Oklahoma teacher panhandles to raise money for school supplies

Teresa Danks is a third-grade teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

ByABC News
July 25, 2017, 8:26 AM

— -- An Oklahoma teacher frustrated by having to dig into her own pocket to pay for classroom supplies took to panhandling to get her point across.

Teresa Danks, 50, of Claremore, Oklahoma, has spent the summer shopping at garage sales and thrift stores to stock her third-grade classroom with supplies for next year. A conversation with her husband last week about the money she was spending on her classroom sparked a bigger idea.

“My husband and I were just talking that morning and he kind of jokingly said, ‘You could always make a sign and go on the corner like the panhandlers,’” Danks, a classroom teacher for the past 12 years, told ABC News. “I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to do that. That’s a great idea.’”

Danks, a teacher for Tulsa Public Schools, wrote on a poster board, “Teacher Needs School Supplies! Anything Helps.” She held the sign for about 10 minutes at a busy intersection and, despite her nerves, was shocked by the positive response.

“It just felt so scary,” she said of the moment. “But it was a wonderful feeling to hear people being so supportive of teachers.”

She added, “The one that choked me up the most was a girl in her 20s who said, ‘Teachers like you are the reason I’m alive today.’”

Danks -- who said she makes an annual salary of around $35,000 and spends nearly $2,000 of her own money each year on her classroom -- collected around $50 in cash. She posted a photo of herself on Facebook that went viral and drew the attention of a local news station.

When she went back out with her sign later that day with news cameras in tow, Danks, who described her elementary school students as mostly low-income, collected another $50.

“What started just for me to get supplies in my classroom and help my students has really grown much greater than myself,” said Danks, who has since started a GoFundMe page and a Facebook page titled “Begging for Education.”

PHOTO: Teacher Teresa Danks is photographed on a Tulsa, Oklahoma, street with a sign asking for donations to buy school supplies for her students.
Teacher Teresa Danks is photographed on a Tulsa, Oklahoma, street with a sign asking for donations to buy school supplies for her students.

Oklahoma has faced education budget cuts that even the Tulsa Public Schools superintendent, Deborah Gist, acknowledges. The cuts have forced some teachers to search for jobs elsewhere, she said.

“There are a lot of things we do to mitigate the costs [for teachers] but unfortunately it’s tough everywhere and it’s tough in Oklahoma especially,” Gist told ABC News. “I actually left the state about 30 years ago to teach in Texas for the same reason that many teachers leave Oklahoma to teach in other states now.”

She added, “What we’re trying to do is to make sure the awesome people who make the commitment to stay are having a wonderful experience. Of course we need to pay them more, but we also need to make sure they have the tools and resources they need to be successful.”

Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said teachers across the U.S. anecdotally spend around $450 of their personal money each year on school supplies. Teachers in Oklahoma, however, spend "on the higher side" of that average, she said.

"It should shock and sadden us all that it has come down to a teacher having to go out on a street corner and ask for money so that the students in the classroom get what they need to succeed, but more power to her," said Priest, whose organization is Oklahoma's "largest professional organization for education professionals," according to its website. "Teachers have always bought supplies that they wanted to decorate their rooms but in Oklahoma within the last five years, with the funding cuts that we’ve taken, its things like textbooks and library books and graphing calculators."

Danks said the school supplies she pays for on her own include classroom staples like disinfectant wipes but also the extra items that will allow for hands-on projects and “excellence” in her classroom.

“If I’m doing something on the solar system, I’m wanting to build rocket ships with paper towel tubes or make planets with Styrofoam balls,” Danks said. “When you multiply that by 20 to 30 kids it gets expensive.”

Across the country teachers have gotten creative to help pay for classroom resources for their students, turning to sites like DonorsChoose.org. The nonprofit helps public school teachers request much-needed materials like books, technology, field trip experiences and more for students that can then be fulfilled through donations online. Teachers at 76 percent of public schools in America have posted projects on their platform, and requests worth up to $50 million have been fulfilled in 2017 alone, including $1 million in projects in Oklahoma. Of the 900,000 requests from teachers, more than half are for books and basic classroom supplies, according to the website.

Last year, Tulsa residents contributed to a multi-million dollar campaign that resulted in $279 given to each teacher for supplies, according to Gist, who applauds Danks’ efforts.

“I think what our teacher has done here is to [speak out] in a way that not only helps her with extra money for her classroom but makes a point,” Gist said. “She is getting to a really serious need and I think that’s a pretty smart thing to do.”

Danks describes being a teacher as “literally walking on a stage and performing all day” and said that requires “a lot of supplies.”

While she wants her message of better funding to ultimately reach legislators across the country, Danks hopes people will stop and think locally about what they can do to help teachers.

“What I hope they take away is that the education of our children is important to our future so it needs to be important to everyone,” she said. “I would say go to your local schools and find out what they need.”

She continued, “It could be as simple as getting them a bean bag chair or a border for their bulletin boards, but we need the community to help us step up and educate our children because they are our future leaders.”

Danks, whose GoFundMe page has raised nearly $13,000, announced today on "Good Morning America" that she is starting a foundation to "get supplies into the hands of teachers across America."

She was surprised on "GMA" with a $3,000 check for school supplies from coupon company RetailMeNot.

"I wanted to do something to make a difference," Danks said of her decision to hold a sign on the road. "I didn’t know it was going to make this big of a difference, but I’m glad it did."