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The Dos and Don’ts of Teacher Gifts

Published on: December 30, 2013


A good friend of mine spent the better part of a year organizing and packing up her aunt’s house. Her aunt, a well-loved teacher for more than 30 years, has an attachment  to everything she’s ever been given as a gift.

When I asked how it was going, my friend shook her head and said, “I’m never giving a teacher a candle again.” Aunt R’s gazillion unburned candles jockey for attention on her mantle, among paperweights and plaques, and a collection of World’s Best Teacher mugs large enough she can use a different one, every day, for a year, without doing dishes. That got me thinking. What do teachers and administrators want for an end-of-the-year goody? I asked around. Here are five things i learned.

1. Avoid food faux pas. Many parents are aware that after a long career educating children, a teacher can use only so many inspirational kitty posters and handy pencil cups, so they give consumables. But even gifts of food can miss the mark.  Unless you are really familiar with a teacher’s preferences (and dietary restrictions!), don’t make a gift of food. One of my son’s teachers is vegan, I believe, and the other doesn’t do sugar. I think. It’s best just to stay away from food unless it’s a big fruit basket for the staff room.

2. Gift cards, the gift that shows you care (kinda)... Gift cards to a local coffee shop — that one conveniently located near the school — utterly lack in the creativity and thoughtfulness departments, though shouldn't insult that vegan teacher. If there is a particularly nice grocery store in the neighborhood, you might get a gift certificate from there.  Or skip the food altogether and get a gift certificate for a local book store.

3. If it smells, rule it out. From expensive cheeses (see "Avoid food faux pas") to candles, lotions, bubble bath, sachets and soaps, it is a truism of teacher gift-giving that you won't get it right if it smells. Not everybody likes the same scent, and some people have allergies or are sensitive to perfumes, even natural ones. Sniff it and skip it.

4. Turn chaos into a collection. Ask your child if his teacher has a favorite “thing.” Many teachers decide on a theme, and become known for it. My son’s first grade teacher, for instance, had a thing for pigs — her room was full of them. She had pig stuffed animals, knick-knacks, sweatshirts, you name it. If your teacher has a very recognizable theme in the classroom, chances are it’s there for a reason — to direct the kids and their well-meaning parents in choosing gifts for them.

5. Don’t forget the office staff and the other teachers your child sees during the week. Does your son or daughter see a specialist at school? Is there a library, music, or PE teacher who deserves a thank you too? If you are unsure who is deserving, send something to the staff room.  Bring in a big fruit basket, an assortment of snacks, a bouquet of flower pens or a box of fun office supplies like colorful rubber-band balls or oversized pencils — just pick something inexpensive and playful, but useful. Have your kids make a thank you card and ask the teacher or the office admins to take it to the staff lounge.

6. Give them what they want: Handmade gifts from the heart. It’s probably not surprising, though, given the motivation one must have to go into education, that when I asked teachers and administrators at my kids’ school what they like to receive most, every single first response was: “Something the kids make.”

They love the cards, the paintings, the craft projects — smudges, goofs, misspellings and all. (Who wouldn’t love a crayon sign declaring you as “The World’s Best Pissable”?) Include a handwritten (because I’m old-fashioned) note to the teacher, thanking him or her for something specific they’ve done for your kiddo. These are the gifts teachers cherish — validation and recognition for their contribution to your child’s education and development. Taking the time to guide your kiddo in a heartfelt show of gratitude is worth a lot more than a latte or two from the local Starbucks. But of course, you can do both.

7. Summer reads? And a final idea that's a win-win: How about loading up a box with all those great trashy summer reads hanging around your house, plus a few new ones? Slap a sign on it that says something like “Enjoy a mindless summer! Thanks from the Smith Family,” and promise to pick up the box and any remaining books at the end of the week.

Emily Metcalfe Smith writes and lives in Edmonds and is sending a  grateful shout-out to the entire staff at Edmonds Elementary for their support and care of kids in this community.  You rock, EE!

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