When it comes to setting up classroom for the year, teachers are notorious for going above and beyond to transform a blank slate of cinder block walls and basic, blank bulletin boards into a cozy, welcoming classroom that feels more like an extension of home than a school setting. However, as the Huffington Post recently noted, the average public school classroom these days is a “mirage.” Elaborate themes, color-coordinated bins and baskets, cozy corners for reading, beautiful displays for student work… endless hours of preparation and hundreds or thousands of dollars often go into creating these spaces.
plan before you begin
Before you get started, begin with a budget… and be realistic. It’s easy to panic and feel like you need to go out and buy all the things when you walk into your stark, empty classroom and see the basic environment you are starting with, especially if your co-workers already have picture-perfect, carefully coordinated classrooms. It’s easy to let things spiral out of control, though, when you don’t start out with a plan of action. However, if you think carefully about how much money you feel comfortable spending, especially in relation to the rest of your budget, you can plan ahead and be strategic about how you spend your money. Also, remember that you will have incidentals come up throughout the year for things you will want or need to buy for classroom supplies, so be sure to account for that as you budget at the beginning!
Next, think about how you want to use your classroom space. What kind of zones do you envision? How and where are students going to turn in their work and other papers? Will you have community supplies? Do you need spaces for students to work independently or with you in a small group? What about a library or reading corner/zone? Think about your vision for a school day, and plan which areas you need to account for. Then, think about the materials you will need to make each of these spaces functional and plan your shopping accordingly.
Also — and this is important — prior to spending any money, make sure the decor you want to use adheres to fire codes. Many schools require that any fabrics (such as curtains) be treated with a special fire-retardant spray, and their treatment must be documented. Some schools also prohibit the use of outside rugs, couches, and personal lamps due to fire or other safety codes. Before you make an investment in these larger items, check with your school’s administration (or your school handbook) to ask about policies in place.
10 tips for decorating your classroom on the cheap
Many schools have laminators, long rolls of colored butcher paper, and die cut machines available to teachers. There may also be community construction paper, poster print machines, color printers, etc. Anything you make yourself saves money, and lamination helps ensure that it will last a long time. If you’re making die cuts that are not going to be glued to paper or a poster board, I recommend that you laminate paper before you make cuts; you have the added bonus of durability, and it saves you from cutting, laminating, and cutting again!
When I was first starting out as a teacher, I had acquired tons of frog-themed tchotchkes and stuffed animals over the years. While they didn’t serve me well at home, they became the perfect, fun ornaments to give my classroom a bit of a theme without requiring me to spend any money. I also had acquired some bigger items from friends who wanted to get rid of them when they were graduating: a bookshelf, rug, and dish chair, as well as some smaller organizational items. All of these big and little things helped me make my classroom feel more cozy without my having to spend any money!
It’s easy to get lost in a Pinterest-worthy vision of what your classroom will look like, but most of what you see online is the product of many years and a lot of money. If something is offered to you, use it if you can see it serving a purpose in your classroom. Then, down the road, you can decide to replace the items that no longer serve the purpose you wanted them to or find items that better fit what you need.
There are many items that are not “traditional” classroom items that easily be used in the classroom. For example, inexpensive flat sheets or tablecloths from Walmart (or anywhere you can find them on clearance) become colorful, long-lasting bulletin board backers. They can also be sewn into curtains and cubby covers, used to conceal ugly and broken tabletops, and more.
In addition to items that can be purchased, also think about items you can “upcycle” to serve new purposes in your classroom. Empty plastic containers make great storage; think coffee cans, frosting containers, baby wipes boxes, etc. I used large, empty tubs from chlorine tablets for pools to organize my classroom clip boards, and they were perfect!
Teacher stores are great and have many wonderful resources, but they tend to be very pricey and you can often find items they offer elsewhere at much lower prices. For example, items like borders can be found at Dollar Tree, Walmart, and sometimes Target’s One Spot during back to school season. There might not be as good of a selection, but a $1 price tag vs. a $5.99 price tag is a big difference!
