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Year-round Santas

Teachers routinely give students presents they dont realize are presents


by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Ron Field (center) would buy whole sets of books to use in reading groups. Retired teachers Sue Nemchick and Susan Kingham helped staff Field book giveaway last week, along with school library volunteer Eldena VanderZanden.Sue Nemchick was in Fred Meyer when she spotted the anatomically correct spider.

Made of squishy rubber, the 14-inch Halloween decoration was unlike other such spiders, Nemchick said, because “it had the legs actually attached to the cephalothorax.”

So of course she had to have it. Nemchick was in the middle of a “bug unit” with her first-grade students at Harvey Clarke Elementary School. Her model collection already included a grasshopper, a ladybug, a praying mantis, an ant and the complete life cycle of the butterfly. Ten dollars later, the spider joined them.

That’s often how it goes for teachers. They see something, realize it would be a great addition to their classrooms — and open their wallets.

Or they’re brainstorming with colleagues when those fateful words arise: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could …”

Across western Washington County, all year long, teachers use their own money to improve their students’ classroom experiences, instantly becoming year-round Santas. Most spend several hundred dollars a year, with virtually no tax break available. But they’re not complaining. “The schools are so stressed financially,” Nemchick said. “If you want to do anything extra, you have to do it yourself.”

Sara Buliga, 7, was working on an “extra” when she lifted her wooden snowflake ornament and twirled it in Pamela Bailey’s second-grade classroom at Banks Elementary School.

“Whoa! Glitter glue?” exclaimed classmate Elizabeth Martin.

“I want it to look good,” said Grayson Ellerbrook as he carefully painted the intricate snowflake outline.

Six days before winter vacation, the students were eagerly working on ornaments for their parents, using supplies Bailey had bought herself. “Any time you’re going to do an art project you buy everything,” Bailey said.

Limited help

Parent Teacher Organizations offer welcome but limited help. Some give each teacher $100 a year, or buy big things, such as the large, $400 rug in Bailey’s classroom. The rug is a barrier against the cold tile floor when students gather for stories, snacks or community time.

But teachers are generally on their own for smaller things: Nametags, candy canes for the “long A” theme, homework folders, bulletin-board materials, snacks and, of course, assorted home furnishings.

“IKEA is a great place,” said Jo Schilling, a first-grade teacher who has bought stools, rugs and “anything, really, to make your classroom homey for the kids” at Banks Elementary.

“They’re more comfortable,” said Schilling’s colleague Bethany Exline, whose students can read while rocking in a rocking chair or lying on a rug, among other options. Exline has an aquarium, too. It was a generous donation from a parent, although Exline must now buy filters, fish food and bulb replacements — and occasional fish replacements.

At garage sales, Exline finds games, puzzles, toys, puppets — even Lincoln Logs and building blocks. “Not a lot of kids have blocks in their home any more,” she said.

Another big hit are the individual white-boards and dry-erase markers Exline buys for students to practice math and spelling.

“That’s a fun one. Just being able to erase them,” said Exline, who uses a white-board in class and thinks the students enjoy copying her.

Incentives are important too: stickers, bookmarks, pencils, treats. Before school each year, former Harvey Clarke and Central School teacher Ron Field would visit Learning World and Learning Palace and spend $300 to $400 on such incentives, along with posters and curriculum materials.

Books a big expense

But Field’s biggest personal expense was always books. Last week, six years after he retired from 31 years of teaching, Field hauled his stash of 1,600 children’s books to the Harvey Clarke library to give them away to students.

Many retiring teachers do the same. Nemchick, for example, gave away about 2,000 books from her own collection in the months before she retired last spring.

Inside the Harvey Clarke library, children peppered Field with questions: Do you have any reptile books? Do you have any Goosebumps? Where are the piano and instrument books? Do you have any Star Wars books? Books about princesses? Spiders? Cats?

The answer was almost always yes.

Because the giveaway took place in the library, Field made sure to explain that the children didn’t have to return the books.

“Oh, can we keep them forever?” he overheard one kindergarten or first-grade student asking a friend, who answered, “Until we die.”

“That was just days before this horrible shooting,” Field said.

Sometimes simple efficiency drives a purchase. Bailey, who finds it more efficient to sharpen her students' pencils for them, spent $100 for the industrial-strength pencil sharpener in her room. With 35 students and pencils that routinely break or grow dull, Bailey sharpens pencils hundreds of times each week. If the sharpener lasts five years, the $20-a-year cost would be definitely worth it, she said.

Bailey doesn’t even look at the old-fashioned hand-crank sharpener on the wall. If that were the only thing available, “You would be there, really, forever.”