Creating Your Classroom: Where to Splurge and When to Save

I remember last summer when I was preparing for my first year teaching in my first ever classroom and being so excited. I had taken over the classroom of a retired teacher, so by the time I had cleared away the old, worn out, and out-of-date items, I was left with basically a blank slate.  I looked at Pinterest for hours scoping out exactly the theme I was going to use to decorate and what resources I just HAD to have. Honestly, it was overwhelming. And being a first-year teacher, I had no idea what I was actually going to need.

Throughout the year, I realized what was totally worth the money, where I could have saved a few extra bucks, and what I could have done without. Hopefully, I can share a little bit from my experience and help you know where to splurge and when to save.

1. Classroom Library- SAVE

Mrs. Cessac fills her shelves with second-hand books.
I know, I know. You walk into Barnes & Noble, and all the pretty books are looking at you with their shiny covers, and you can't help yourself. I know this because I'm the same way. I have the hardest time going to a book store and leaving empty handed. But trust me when I say that a classroom library is one of the best areas in which you can SAVE your money. There are a few different ways to do this. Kelli Cessac (@mrscessac5th) fills her classroom library with books purchased from second-hand stores like Goodwill.  She states, "[Books from Goodwill] are usually a dollar each! And with the teacher discount, they're even cheaper." Other locations to score deals on books are Craigslist and yard sales.

Another option is reaching out to your friends and family and asking if anyone has any old books they'd mind to donate to your classroom. When I was stocking mine, I posted a status on Facebook asking folks, and within an hour, I had soooo many offers from people. I got laundry baskets and cardboard boxes full of chapter and picture books. Most everyone was excited to give their old books new life and let other children fall in love with them all over again. Some were just excited to clear off a shelf in their house 😆 Either way, I had dozens of books to choose from without having to spend a dime. Erin Castillo (@makingastatementinsped) did the same thing for her high school classroom library. She says, "My classroom library pretty much got 75% built from members of my church!"

Mrs. Castillo's classroom library is mostly made up from donations from members of her church.
So if you're able to save money on your classroom library, where should you spend it?

2. A Personal Laminator -SPLURGE

I originally considered not getting a personal laminator. My school library has a big one that is free to use (thanks to our amazing librarian), so I figured that would be good enough.

I cannot begin to tell you how wrong I was.

Aside from oxygen, my personal laminator is the thing I used most in my classroom last year. I use it for flash cards, worksheets (so I can use them with dry erase markers), and classroom decor that I don't want ruined from it falling off the walls.

I used my classroom laminator nearly every day last year. Literally. Nearly every day. Since I'm a special education resource teacher teaching across four grade levels, I had a ton of material to prep. And since the students' needs changed quickly as they would gain new knowledge and need to increase the complexity of what they were working on, the ability to create and prepare my own resources was a life saver! And I'm not alone in my thinking.  I took a poll on Instagram, and 75% of teachers who responded said that they have a personal laminator either at home or in their classrooms.  I actually have one for both places because I got tired of carrying it back and forth to work on things at home. This is the one I have. You can click my affiliate link below to find it on Amazon. It has worked perfectly for me, and it even comes with a starter pack of laminating pouches included.

So like I said, I used my laminator all the time last year, and it was definitely worth splurging on. Something else worth the splurge? High-quality school supplies.

3. School Supplies- SPLURGE

Teaching resource, I don't get to send home a school supply list. That falls to the classroom teachers. That also means I get stuck buying the crayons, pencils, markers, glue, etc. that my students will use in my classroom. On top of that, I have to buy my daughter's school supplies that she needs for her class. It can be so tempting to go to a dollar store or bargain store and buy the packs of off-brand everything for a dollar each. But y'all... you get what you pay for. I might only pay a dollar for those crayons, markers, and pencils, but I'll be paying another dollar when they break, another dollar when they dry out super quickly, and another dollar when the lead only sharpens on one side. Not only is that more money, but it's also more time spent going to the store or waiting on the mail to arrive. Trust me, you (and your child's teacher if you have one) will be so much happier if you pay the dollar or so extra and get the good stuff. The colors are brighter, the ink lasts longer, the lead is thicker, and the real wood won't clog and break your pencil sharpener the way the plastic-coated ones can.

Alisha Peare, @bubblyblondeteacher, stocks up on Crayola brand markers and crayons for her classroom.

4. Centers/Stations- SAVE

Last summer, while on vacation in Tampa, my husband accidentally drove passed a very popular teacher supply store. In the midst of my shrieking for him to TURN AROUND, he safely backtracked and soon I had entered what I can only imagine "Teacher Heaven" must look like.  Anything and everything you could ever want for your classroom was contained within those four walls. I stuck to my budget (which we'd agreed upon in the car before I had even gone inside), but it was SO HARD. I could easily have dropped hundreds of dollars in there buying ELA activities and games for math centers. However, I am glad I didn't. While their products are amazing, I was able to save a ton of money by making my own centers, games, task cards, and other resources. A used (and washed out) Parmesan cheese container and some pipe cleaners became a great activity for building motor skills. Old Mega Blocks and a sharpie became my students' favorite way to practice "building" sight words. Mini erasers from Target became... well anything and everything: math manipulatives, sorting activities, game pieces, Bingo markers... The point is, I was able to have a FULLY STOCKED classroom full of activities that my kids LOVE without having to blow my entire paycheck to do so. Look at Pinterest for even more low cost activities!

By writing words and letters on my daughter's old Mega Blocks, I was able to create this sight word center for free!
Speaking of Pinterest, that leaves me to my final area of the classroom...

5. Classroom Decor- SAVE

My blank slate
I inherited my classroom from the most kind teacher in the world. He was retiring, and I was thrilled to have the chance to talk with him before he left, and he even went so far as to leave behind many things I would need for my classroom. A few things I wanted to do, however, was clean it out, reorganize it, and decorate it!  A blank slate can be so refreshing, but also overwhelming when trying to figure out how to set it up and make it work for you and your students. I had so many Pinterest boards dedicated to different themes I was considering. I finally decided on the theme "Learning in a Journey." Globes, paper airplanes, maps... The ideas kept on coming! But I had to figure out a way to make my grand ideas work on a next-to-nothing budget. I asked friends to keep an eye out for old globes and ended up having several donated to my classroom. I drew decorations and designed some on I looked at Teachers Pay Teachers for other decor I wanted but didn't have time to make. I got bins and organizational items from bargain stores like Five Below and The Dollar Tree. Probably my favorite things from my classroom were the decorations I made from maps I picked up from rest areas on the way to and from vacation destinations. With those maps, I folded paper airplanes to hang from the ceiling (thank you YouTube for the tutorials!). I cut them down to 8.5x11 and printed letters on them in an outline font to make bulletin board letters. I used them as matting to display student work and my number line around the classroom. And they were free! I have more plans for them this summer as I'm updating my classroom decor. I've been slowly redoing bits and pieces and uploading them to my own Teachers Pay Teachers store. If you like to craft and design, creating your own classroom decor can be a great way to save.

Bulletin board letters, name tags, posters, and an alphabet line are only a few of the products I've made this summer to decorate my classroom. Click here to check them out!

So as you're preparing your classroom this year, if you are a new teacher or changing rooms/grades/schools, remember that while some classroom items are definitely worth the splurge, there are several more areas where you can save! How do you save on items for the classroom? Any other splurges you think I should know about? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

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