Tools of the Teaching Trade

03/07/2024

by Victoria Ritter

 

For Julie Burczyk, learning is not confined within a classroom. As a lifelong learner, she has come to appreciate the lessons that life has given her, including those she learned when she opened Tools 4 Teaching, an educational supply store in Evansville, IN.

 

The teacher becomes the student

Burczyk taught kindergarten and third grade for 10 years prior to opening her store. At the time, the local teaching store had been closed for two years. The next closest retailer, which was 45 minutes away, had just announced it was closing its doors. “People in the teaching industry were disappointed that there wouldn’t be any local places available to shop,” Burczyk recalled.

Seeing the need for a supply store, Burczyk quit her job in December 2016. The following April, she opened Tools 4 Teaching with her mom. While she didn’t have any retail or business knowledge, Burczyk put her experience as a teacher and mother to work as she hit the ground running.

“It’s definitely been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” Burczyk said, as she compared the business to raising another kid. “It’s also been one of the hardest because you’re literally building from the ground up. There’s no floor plan or blueprint. You’re just figuring it out as you go – it’s fun, exciting and scary all at once.

“It was one of those things where you realize you’re never done learning,” she added. “I always taught my students that we’re all lifelong learners. Opening my store put that into perspective.”

When Burczyk first opened Tools 4 Teaching, one of the biggest challenges was overcoming the misconception that it was geared toward just school teachers. The store’s moniker is meant to reflect the wide breadth of teaching.

“Anyone can teach,” Burczyk explained. “Yes, school teachers do it daily and they do it phenomenally, but it’s not only teachers who are educating kids. It can be the grandparents, parents, other family members, neighbors, church members. It takes a village.”

 

Set up for success

Situated in the southern tip of Indiana, Tools 4 Teaching is short drive from Illinois and Kentucky. It has about a two-hour radius between other educational supply outlets.

“In the summer we’ll have teachers drive two, two and a half hours to come see us,” Burczyk said, adding store sees its highest traffic during the summer. “We’re blessed with the fact that we’re in an area that pools from a large section of geographical locations.”

Tools 4 Teaching is staffed by Burczyk, her husband who joined in 2022 and four part-time employees. All employees have classroom experience; some even taught in the same school. Burczyk believes that their teaching history – which is more than 100 years combined – allows them to effectively help customers.

The business has a footprint of nearly 10,000 square feet. Most of the building is dedicated to retail, while some smaller areas include a warehouse, multi-purpose room and tutoring spaces.

The front of the store is laid out by category, covering arts and crafts, games and puzzles. Each shelf is organized by age. There is also a baby boutique section for ages birth to 12 months, and then the 12 to 18 months section which is segmented by fine motor tools, bath toys, vehicles, dolls and play buildings. A Lego display divides the front half of the building from the back half and educational area.

The perimeter of the educational section is lined with a selection of decoration supplies while aisles are organized by school subjects. There are additional areas for religious products, clearance items and a demo play space. “We have areas throughout the store where we encourage kids to play,” Burczyk said. “We have demos set out, games, a train table and areas where kids are encouraged to touch, see and feel products.”

There are almost 9,000 products available at Tools 4 Teaching, supplied by 163 different vendors. Burczyk orders all of the store’s inventory, selecting items that are appealing to different types of learners. Items may have a sensory aspect, help hone fine motor skills or encourage cooperative play.

Popular brands include Teacher Created Resources, Eureka, tonies, Fat Brain Toys, Creative Teaching Press, MindWare, Magna-Tiles and PlayMonster.

“There’s a story behind all the products we sell,” Burczyk stated.

“There’s always an educational component or it’s well made from a trusted vendor and has an accessible price point.”

Burczyk conducts market research by listening to customers’ needs and requests, watching for emails from sales reps and attending trade shows. Currently, Tools 4 Teaching attends ECRM, Astra Marketplace & Academy, Toy Fair in New York and virtual shows. Burczyk also keeps abreast of current trends such as social emotional learning, sensory play and creative play away from electronic screens.

“Of all of the nearly 9,000 items we have in store, we maybe have 10 things that use batteries,” she said. “I want kids to be able to creatively play with a toy and figure out its purpose without somebody else telling them what that purpose is.”

Customers can view the offerings at Tools 4 Teaching on its website, tools4teaching.biz. About 70 percent of items carried in the store is listed online. Burczyk reported that 10 percent of their revenue come from online sales. For the most part, patrons use the website to conduct research on available products before visiting in-person. “The nice thing is our website is updated in real time,” Burczyk observed. “If we don’t have a product in stock, it’s not listed on our website.”

 

Community, classes and care

Burczyk is excited to see how the store continues to attract new customers. Tools 4 Teaching’s customer base is mainly women, but welcomes all ages. Kids stop in to purchase items with allowance money. Parents and relatives look for birthday and holiday presents. Teachers rely on the store for classroom decorations and school supplies. The store also attracts a large home school audience.

“Word of mouth is our best friend. People trust the judgement of those closest to them,” Burczyk said. “Every customer who walks through the door is a blessing.”

It’s not only the products that bring customers through the door. Tools 4 Teaching provides a wide array of services, programs and events throughout the year.

In addition to lamination services, teachers and parents can take advantage of free tutoring rooms. The rooms double as a place for teachers to provide weekend hours as well as a safe space for therapy sessions. “Both of my kids have special needs, so we do a lot with the local therapy offices,” Burczyk explained.

As a former teacher, Burczyk understands how easily learning loss happens over the summer break. To help kids retain their learning skills, she hosts a summer reading program and Science Fridays (which becomes Science Saturdays in the school year). For an hour, kids ages 3 years and up can participate in hands-on learning with experiments and crafts.

Burczyk believes that the in-store community events further set Tools 4 Teaching apart from other stores. Past events have included an Easter egg hunt, visits with Santa, Toy Testing and Halloween party. Every event is capped in order to provide the best experience possible to kids and are free to attend. “From the very beginning, one of the main precedents was that all of our events held at the store are free,” Burczyk said. “I don’t want income to be a reason why people can’t attend.”

Looking ahead, Burczyk hopes to continue supporting the community, increase the store’s reach and grow its audience and provide opportunities to all types of teachers. “If I know that I’m fulfilling the needs of the community and helping get quality toys for kids, it’s a good feeling at the end of the day.”

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