teacher.