Thriving as a Special Educator Tip #1: Getting Stuff for Free

Stop spending your own money! People want to give special educators money for their students-- you just need to know where to look! That's what this post focuses on-- getting stuff for free.

Thriving Tip: Get Supplies for your Special Education Classroom for Free!


So you know how when you file taxes and get that tiny, pathetic little $200 credit for being a teacher and you think, “I wish!” Wouldn’t it be amazing if you didn’t have to just wish, if you could really just spent $200 a year on your classroom? So like, I don’t actually know how to do that. But I do know how to get some stuff for free or at least a steep discount.


Before we start, background. About half my teaching career was spent supporting students with behavioral challenges. That made me a big believer in positive reinforcement and school stores (more on how to build a killer store later!). I built my store with a lot of things that don’t cost money, like coupons for sitting on the teacher’s chair– but I also wanted to put real stuff in my store and that cost money. After emptying my bank account for random store stuff from Oriental Trading Company (I am old okay? Don’t judge. I get that most of you have probably never used their catalogs, much less actually bought from a PAPER catalog….) and of course the absolutely amazing and adorable stuff I totally had to have for my bulletin board and the stuff I wanted for my students’ desks and the art I wanted for my room and… and…. And… I realized there was a major problem. I was spending all of my discretionary money on my classroom and not the amazing shoe collection I wanted to build. So I started to get creative. Some of this is stuff I learned way back then and some of it is stuff I didn’t know about until I was teaching pre-service teachers and it appeared on a syllabus I was supposed to teach from. Totally not fair that they learned about grants in training and I learned about them as their professor. Not that I am bitter about how much money I spent that I didn’t need to. Not at all. I also think limes taste sweet and denial is a river in Texas (or however that one goes– sayings aren’t my strength). Anyhow, onto the substance of this post. 


Here is what I have learned about getting stuff for free as a special education teacher. Note, most of this applies for any teacher, but let’s be real. Special education teachers have a special gift for having a sob story in their pocket that can loosen purse strings (and if you don’t have one yet, get working on it! Stop spending your money!).


Did I miss any? What else should be on this list? Let me know!

Getting the Big and Fun Stuff for Free

  • Donors Choose
    • Why:  You can sign up to get any classroom or school projects you want funded from funding a party to TPT gift cards to building a school garden.
    • The catch:  There is none! You need cute pictures (if your students have media releases and have parents who are okay, use them!) and a compelling story for why you want the stuff.
    • How to get it:  Fill out the form and tell your story!
  • Adopt a Classroom
    • Why:  It works. Projects get funded. I got new rugs, educational games, bean bags and a whole bunch more within a year.
    • The catch:  It used to be that you needed to buy through one of their vendors to ensure that there is no fraud– that  means you get what you signed up for exactly. So don’t buy that product while you wait! And there can be a time lag too.
    • How to get it:  Sign up your classroom and tell a good story! It really works. 
  • Target Gift Cards
    • Why:  Target has a lot of the supplies you need for your school or classroom and they give away money to local nonprofits
    • The catch:  Most stores have a limited amount to give out per year. Bring in proof of the school’s nonprofit status (front office should have that) and find someone to talk to so you can get ahead of the rush for the next cycle
    • How to get it:  Bring in the non-profit information and find someone at your local store to help!

Free School Supplies for Students and Your Classroom

  • Supply a Teacher
    • Why: You can get two large boxes of school supplies for students for free!
    • The catch: You need to have a high percentage of students on FRPL to qualify
    • How to get it: Do the application
  • Wishing Well
    • Why:  You can create a wish list of supplies you want and see who comes through and funds them
    • The catch:  All teachers, regardless of what and where they teach, can apply. The site also seems to sell school supplies but you don’t have to buy to sign up. I don’t think their reach is as large as some of the other sites so they expect you to do a bit more in terms of outreach.
    • How to get it:  Create a list on their site.
    • Why:  You can get supplies for close to free, just paying a small processing fee. They are a non profit so the fees are really small!
    • The catch:  You can only shop from what they have and most things are not totally free, just close! Also, the selection is not really geared at schools so you can get stuff to supplement your classroom, but not replace the big box store run.
    • How to get it: Apply for their teacher’s program
  • Local programs

