American teachers are not particularly well-paid, but that doesn’t stop them from digging into their own pockets to buy supplies for their students.

Most professionals don’t have to pay out-of-pocket for essential work tools. But paying for essential school supplies is such a fixture of a teacher’s job that it’s recognized in the federal tax code: Teachers can deduct up to $250 for unreimbursed purchases of books, computers and other classroom essentials.

[House Republicans want to give teachers a break]

The deduction hardly means that teachers recoup their costs: The average U.S. teacher spends about $500 of their own money to outfit their classrooms each year, and one in 10 teachers says he or she spends more than $1,000 each year, according to the National School Supply and Equipment Association.

Lots of times, teachers do this quietly, without fanfare or thanks. But earlier this month talk show host Ellen DeGeneres highlighted the hidden sacrifices of the nation’s teachers with a surprise for Meghan Bentley, a Virginia second-grade teacher. A correspondent for the show showed up on Bentley’s doorstep bearing a heap of prizes — one of every gift that the show had awarded during its “12 Days of Giveaway” promotion in December, including a $2,000 Visa card, gift cards to Target and Whole Foods, a Chrome book and a flat screen television.

“I love teachers,” DeGeneres said by telephone from the set of her show. “You go above and beyond, and you pay for things out of your own pocket when you can’t even afford to do things for yourself, which is an amazing thing you’re doing, and we love that about you.”

Bentley, 24, couldn’t stop smiling and squealing and clapping her hands over her mouth. “Oh my gosh,” she said. “Thank you so much.”

More than a half-dozen of Bentley’s co-workers were there to help deliver the surprise. DeGeneres gave each of them a $1,000 Target gift card, too. “You all go above and beyond for your students as well,” she said.

Bentley, who teaches at Frederick Douglass Elementary in Loudoun County, told DeGeneres that she and her husband had decided not to give presents this Christmas because they are trying to pay off their student loans and other debt in order to start a family.

Loudoun is one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, but there are plenty of poor families living alongside the affluent, and more than one-third of the students at Frederick Douglass qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.

[Number of homeless students in U.S. has doubled since before the recession]

Bentley told the Loudoun Times-Mirror that she would use many of the gift cards she received from DeGeneres to pay for classroom supplies. She also told the newspaper that all teachers deserve the recognition that she received.

“Not just me, but all teachers in general buy things that the students don’t have and can’t get,” she said. “That’s what you do as a teacher. You step up and you fill the need when you see it.”

[Students: Bring your own copier paper, cleaning supplies, tissues …]