What Teachers Really Want

. December 1, 2015.

You’ve got the family holiday gifts taken care of, but you just remembered your kids’ teachers, coaches, and instructors might like a little holiday cheer as well. When you have multiple kids with multiple activities, it can seem a bit overwhelming. What do teachers really want? Is a gift card a great gift, or too generic? Is a teacher mug cute, or clutter?  I interviewed six teachers in different states, both men and women, from elementary to high school about the best and worst gifts they have received.

Gifts from the Heart

Eighth-grade South Carolina history teacher Ashley Cannon shared one of his favorite gifts from a student, “A photograph of Columbia after Sherman’s march. It was something I treasured and something I could use in my classroom.” Look for gifts that tap into a teacher’s interests; items that are both unique and useful are most appreciated.

Sarah Ford, a high school English teacher from Pennsylvania, received a gift that she still treasures today, “I had a student that had no money at all, but went to the Dollar Store and bought me an angel. She said it was because I was her angel and the reason she came to school. It was the most heartbreaking and healing thing anyone has ever done! I still put it on my tree for Christmas.” If your child picks something inexpensive but meaningful, it’s a great gift.

Gift Cards

What if you don’t know your child’s teacher well and you just can’t think of a personal gift? Don’t stress. The most appreciated gift on this informal survey was a simple gift card. Teachers love the flexibility to use as they wish. The teachers I interviewed loved gift cards from big-box stores, coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, office supply stores, iTunes, Amazon, and even gift cards for a massage. Basically, if you want to be sure your child’s teacher feels appreciated, you can’t miss with a gift card. It may be generic, but it is useful and appreciated. Check your district’s rules for gift-giving first, some schools have limits on what teachers can accept.

Gifts for the Classroom

You might lose the element of surprise, but ask the teacher if they have any books or other classroom items on their wish list. Making their classroom a richer environment benefits both the teacher and future students. As Nick Cherry, elementary teacher in Indiana put it, “Teachers can always use books.”

Bring a Teacher Lunch

While homemade food can be a little suspect, bringing a teacher a catered lunch can be the highlight of their year. Shanna Morgan, elementary school literacy coach in South Carolina mentioned that one of her favorite gifts was a catered lunch from a local cafe, served on fine china during her lunch break.

Gifts to Skip

The teachers I interviewed preferred not to receive knick-knacks, mugs, water bottles, or candles. They were also apprehensive about homemade foods, since they couldn’t be sure if they were safe or not (and some suffer from food allergy and couldn’t eat them anyway). The other items tended to become clutter, “Anything consumable is good. Think about all of the “stuff” a teacher may accumulate over years and years of teaching. It’s honestly burdensome to many,” noted Jenny Olsen, former elementary school teacher.

They also had great stories about gifts that were given with love, but might have missed the mark a bit. Ms. Morgan remembers a “half of a candy bar… but he did decide to share.” Ms. Ford recalled, “A bag from Victoria’s Secret. It was just hand lotion, but it was the most awkward thing to open in the history of gifts.” Jen Rohr, an elementary school teacher in Virginia, received a used candle as her funniest teacher gift. Mr. Cannon’s least favorite involved some suspicious looking candy made by a student which he tried and quickly tossed.

Stay in Budget

If you have multiple children and teachers to buy for, the cost of teacher gifts can escalate quickly. As much as we’d all love to give teachers a well-deserved fifty-dollar gift card to their favorite restaurant, that’s just not feasible in most family budgets. A five-dollar gift card and a thoughtful note show appreciation without breaking the bank.

Whether your time and budget allow for creative in-depth gifts or simple cards, teachers appreciate parents and students who take the time to say, “thank you.”

Sara Simeral is a freelance writer and mother to twin six-year olds.
This year she plans to buy gift cards for the twins' teachers and have the kids write special notes to each.