Free Books for Students and Your Classroom

  • Diverse Books Library
    • You can get $2000 to buy diverse books for your library.
  • Dolly Parton Imagination Library
    • The books are for children under five, but you can sign up your students’ families and get books in the home for the little ones! Help parents sign up their children and get books in the home
  • Reading is Fundamental
    • They are a great organization getting books in the hands of students. They run free book fairs and partner with many different organization to offer a wide range of free books for students. 
  • Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries
    • A librarian has to do the application but they give away millions to fund school libraries
  • First Book Marketplace
    • You pay shipping but the books are donated. You place an order and then give the books away to students at your schools.
  • Literacy Empowerment Foundation
    • They will ship you free books from their selection as the books are available
  • Book Trust
    • They let you get books from Scholastic once you sign up and do their training
  • Kids Need to Read
    • Go to donations, request books, and fill out their form to see what books you can get for your library or your students!

Stocking a Store or Prize Box for Free (or Cheap!)

  • Yard sales or garage sales
      • Why: Things are cheap. Duhh.
      • What to get: Don’t underestimate your students. Yes, they like kid stuff but they all have families and siblings who they need to get gifts for and rooms they want to decorate. 
      • Weird story: I bought this creepy, weird hard plastic cat doll with mangy hair and demonic eyes on a dare from a friend. I put it in my store and it was the first item to sell. The student’s eyes lit up when he saw it and he hugged it the rest of the day. I had to apologize to his mother after school.
      • Cute story: Right before mother’s day, my supply of picture frames and purses sold out students went on quests for a gift that they could actually afford for their moms. School money might be fake to us, but for students without a lot, that is real money they can use to buy the real things they need. 
      • How to get stuff for free: Most people doing yard sales aren’t in it for real money. Talk to the people running it. Tell cute stories about your students and explain what you are doing. I got an entire bag of free games for my classroom and another one of stuffed animals by doing that. Church sales are the best for this. In one weekend and maybe four sales, I spent a total of $20 and had enough stuff for my store for the next few months.
  • Thrift stores
      • Same principle. No stories. Harder to get discounts, but is possible at small ones. The chain ones don’t ever seem to do discounts.
    • Your friends and closet
      • Why: Because everyone has stuff they want to get rid of and it is obviously free.
      • What to get: Anything that might be useful for your students or interesting. Baby toys for example are a hit among students who have younger siblings and costume jewelry among students who want gifts. Art supplies are always a hit as are old books. Weirdly, men’s ties used to sell well for me as kids always think those make good gifts. When I gave my dad one as a kid he “accidentally” drove over it four times in the mud. He is not a tie wearer. Despite this, ties were a hit in my store.
      • Weird story: I had a parent look at me during an IEP once and say we were the same size and could I give her my extra clothing. She then told another teacher she was starting work as a dancer and I had a lot of questions about how I was dressing for work. I passed on that one.
      • Cute story: The teachers at my school brought in clothing their children had outgrown and from their friends so that we had a donation box at school, sorted by size. That way if something went wrong (aka a child had an accident), we had clothing and we could also donate them to families as needed. 
  • Any place giving out free supplies from bags to pencils
      • Why: School supplies are always popular. You want to make sure the branding won’t get you in trouble, but if not, it’s a lot cheaper than buying stuff on Amazon
      • What to get: Anything school related.
      • Cute story: I had a student who wanted to give me a gift so she brought me a precious pen from her mom’s work for me to use at school. It was an… evocative… Viagra pen. I decided discretion was the best part of valor and didn’t tell her very proper mom. 
  • Classroom coupons & word searches
    • Coupons for teacher’s chair, writing in pen, and so on are free to you and popular! More on that later….

Random Free Stuff

  • National Gallery of Art
    • They will send you free posters of famous paintings for your classroom
  • AIAA
    • They will provide free STEM materials and equipment for your classroom
  • VOYA Unsung Heroes
    • They provide a small number of teachers with several thousand dollars for innovative programming
  • EKG Mini Grants
    • These are aimed at schools and libraries to fund new programs
  • Casey’s
    • They will even help with capital improvements for the school
  • Association of American Educators
    • They fund a very, very small number of  the applications they receive but have money
  • Wal Mart
    • Like Target, they have money for schools but it is more tied to programs like tutoring. Here again it is worth bringing in the non-profit letter and meeting with a manager to understand what they fund in your community
  • Dollar General
    • Dollar General funds books for schools and literacy programs
  • Mr. Holland’s Opus
    • Funds music programs and instruments in a few schools

Where else to look:

These sites have more information on grants and money granting organizations

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