POST FALLS — It's easy for teachers to forget about themselves when they’re given opportunities to improve their classrooms.
Ponderosa Elementary School second-grade teacher Danielle Power immediately wanted to buy snacks and clothing for her students when she was recently approached by a new nonprofit that wants to make life a little easier for teachers.
Joel Wasserman, co-founder of the Washington-based Teacher Fund, asked Power to think about what she needed to build her dream classroom. What equipment, what tools, what supplies would help make this classroom dream come true?
"He said, 'You have no budget. Just make me a list,'" Power said Monday. "They bought everything. I was in utter shock."
Headphones, yoga balls, sensory items, books and a shelf with a drawer were big needs for Power's classroom.
"It makes you feel like you matter,” Power said. "I think a lot of times, teaching is a job you don't get very much out of. You get joy and happiness and seeing kids grow, things that aren't money. There are some days you think, 'I don't matter, no one cares.'"
But when students go out into the world and come back to show their support, "it makes you feel good that somebody who's been out of school for that long wants to give back," she said.
For Wasserman, a 2012 Coeur d'Alene High School graduate, this gift was simply a token of appreciation to reciprocate the kindness of those who helped him on his path to becoming a successful software engineer at Google in Seattle.
"We figured it was about time to give back or pay it forward," he said.
The Teacher Fund formed about nine months ago after Wasserman and colleagues/co-founders Christine Woeller of Coeur d'Alene, a 2011 CHS grad, and Amazon software engineer Pete Squicciarini decided it was time to step in and stand up for public school educators, especially new ones whose classrooms are bare. He said in 2015, a statistic circulated that a whopping 94 percent of teachers paid for classroom supplies using their own money. That couldn’t be ignored.
It's not uncommon for North Idaho teachers to have building budgets of just $100 for a school year. This amount may slightly increase depending on the fundraising and donors that contribute, but Power said at most she estimates teachers might receive up to $175 in a school year for classroom needs. With an average salary of $30,000 in a school that’s not as well off as others in the area, Ponderosa teachers stretch dollars and work extra to raise money at events like the upcoming Halloween Carnival.
"It's never anything extravagant," she said. "I end up buying 75% to 80% of everything in my classroom."
Wasserman, who graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill after leaving Coeur d'Alene, said the mission of The Teacher Fund was to make public education better for the teachers. The organization already has a pool of donors and its 501(c)(3) status from the IRS — which makes gifts to it tax-deductible — is pending.
"I've always felt like teaching has been underappreciated, whether that’s financially or otherwise," he said. "Over the past few years, I’ve had a growing passion to make public school teaching more desirable."
At big tech companies like Google, employees enjoy a variety of perks. Google is famous for providing its employees with free meals, gym memberships, massage therapists, ample parental leave and much more.
This got Wasserman and his colleagues thinking about the selfless and hard-working teachers who helped them get to where they are.
"I kept thinking, 'Why do these perks not exist for a career that is far more valuable than my career?' Which is teaching,'" he said. "Nobody is saying, 'We should pay teachers less.' It's not an argument you have to win."
Ponderosa has been chosen as The Teacher Fund pilot site, so Wasserman and crew will be checking in with the school to help more teachers in the future. This initial $3,000 gift was split between Power, fifth-grade teacher Shavon Young and music teacher Elaine Olp.
"It's really nice for somebody to think about the teachers. You feel really appreciated. It makes you realize how far your reach is as a teacher,” Power said. "They still remember their teachers. It makes you feel like, 'Wow, I am doing something good, I will be remembered for the things that I’ve done,' and there are people who care."