Community supplies vs. individual supplies: what in the world is a teacher to do?

The debate with community supplies vs. individual supplies revolves around whether or not classroom supplies brought from home should be owned and used by individual students or if they should be combined and distributed equally among students, even to those kids whose families didn’t contribute.  

I’ve tried it all in regards to organizing classroom materials: group supplies, individual supplies, a hybrid approach, etc.

If you’re trying to figure out how to organize student supplies in your elementary classroom, this post is for you.

I break down the pros/cons of each situation plus offer practical solutions.

Community Supplies Pros and Cons

Utilizing a “community supplies” method of organizing classroom materials has its advantages and disadvantages.

Pros

  • There’s no hassle with labeling EVERY-SINGLE-ITEM with students’ names. Ideally, parents should do the labeling beforehand, but some don’t. You could send the materials back home for parents to label, but that’s time wasted and a battle you may not want to fight.
  • The teacher has more control over the amount of supplies given to students. No one student ends up with 5 glue sticks while another only has one.
  • Everyone has the same brand and type of thing. There’s minimal fighting over someone with a “special pencil” or “cool eraser”.
  • Materials can be strategically chosen and placed in caddies at the center of table groups during collaborative work. Students don’t have to waste work time digging around for individual supplies. Glue, scissors, extra pencils, and whatever else is needed for a particular lesson is in the caddy. It works well.
  • Maintaining a container of freshly-sharpened pencils is easy plus super practical. You don’t have to worry about who brought pencils and who didn’t. If a student needs a pencil, they just grab one and go.
  • At the beginning of the school year, some students arrive to school without supplies for various reasons. Community supplies mask the have and have-nots.

Cons

  • You’ll have that student whose family doesn’t contribute supplies but the child goes through pencils rather quickly. And then there’s the kid who breaks crayons or damages markers for no reason at all. They take and take but haven’t contributed. It can be frustrating not just for you but for the other families as well.
  • Parent complaints…there are those who work their butts off to buy supplies for their children. I completely understand when they feel some type of way when supplies need replenishing, realizing that they’ve purchased more than enough materials for their child. They don’t mind buying for their child, but if they know the supplies are combined, their perspective changes a little.

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community vs. individual classroom supplies

Individual Supplies Pros and Cons

The debate of community supplies vs. individual supplies isn’t complete without discussing the pros and cons of individual supplies.

For upper elementary students especially, I appreciate more the idea individual supplies.

Pros

  • What I love about individual supplies is that students are responsible for bringing and using their own resources. This is an important lesson for upper elementary students~being accountable for personal belongings.
  • With individual supplies, you’ll experience far fewer parent complaints. If you send a note home asking guardians to replenish supplies, they usually do so with little question because it’s for their child.
  • Students have an opportunity to have unique items such as special pencils or notebooks. As long as the materials aren’t distracting in any one, this idea is fine.
  • As the teacher, you don’t have to keep up with who has what item. When the student is out of supplies, they let you know, and you send a note home. Students are also in charge of storing and managing their materials, not the teacher.

Cons

  • As we all know, with individual supplies, there will be those students who don’t bring supplies. What do you do in this situation? This is when many teachers end up spending their own money to ensure learners have what they need. While that’s noble indeed (I did it a lot), as I look back, there were other options that I wish I had done instead. I share them below.
  • There are those parents who go the extra mile when purchasing school supplies. They buy an abundance of supplies or the most unique things for their child. These items sometimes end up being a distraction. At the other extreme, you have students who arrive with just the basics (perfect), or nothing at all. Those with nothing may feel sad or embarrassed.

Solutions to the Community Supplies vs. Individual Supplies Dilemma

Solution 1

Investigate whether your school has funds that can be used to buy a few extra supplies.

Teachers sometimes receive a small stipend for purchase of smaller classroom supplies.

Use that money to buy a few boxes of pencils, glue, 3-prong folders, loose-leaf paper, a few boxes of colored pencils, and a handful of one-subject or composition notebooks.

Solution 2

If you don’t work at at Title I school or a school that receives extra funding, during Open House, consider asking parents to donate money or contribute a small amount towards supplies.

Suggest a minimum of $5 or $10 but accept whatever they’re able to give.

Solution 3

I once taught in a private school that had this community supplies “problem” down to a science.

The school simply tacked on a “classroom supplies fee” to the annual tuition, and all supplies were delivered to teachers’ classrooms a few days before the first day of school.

If parents wanted their child to have something extra, the child brought those items to school themselves.

This system worked like a charm. I know this isn’t possible in most public schools, but it works well in independent schools.

Explaining Community Supplies to Parents

If you decide to do the community supplies method, it’s a good idea to communicate your intentions with parents upfront.

Before the school year begins, email parents and explain how the process will work.

It’s understandable if a few parents voice their concerns or don’t like the system, but sometimes it’s how you explain it to them that will create their buy-in.

Word your communication from the perspective of creating a more community-based classroom.

Some parents won’t buy it, but they may still go along with it out of respect.

People can disagree with something and still support it.

That would be a happy medium.

Organizing Student Supplies in the Classroom

Whichever method you choose, keeping those supplies well-organized will keep you sane.

For individual supplies, students simply store materials in their desks. Within their desks, they can put pencils, glue, and colored pencils in a pencil box.

I’ve also had students store their individual supplies in a pocket chart like the one below.

classroom organization ideas

Each student has a number and places pencils, erasers, crayons, and other light materials inside.  This pocket chart helps to keep their desks clutter-free.

Cubbies are another good option to store individual supplies. Even if you do community supplies, once you distribute each student’s portion, he or she can store materials in a personal cubby.

You can store all the extra supplies in your teacher closet, out of student reach. As needed, distribute items and keep an eye on what resources are getting low.

Wrapping Up

Community supplies vs individual supplies? At the end of the day, it’s a personal preference and depends on the needs of your class.

I personally love individual supplies for upper elementary students as it promotes responsibility and accountability.

This community supplies vs. individual supplies debate isn’t over I’m sure, but I hope this article gave you some insight as to how to best handle this situation.

Best