To be honest, bargain hunting can be very time consuming and sometimes frustrating, especially because you never know if you’re going to find exactly what you’re looking for. However, finding something you would spend $20-$25 on for $2-$3 can make the extra effort worth it! Check out Craigslist, local yard sale groups on Facebook, Goodwill, and hit up garage sales in your area.
In addition to shopping second-hand, scour discount stores and racks. Clearance end caps tend to be on the end of aisles at the back of stores, and you can often find some great deals if you’re willing to dig! If you’re looking for fabric, Hancock Fabrics is going out of business and has deep, deep discounts on everything in their stores right now.
Plan ahead before you go shopping! Especially during back to school season, many companies offer coupons for school supplies like crayons, markers, pens, and more. A quick search of “Bic coupons” or “coupons for Crayola” will link you to manufacturer's sites or resources like Coupons.com if there are any available.
Before you go shop, check the websites of the stores you’re going to visit to see if they have any in-store coupons. Many do! Also, don’t be shy about asking if a store offers a teacher discount. The worst they can say is no, and you’d be surprised how many do!
If you’re ordering something online, there are several sites that can help you make sure you are getting the best deal:
- camelcamelcamel.com — Use this site to check the price history on items sold on Amazon.com. I personally love that you can set up “price alerts” so that you can set a price and get a notification when/if the item you’re looking for drops to that desired price.
- RetailMeNot.com — Any time I complete an online order, I first check this site for coupon codes. Even if the website is advertising a particular deal or code, I will still check, and sometimes I can find a better one!
- Target’s Cartwheel app — This app makes it easy to save on items you are already buying in store! Add offers to your “cart,” then show the cashier the barcode to scan at checkout and voilà! Savings.
- Ebates — Like to earn cash back on your online purchases? If you start your shopping trip on a member site through Ebates, you can earn cash back on your purchases. I have their browser button installed so that I get a little reminder when I’m browsing a site that qualifies for cash back. Sometimes, it’s as little as 1%, but every little bit helps. Bonus: if you’re not already a member, you can get a $10 gift card or cash back bonus just for signing up!
If you do a quick internet search for “freebies for teachers,” you will get thousands and thousands of results. As you prepare your classroom, remember that there are TONS of free printables on the internet, both from blogs (teaching and otherwise) and Teachers Pay Teachers.
Just a few other suggestions:
- Paint chips/swatches are great for die cuts, and they are vibrant and durable. Ask paint, hardware, or home improvement stores if they have old stock that they’d be willing to give you in bulk!
- I don’t know about you, but I’ve acquired a million and one freebie promotional pens, notepads, and sticky notes over the years. Use them in your classroom!
- Local and state tourism boards will send you free maps and other resources.
- If you teach about government (or even if you don’t — it’s an election year!), you can get free posters about how to become president and the three branches of government from Publications.USA.gov. To order your copy, find “order this publication in print” in the right hand navigation!
There are so many cute posters and such out there for purchase, but — and this goes especially if you have limited wall space — think about what will be most helpful and useful for your students. A few packages of colorful markers (like classic Crayolas, Sharpies, or flip chart markers) and pads of big, spiral chart paper allow you to create anchor charts to go along with the content you’re teaching. Then, you can hang them on the walls for students to reference throughout the unit (or during the year).
There is no guarantee your project will be funded of course, but large items like rugs, furniture, and flexible seating are a HUGE financial investment. Using a grant site like Donors Choose allows you share the cost with donors — families of your students, community members, and sometimes large corporations — and save your budget for smaller incidentals.
You’d be amazed at how many friends, family members, relatives, and others are happy to help by purchasing items you need! Be sure to add a link in your school email, and share with your classroom parents through a bit.ly link or a QR code on back to school night. I like to tell what the items are used for in the “add comments” option; it helps people understand how the materials will be used in the classroom (particularly if it’s a non-traditional classroom item).
What other tips and tricks do you have for saving money as you get your classroom ready? Please tell us in the comments below!