Most teachers pay almost $500 to set up their classroom. This viral campaign aims to change that.

An online campaign named #ClearTheList is spreading on Instagram to help people pitch in to stock a teacher’s classroom for the start of the school year.
Image: Courtney Jones
Courtney Jones, a 4th grade teacher in Texas, is helping other teachers #ClearTheList so they don't have to face the financial burden of setting up their classrooms.Courtney Jones

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By Alyssa Newcomb

A viral campaign is using social media to help teachers around the country stock their classrooms with supplies for the start of the school year, instead of having to spend their own money.

Courtney Jones, an elementary school teacher in Tyler County, Texas, spends part of her summer getting ready for the upcoming school year. That includes attending professional development courses on her own time, and then spending her own money getting her classroom ready.

Jones teaches fourth grade math and third, fourth and fifth grade gifted students, which means she has at least 120 students to keep track of this school year. With that comes the expense of purchasing books for the classroom library, plus binders, planners and other items not covered by the school district.

“Most of us are constantly learning and we don’t enjoy our summers too much,” Jones told NBC News. “We are always trying to better ourselves. A lot of times funding or lack thereof stands in our way. It’s no secret that teacher salaries are quite low, but couple that with a lack of resources to provide supplies and we get boxed in a bit.”

This year, Jones, who is in her third year of teaching, decided to put the power of social media to work to help her fellow teachers #ClearTheList of supplies they need to start the school year. The campaign started on Facebook, migrated to Twitter, and ultimately took off with the help of celebrities and influencers on Instagram who adopted a few wish lists to share with their followers.

The typical educator spends at least $479 of their own money to stock their classroom, according to data from the most recent National Teacher and Principal Survey, which was conducted by the Department of Education for the 2015-2016 school year. Jones said that estimate seems to be on the lower end and that first-year teachers she knows have spent $2,500 stocking their classrooms with the essentials.

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“On July 1, I created a small Facebook group called ‘Support a Teacher’ and in about a week’s time we grew beyond 10,000 members. In two weeks, we had 20,000,” Jones said. “Mainly it was teachers to teachers. I said we need to get the public involved, so I said let’s go to Twitter. So we used the hashtag #ClearTheList.”

During the first week on Twitter, Jones said the campaign raised more than $60,000 after the hashtag got picked up by celebrities with large followings. Then the movement found a place on Instagram.

The total cost to clear all the lists posted by teachers is around $1.3 million, one charity estimated.

“I wanted people to be able to see what is being gifted. Instagram popped up,” Jones said. “These teachers were like, ‘Hey a lot of influencers are clearing our lists.’ It grew from that. All in all, Instagram was the last thing to take off but it was amazing to go there and see the pictures of the gifts and classroom photos. It’s a little more intimate.”

Mackenzie Mattoon, a sixth grade teacher in Mesa, Arizona, said getting started for the school year is expensive for most teachers. She’s already spent at least $600 of her own money on everything from storage for her classroom to paper so she can make enough copies for the 140 students she sees every day.

“I’ve even bought subscriptions to websites that make learning language arts and math a little more fun through music,” she said. “Could I go without those things? Sure, but at whose expense? It boils down to the kids and doing in my heart what is best for them.”

While the #ClearTheList campaign has already made a huge impact for teachers, there are still plenty more teachers who would appreciate the generosity of strangers on the internet.

“About 2,000 lists have been submitted through our page waiting to be fulfilled,” said Jones. She partnered with Donors Choose, a nonprofit helping classrooms, which estimated the total cost to clear the lists is around $1.3 million, she said.

People who want to help can go to DonorsChoose.org/clearthelists to make a general donation or find a specific item they’d like to purchase. They can also search the hashtag on Instagram.

“Teachers work hard, sometimes tirelessly sacrificing time and resources from our own families,” Mattoon said. “I know I speak for all teachers when I say a little bit makes all the difference, not only in our lives, but the lives of those they love and teach.”