Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Back To School List

I'm a little late on this, since most retailers rolled out Back to School displays months ago and are currently starting to clear those out so that they have room for Christmas Sale displays. But I always mean to write about this because like so many things from which people can make a buck, Back to School shopping has gotten out of hand.

So as a father and a professional educator of several decades, I have an important message to parents about your back to school shopping.


People are trying to get you to panic. Do not do it.

In some cases, the pitch is strictly commercial. Which is fine. That's what businesses do. Work your way into Office Depot's Back to School offerings. Everything you could conceivably or inconceivably need is here, with the exception of the Winnebago needed to cart all of this stuff to school, because for a place like Office Depot, Back to School is Christmas and Mother's Day wrapped up in one revenue generating package.

But here's the non-business Great Kids website, offering parents a list of Back to School necessities that may also necessitate a second mortgage (if, as a parent, you are able to afford a house in the first place).

Back to School supply lists seem to have the longevity of cockroaches, surviving unchanged over centuries. For instance, like many other sources, Great Schools includes this on their list of "basics."

Scissors (blunt ended for younger kids, pointed for older ones)

Um, no. Do not send your older children to school with pointy-ended scissors. And while Great Kids recommend highlighters, they do acknowledge that these "are probably unnecessary for kids in kindergarten through second grade." Yes, because five-year-olds have a tendency to highlight walls and desks and their own faces.

What about a site like Real Simple, the website/magazine devoted to helping wealthy folks make their consumption less conspicuous?  Their "essentials" list includes an art smock for elementary and pre-school students. Okay, fine. My own children had art smocks at home (from the popular dad's Old Shirts brand). But essential for school? I'm imagining twenty-five children arriving on the first day and asking the teacher, "Where do I put my smock."

And glue. Specifically glue sticks. Every single list has glue sticks on it. Do we have a national epidemic of Unglued Things in Schools?

Oh-- and these. I see them on lists, in stores, in the mall. Everywhere, in fact, but in actual classrooms:

The worst notebooks ever! You can't make mistakes, and when you rip one page out, another one falls out, too. And if you've taken important notes elsewhere, you can't add them to this, unless-- oh, wait!! NOW I understand the glue sticks!

Backpacks, folders, organizers, twelve different kinds of writing utensils, seventeen different kinds of bound and unbound paper, lunch boxes, a dictionary and a thesaurus!! Cozi gets a bonus point for putting a flash drive on their list, but most lists are composed of the same classic items that Great-Great-Grandma's mom was guilted into buying for Back to School.

So, parents, here's my Back to School to-do list for you.

Step One: Wait

Prior to the first day of school, do not buy anything except things you want your child to have. If your child is organizationally challenged and needs the world's most aggressive trapper-keeper, go ahead and get it. If you and your child agree that a Phineas and Ferb lunchbox is essential to get off to a great new start, I applaud your good taste. Go for it.

But if you are eying the glue stick display or the utility box loaded with 143 colored pencils strictly because you think the school will put your child back on the bus if she shows up without those items, just wait.

Neither my wife (elementary) nor I (high school) expect students to show up on the first day with anything other than a sleepy smile and a hopeful attitude. If the school actually needs your child to bring anything to school, they will tell you. Backpacks may have to fall within particular guidelines. Teachers may want particular notebook configurations. And every school now comes with its own batch of tech requirements.


Talk to your child's teachers before you need to. Go to open house. If scheduling is tight, make a phone call or an e-mail. Let your school and your teachers know what your expectations are. These are easier conversations to have when you're not in the midst of a child-related crisis. The school or teachers may give you the impression that they are too busy to have a non-critical conversation with you. Too bad for them. Have it anyway, but be focused and businesslike. Whenever dealing with teachers and schools, it's helpful to remember that we measure time out in very short increments. "Just one more thing," may mean nothing to your schedule, but to your child's teacher it may mean the difference between getting to pee or not today.

Gather contact information. Know who to contact about what, and how best to contact them.

Build partnerships

Some of the most effective work for Getting Things Done or Fixing Screwy Policies involve partnerships between teachers and parents. We know what is going on, but you are far more likely to be listened to. I can tell my boss that the new brown widgets are a terrible idea, but it's when the office starts taking phone calls from cranky parents that things will actually happen.

Where there is bad policy (and right now there is bad policy everywhere), parents and teachers have to build coalitions to fight back, as well as fighting back in their own ways. As a parent, you're going to have to find out who your allies are within the system.

Find out what the needs are

My school does not need glue sticks. On the other hand, the district stopped buying facial tissue for classrooms a few decades ago. My sister-in-law would send boxes of kleenex to school with her kids every month or so. It was greatly appreciated. Just ask a teacher-- what is something you're going to have to buy with your own money that I could get for you.

But mostly, relax

Despite what the world of consumer marketing is suggesting, there is very little that your child must absolutely have for the first day of school. There's little data to suggest that students who show up without art smocks and glue sticks all end up working for sub-minimum wage and living alone in a one-room apartment over a bar while eating cat food warmed on a hot plate.

What your child needs the first-through-last day of school is a positive attitude and support, along with constant reminders that school is important and that the child herself is a valuable and worthy human being. Yes, the ritual of Buying New Stuff for Back to School can be a great way to build excitement and enthusiasm for school, but it doesn't have to break the bank. Meanwhile, the school year is a marathon, not a sprint. I've seen hundreds of students hit that first day bright and happy and full of hope, fully intending that This Year will be different, but the dailiness of school wears it away. They don't need your support on just one day, but every day.


  1. In a better world, kids wouldn't need art smocks because they'd dress for mess every day - and need to.

    But in any case, whatever you end up buying, don't buy it from Staples:

  2. My oldest's high school is helpful enough to send out an email telling you to only send a binder with paper and pens on day 1, and each class would provide a list of what she needed in the way of supplies. :)

  3. I would put the flash drive on the list with the pointy scissors. Everything is stored in the cloud nowadays. Flash drives are not a necessity for school.

  4. Peter, savvy, bargain-conscious parent consumers [tic] know the true secret to corraling those runaway school supply costs. They simply refuse to send any in with their children, comfortable in the understanding that their children's teachers will then make sure their children get the essential supplies they need. So, don't buy those pencils, gluesticks, notebook paper, notebooks, tissues, crayons, markers, or other supplies those greedy teachers audaciouisly demand. Make them do it.

  5. Three-inch binder. Pencil pouch with pencils and pens. Paper. Partitions (dividers -- but we wanted to keep the alliteration going). Planner (which the school provides).
    That's it. short and simply.

  6. I spent time in Costa Rica and one thing was the annual shopping before school starts. In the rural area where I lived parents were expected to buy everything down to toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Uniforms were not cheap but mandatory as well.

  7. Those terrible composition notebooks you say you never see in class are used in high school science classes as lab notebooks. Used by me and most every Science teacher I know. Not being able to remove pages is a feature, not a bug. You shouldn't ever take pages of of a lab notebook.

  8. Those terrible composition notebooks you say you never see in class are used in high school science classes as lab notebooks. Used by me and most every Science teacher I know. Not being able to remove pages is a feature, not a bug. You shouldn't ever take pages of of a lab notebook.

  9. My middle school posts a supply list online at the beginning of summer. And now that we have Chromebooks for every kid, they don't need flashdrives, but I think glue sticks are on the list :)