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Holiday Gift-Giving to Teachers: Notes from the Field

By Jill Davidson

cup-popup.jpgSince my oldest son started day care 10 years ago, our family has given over 25 “happy holidays/thank you for everything” gifts to our three kids’ various wonderful teachers. Sometimes we contributed to a collective, class-wide gift. That’s a great way to go when an energetic parent or well-established parent association handles the work of collecting contributions. But often, we’re on our own, or we want to give a little extra personal something above and beyond the class gift. We’ve done it all: homemade food, plants, candles, notes from the kids, artwork, gift certificates for manicures, framed photos of the class in action, fruit baskets, soaps, gift cards to local bookstores, even a fancy collar for one teacher’s beloved dog. All were received with gratitude, but I wonder which gifts really hit the mark as the best expression of our appreciation for teachers’ hard work, caring, and professional skills.

I decided to check in with a few teachers to get their take on the gifts that come their way from their students at this time of year. Many teachers suggested coffee shop gift cards (full disclosure: every single teacher I talked with spoke fondly of Dunkin Donuts gift cards!). Sandy Riojas, a 30-year teacher veteran and current fifth grade teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School in Providence, recalled, “One of my students gave me a Dunkin Donuts card with a note about how he and his mom and I see me with coffee every morning. I appreciated the thoughtfulness. They took note of what means a lot to me.”

Many teachers also appreciate gift cards from office supply stores and other places that allow them to give back to their own classrooms. Catherine Davis Hayes, a visual arts educator at Oakland Beach Elementary School in Warwick, has been teaching for 19 years and was 2007’s Rhode Island Teacher of the Year. Hayes takes a practical approach, noting, “Places like Staples are great. Teachers are always spending their own money on lots of extra stuff for the classroom.” You may also want to consider making your gift meaningful for your school’s fundraising efforts as well by giving a gift card from Target or another store that gives a percentage of sales back to the school. If your school participates in a rewards program like Great Lakes Scrip, you can purchase gift certificates (Scrip) at face value for places like Stop & Shop, Shaw’s, Border’s. Land’s End, Friendly’s, etc.) while earning cash back for our school.

Above all, use this time of year to take a few moments–which does not have to mean spending a few dollars–to express your thanks. Sandy Riojas fondly remembered a box of cookies made by a student and his mother–a single mom with two jobs. “I appreciated that they took time to do this together as a family as much as I appreciated the cookies themselves,” she said. Homemade baked goods are also a great way to thank the staff members who work in the school office and the janitorial staff–those people who support kids’ learning and safety in countless ways every day.

Everyone emphasized that the thought, not the expense, counts the most. Sensitive to their students’ economic situations and levels of family support, teachers say that they treasure written thank you notes from their students and their families. Take some time with your children to find out what they are enjoying about their teachers and help them share those specifics in a card and through artwork. Write for your younger children and if you can, work with your older children to help them find and write their own words about what they have learned and what they value. And take time to add your own thoughts and appreciation. A few words of thanks can transform a dark December afternoon after a long day at school into a magical moment of light and satisfaction for a hard-working teacher.

Mom to Elias, Leo, and Henry, Jill Davidson is the co-president of Providence’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization and works on education issues nationally as the publications director of the Coalition of Essential Schools.

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  • Great “inside tips” Jill! LOVE the “Compliment Journal” idea Michelle! I’ve watched my sister, a school teacher, and now a Principal, bring home many, many gifts through the years. She was the most enthusiastic about things like gift cards to bookstores and other fun stores. This year, we have decided to make a contribution in each of the teacher’s names (Art, Spanish and 2 classroom teachers) to the organization “The Girl Effect” http://www.girleffect.org, an org that works to help girls rise to success in developing countries. I think that this will mean a lot to her teachers, as they are strong advocates for education and womens’ rights. Happy holidays all!

  • My husband is a school teacher. Most of his students come from very poor families and it is agonizing when someone gives him a present like a cut glass chess set or other fancy, frivolous thing. Usually he gets nothing. His favorite thing to get is a card.

    As a parent, I am so grateful to the classroom parents who organize a class gift. Usually it seems they get gift cards to Target or a bookstore. I love it that no one knows who contributed or how much. Then we can give our own card or little box of cookies and feel like the job is done.

  • Hey Jill,
    It’s that time of year again. I thought I’d share a gift idea (that my kids and I have been doing since pre-school) that combines the personal thank you note and the the gift. I buy a small, pretty journal, and write on the inside cover that this is “Mrs. Jones’ Compliment Journal”, with a note inviting her to add to it throughout the year, whenever someone gives her a compliment. Of course, I then write the first (heartfelt and gushing) compliment. The teachers always love it.The kids are old enough this year to add their own compliments.

    A friend gave me one of these, and I enjoy it all year to reflect on people’s kind words. It is a great feeling to read all the nice things people have said about me over time. It’s a definite “feel good” gift that doesn’t cost much at all.