The Pencil Problem

In my recent post, “Confessions of a Schadenfraud,” I promised to tell you some stories of my epic failures so far in my new job.  A recent Twitter thread reminded me of a struggle that many teachers have – and I admit that I’ve been kind of “judgey” about it in the past.

 

pencil

Now the first thing, I should say is that, if you have a self-contained class, you probably have a great method that works for you to make sure that students always have the supplies they need.  I’m pretty sure that there is a mathematical formula that shows that the number of disappearing pencils in any given classroom is proportional to the number of students who move in and out of your classroom each day.

In my previous role as a pull-out teacher for gifted and talented students, the solution was simple.  No one brought anything to my class, and no one left with anything.  I provided the supplies, and they stayed there.  There were still a few that got sucked up by a Black Hole, but a few packs of pencils would usually last a month or two.

When I saw the frequent Twitter debates admonishing teachers for being frugal with pencils, I would usually shrug.  “What’s the big deal?  Just give the kid a pencil.  We all forget sometimes.”

No one told me that secondary students eat pencils.

At my new school, the students carry their backpacks everywhere (not my decision).  It does not seem unreasonable to expect that there might be a pencil or two included in the depths of these bags that often include contents like hand sanitizer, multiple earbuds, phones, smelly shoes, Takis, and slime.

Pencils, however, appear to be of low priority in the life of a teenager.

We keep a 3d printed pencil holder in the maker space next to the pencil sharpener.  I think it might hold maybe 24 pencils.  If we fill it at the beginning of the day, they are gone by the last period.

When I say, “gone,” I am including the ones that have been snapped in half and left carelessly on the floor.

Realizing that this was not a sustainable solution, but determined to have pencils available for those who needed them, I searched the web for ideas.  This particular one seemed viable.  I felt like a lot of students were forgetting they had borrowed pencils, and were leaving the room with them accidentally; this could solve that problem.

I  wrote, “Makerspace” on  8 bright orange cards, numbered them, duct taped them to popsicle sticks that I then duct taped to the pencils.

My co-teacher, who has been at the school for a few years, watched this process with amusement.

“You don’t think this is going to work, do you?” I asked.

“It could,” she said, without any conviction whatsoever in her voice.

Whether or not it “worked” depends on your definition of success in this area…

I explained to the students that I was not trying to embarrass them or make them stand out when they borrowed a pencil.  I also said that I knew they weren’t deliberately stealing them when they took them out of the room.  I just wanted the tags to remind them to put them back in the holder before they left.

During the first couple of days, only one pencil completely disappeared.  Though I was somewhat disturbed by the probable deliberate theft of a pencil, I considered this to be an overall victory.

My sense of accomplishment did not last long, however.

My big mistake, apparently, was to render the erasers of these pencils unusable.  Past experience had shown me that pencil erasers lasted even less time than pencils (the students like to pop them off just for fun, among other things) so I didn’t think it would be a big deal to cover them up.  Since most of our writing in the class wasn’t formal, I figured crossing things out would be fine.

Silly me.

“I can’t erase with this pencil,” one student complained.

“That’s okay.  Just cross out your mistake with a line.  No big deal.”

“But I don’t want to cross it out.  I want to erase it.”

“But, as you just pointed out, you can’t use the eraser on that pencil, so crossing it out is the next best thing,” I said.

“I don’t want to just cross it out,” was the stubborn answer.

“I guess you could ask a friend to borrow their eraser,” I suggested.

“That’s too much trouble,” she responded.

“Okay, I’m not sure what you want me to do.  If erasers are that important to you, maybe you could bring one tomorrow.” (As soon as I said that last sentence, I felt guilty.  Stupid Terri, maybe she can’t afford supplies!)

“Oh, I have one.  It’s in my backpack.”

“You. Have. An. Eraser. In. Your. Backpack?” I asked, allowing myself to be swept even further into this no-win conversation.  Her backpack was about 6 feet away from her.

“Yes, I have a pencil with an eraser in my backpack,” she said with obvious frustration at my slowness.  “But I’m not going to go get it.  That’s too much work.”

At this point, I decided this conversation was too much work and that I better go help another student before I lost my mind.

Of course, after the students switched classes that day, I found one of our labeled pencils snapped in half.  Which still didn’t make the eraser accessible, but I guess seemed easier than expressing her righteous anger in a more productive way.

After that, it took about two weeks for the rest of the pencils to disappear or spontaneously fracture into multiple pieces.  Certainly an improvement on our previous record, but disheartening anyway.  To give her credit, my co-worker, said, “They lasted longer than usual, at least,” instead of, “I told you so.”

Now I feel like a true idiot for criticizing teachers who made such a big deal about giving students pencils.  So many of us want to give the students the benefit of the doubt (they just forgot, some of them can’t afford them, etc…) – but we forget to give the teachers the benefit of the doubt.  Most of us aren’t crabby Mrs. Umbridges who expect our students to be perfect.  We walk the line between accommodating them and helping them to become more responsible every day.

By the way, as I explained in my Schadenfraud post, these stories are not meant to elicit sympathy or advice (trust me – I have thoroughly researched ways to solve the case of the evaporating pencils and there is no perfect solution).  My goal is for you to take pleasure in my mistakes, so you can be less judgmental of your own 🙂

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One thought on “The Pencil Problem”

  1. Your post really engaged me. I’m a seventh grade English teacher, have had a supply table every year that I have taught, and I have students whose job it is to count the supplies at the beginning and the end of the class to ensure that we have had all of them returned. I truly believe that it is so important to show the kids that I trust them and to share a little piece of me through my classroom every day. I also, with my own money, purchase bright pink pencils that say my name on them so that the students can be reminded that these are my pencils. If one goes away somehow, which does happen occasionally, sometimes students will come running back during the school day to tell me they found it in science or social studies or math. 🙂 It works well, and all the pencils are a bit pricey, I’ve Only gone through 24 in the entire semester. And we didn’t even lose all those. They just lost their erasers or got too small and had to be thrown out. I think it’s a wonderful little thing that shows eyecare and teaches them accountability for the little things.

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