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Sunday, January 09, 2011

Appreciating teachers in an era of shrinking resources

A public school teacher from Ohio writes that every fall, a local office-supply superstore has a teacher appreciation day. Teachers are given free supplies, discounts on certain items and the opportunity to purchase more items at a sale price than the general public can. Teachers also can get a reward card that earns cash back or free copying services for purchases they make in the store.

My reader recognizes that the office-supply store has made a business decision to use these appreciation days as a way to get more teachers into its stores. “Because of budget cuts in districts throughout Ohio,” he writes, “teachers are spending even more of their money to buy things they feel they need in their classrooms. From the teacher’s perspective, it’s a win-win situation.”

My reader assumes that the store is hoping that by attracting more teachers to shop there that that will in turn translate into more of their students shopping at the store, as well.

Granted, teachers may become more familiar with the items stocked by the store because they shop there, but my reader wonders if it is unethical for teachers to recommend to students and parents that they buy their school supplies at the store. “What about the teacher who buys school supplies in quantity from the store at a discount and then resells them to students at a higher price?”

There’s no question that budgets for most public schools around the country are being squeezed. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I serve as the chair of the board of trustees for a public charter school outside of Boston.) Many teachers dip into their own pocketbooks to pay for supplies and items that were once routinely supplied by the school system. Parents too are often expected to pony up cash for participation in educational endeavors that once were better funded.

If a teacher recommends a particular store to parents for their children where they can purchase supplies, such an action doesn’t seem to cross ethical lines as long as the teacher is not receiving any payment or reward for doing so.

But if the teacher is making a profit by buying goods cheaply and then selling them at a higher price to his students, that seems to cross a line. The discount given to the teacher is presumably for him to be able to afford to buy the items he needs to use in the classroom, not to make a profit from students. If he wanted to sell the items to the students for whatever it cost him to buy them, as long as that doesn’t violate any agreement with the office-supply store, that seems fair game.

Some teachers are finding that websites like donorschoose.org that allow them to list the supplies they need for a given project so anyone can decide to donate are a good outlet for finding ways to fund projects that otherwise might go unfunded. (Readers of the book Waiting for Superman, which relates to the recent documentary on public education, will find that they receive a $15 coupon in the book which they can use to donate to any project listed on donorschoose.org.)

The right thing is for teachers, parents and administrators to be creative in how they approach teaching in an environment of shrinking budgets. But no teacher worth his salt would ever see such opportunities as a way to turn a profit on his students.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

© 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

3 comments:

Bill Jacobson said...

Sorry Jeffrey but I don't know of a single public school teacher who "makes a profit" off of selling school supplies to their children. It is wrong to take advantage of the kids but I don't believe this is what is being alleged here.

The store is not being taken advantage of here. The store has achieved its goal of attracting more teachers in, the teachers have received the supplies they need to run their class and the kids that use the supplies have paid for them... That's win-win-win.

What's unethical here is that society claims to provide public schools but then expect their underpaid, overworked employees to pick up the bill to supply them. Imagine your typical deskworker being told that he had to purchase and bring in paper for the photocopier or spring for his own computer.

No directing the actual consumers, the kids, towards resources where they can get what they need to further their education is not unethical. It is core to teachers achieving the goals they were hired to achieve. Where do we get this idea that parents don't need to similarly invest in their kids' educations?!?

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Wize Maxey said...

1. If this issue is important enough to worry about, then our society is in better shape than I thought.
2.If Mr. Jacobson thinks that public school employees are "overworked,underpaid," then he is residing in a different educational universe than I.

cara said...

Let's face it teaching supply stores need to make money and teachers and students need supplies. I've never asked families to purchase supplies from a particular supply store, but I do want to notify families of special deals and promotions. We all want to work together to use get teaching tools to inspire learning.