Several years ago, I taught the sixth grade at a local public school in southeastern Virginia. Our grade level was organized with two teams and each team was allowed to formulate rules we thought was best for its organizational structure. Since it was my first year teaching there, as with any new place of employment, I had to learn how to adapt to the new routine. During one of our team meetings, we discussed the use of supplies. Sometimes students are not sent to school with the supplies needed to participate during classroom activities. Colored pencils had become a necessity in order to successfully complete some assignments, so the team decided to collect boxes of colored pencils from the children who were able to bring them to school. These colored pencils were placed in a community bin, and distributed fairly during activities requiring those supplies. It was the first time I had heard of such a thing, and I was not very pleased with the idea. On the surface it seemed like the “fair” and “right” thing to do, but was it really?
But I reluctantly decided to comply, at first.
Students in my homeroom started to bring in their colored pencils and I collected them. And my students, without asking any questions, surrendered their pencils and dropped them into the community bin. Each time I did this, I knew it was wrong. After collecting about five boxes, I decided to give the pencils back to my students. When their parents purchased the pencils, they did so for their children to use in class. Not for the entire classroom community. There was no agreement between the teachers and parents to collect any supplies in order to create community property. The colored pencils were private property. Although it was unfortunate that many students did not come to class with the needed supplies, it was also not right to take the supplies away from the students. I knew there had to be another way to address this problem, so I approached the office staff for assistance.
I went to the main office and inquired about getting some colored pencils for my classroom. Not only did the office not have the supplies I asked for, but they wanted me to fill out a detailed request form. Just for colored pencils. So instead, I decided to contact the president of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).
I wrote a short letter explaining why I needed colored pencils, scissors, and glue sticks that I intended to use regularly throughout the year. In less than two days, the president of the PTA personally delivered what I had requested and assured me that if I needed anything else, they would help me. So, not only did my students who had their supplies keep their supplies, but when it was time to use the pencils, no one was left out.
I shared this information with my team, and they were surprised that I had received assistance from the PTA. My teammates told me that they had traveled that route before with no success.
So what exactly is the lesson here?
Sometimes people have good intentions but risk hurting individuals in favor of the group. Perhaps my teammates thought the students who donated their pencils would learn a lesson about sharing and being compassionate. After all, supplies should be distributed based on need and collected from those who can give, right? But what about the individual rights of the students? What about the parents who struggle to earn money so their children can have the supplies they need. And even if the parents are not struggling to provide for their children, is it not the right of the students to keep the supplies their parents purchased for them?
Sharing is a lesson that usually comes from the home. That is where children learn their first lessons about sharing. And as I have seen during my years of teaching, most students do not mind sharing their supplies with their classmates. But what also happens in the spirit of sharing is theft. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. Students, in the spirit of being compassionate, lend out their supplies but never see those supplies again. And the children go home and are interrogated by their parents about what happened to their pens, pencils and crayons. And sometimes even the cases! So the parents must go back to the store and replace what is missing. Is that fair?
But many of us teach our children these lessons about sharing and taking turns from a very young age.
Scenario One: A group of children are playing together. One is playing with a stuffed animal. Another walks over and tries to take the stuffie away. The children cry. The child with the toy gives the stuffie to the child who was pulling it. The adult tells the child who took the stuffie to give it back.
Scenario Two: A group of children are playing together. One is playing with a stuffed animal. Another walks over and tries to take the stuffie away. The children cry. The adult tells the child with the stuffie that it is good to share. So the child gives up the stuffie and finds another toy.
Although these are very generic situations, they are examples of how we teach sharing. Of course, context is also important. Are these children at a daycare, in someone’s home on a play-date, or at a playground? How we share and what we share is situational.
Also, I think it is a good idea to teach children that it is okay to have ownership of something as well. It is okay to say that something is “mine” without being totally selfish. And in order for humans to survive on this planet, some degree of selfishness is necessary!
It is okay to have a cookie that belongs to you. It is okay to take your supplies to school and expect to use them for your benefit to complete assignments. It is okay to play alone sometimes. We all need alone time. It is okay to wait for someone to finish using a toy before we use it. And if the other person does not finish, there are other things we can do in the meantime.
As far as the school is concerned, since it is the law for children to be in school, schools should have basic supplies for all students to use. This is an area that many parents fail to address at school board meetings. If an average of about $8,000 is going toward each student annually in a district, there must be some room in the budget for pencils, crayons, and other supplies teachers and students use on a regular basis. Teachers and students are the ones who stand to lose when other students attend school without the needed supplies. Students lose due to issues of no return or loss of items. Teachers lose by spending their own funds to support the basic needs of students in the classroom, which releases the district and individual schools from their responsibility.
Parents, teachers, and students should always use their individual judgment when it comes to helping others. Along with the lessons about sharing comes the value of ownership. It is okay to choose to refrain from sharing, if it means the loss of one’s property. Children need lessons about exercising discernment as well as sharing. Although pens, pencils, and paper are material items, they are items that are needed to complete tasks. Moreover, children need to know that it is not their fault that other children come to school without their needed supplies, too.
Another lesson that I believe is missing from the intention of my former teammates is the virtue of appreciation. Are the children who are benefiting from the donations of their classmates learning how to appreciate others who are helping them?
Although my child is only 3, I do not want her to ever feel bad about having things others do not have. However, I want her to learn to be thankful and appreciative when she is given things to have, whether out of necessity or for pleasure. Because in the end, it is not the things in and of themselves that are good or bad, but our attitude towards them. And that attitude about appreciation, I hope, was weaved somewhere in the lesson my former teammates tried to teach.