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Gifts for Teachers: Dos, Don’ts and Maybes

Need some great gift ideas for your child's teacher? Here are some teacher-approved suggestions!

By A Little Birdie | Posted on November 14, 2017 in Gift Ideas


Scented gifts tend not to be among the most popular - most folks have strong opinions about fragrances.

Scented gifts tend not to be among the most popular - most folks have strong opinions about fragrances.
© Little Birdie Me

Giving a gift to your teacher is a long-standing practice in many parts of the United States and in other countries around the world. That said, it’s a tradition that seems to have been picking up steam in recent years. Our evidence is only anecdotal, but a quick poke around on the internet turns up a wide range of related links, from Pinterest boards treating on gift ideas, to Etsy vendors specializing in teacher-related gifts, to articles listing all sorts of suggestions. There’s a lot of good material out there – from common sense dos and don’ts, to clever gift ideas – but we thought we’d do a bit of original research and go straight to the source.

We remember buying gifts for our teachers as children but, admittedly, that was a little while back - and, since we figured the teacher’s perspective is most valuable here, we checked in with a dear friend who has been teaching for 15+ years on both coasts of the United States, mostly in public schools but also in private, to see how teacher gifts are viewed from the recipient side of things. The following is a mash-up of, not only her feedback, but that of teachers she has worked (and currently works) shoulder-to-shoulder with.

First off, we were told, no gift is ever not appreciated, especially when it comes directly from a student. That said, DO check to see if your child’s school offers any guidance or has any rules with respect to teacher gifts. Some schools, for example, have monetary caps on the value of gifts. It’s best to research this up front to avoid any awkwardness, as the teacher in question might then be put in the position of having to refuse your gift. Never a fun thing!

Although it is ultimately the thought that counts, it has been our experience that people generally like to give a gift that not only evinces respect/admiration/appreciation for the recipient, but is something that will truly be enjoyed. In that vein, we’ll kick off by sharing a few things we’ve been advised that may be LESS POPULAR amongst teachers so you’ll know what to avoid (or consider more carefully before giving):

  1. Movie passes. These split the house a bit – some teachers do enjoy movie passes, others just don’t tend to go to the cinema, preferring to watch films in the coziness of their home, or to pick up a book instead. So, if you’re thinking about movie passes as a gift, be sure that your recipient is indeed a film buff that likes the occasional excursion to the movies.
  2. Candles and scented soaps. Most folks, not just teachers, have strong opinions about the scents they like to use. And, more often than not, givers (although well-intentioned), miss the mark when it comes to scented soaps, perfumes or candles. With candles too, there is the added caution that some teachers rent or live in buildings where candles are prohibited as fire hazards. For these reasons, candles, soaps and other scented products can be a risky choice gift-wise. If you feel strongly about giving a scented item, we recommend including a gift receipt so that the teacher in question can exchange the items for a scent he/she likes if need be – or for another item entirely.
  3. Baked goods. We were advised that it’s best not to give baked goods at the holidays, partly because so many people do – there are only so many cookies a teacher can eat! This is the time of year when the teacher might be doing his/her own baking at home, receiving gifts from family and friends, and/or attending more events where sweets are on offer. Add classroom gifts on top of that, and one can easily see how a sugar overload might happen. If you’d like to give baked goods, we were asked to pass on word that they will likely be more welcome and appreciated at any other time of the year when there are generally less goodies circulating.
  4. Something for the classroom. This is not to discourage gifts to the classroom (which can be tremendously helpful). But it is advisable not to give classroom gifts under the guise of gifts to the teacher. If you work in an office, imagine if someone (with deep pockets!) gave a new copier in your name. Yes, it might make your life easier, but is it really a gift that you would enjoy receiving? Would it make you feel appreciated? Or, would you maybe, just maybe, be left with a sneaking suspicion that maybe the gift was more about increasing workplace productivity, rather than truly wishing to recognize you as an individual? If you’d like to help out with classroom needs, by all means do so! However, based on feedback, we recommend keeping that distinct from any gifts you give to the teacher.

Giving a mani-pedi gift certificate? Consider accompanying it with a bottle of polish.

Giving a mani-pedi gift certificate? Consider accompanying it with a bottle of polish.
© Little Birdie Me

Here are a few gifts that feedback tells us tend to generate MIXED ENTHUSIASM – some hearty supporters, some detractors:

  1. Nail care gift certificates. A little pampering is often a fine thing. For teachers who enjoy getting manicures and/or pedicures this can be a great gift. However, not all teachers care for polish so DO do a little advance research to make sure your gift is something the teacher in question will actually use. Also, definitely make sure you do your due diligence and are getting a certificate to somewhere that is clean and reputable. It’s disheartening to roll up to a spa, or salon looking forward to a treatment, only to feel nervous about hygiene standards. And, last but not least, be mindful of the salon’s accessibility - do you need to drive there? Does the teacher have a car? Is it near the school, or far away? You get the picture!
  2. Massage gift certificates. As with nail care, some folks love getting a massage – others, not so much. Be sure to check before you buy! And, have a think about any implied tip that might be associated with your gift. Are you putting an implied cash burden upon the teacher to use your gift, or is there a way for you to pre-pay any tip that might be expected? Similarly, do consider the issues of cleanliness and proximity raised above.
  3. Wine. Not everyone drinks alcohol and, if they do, they might have a preference for beer, or one particular kind of wine. Do a little casual reconnaissance when conversing with your child’s teacher to see if a gift of wine would be welcome.
  4. Apple products. Apples have been associated with teaching since frontier times (if not longer), and we’d bet our bottom dollar that if your child’s teacher has been working in the classroom for longer than a week, they probably already have a closet full of apple-themed paraphernalia. Okay, that may be wee bit hyperbolic but, suffice it to say, apple products with a capital “A” will probably garner more pedagogical grins than those with a lowercase “a.”

Hobby-related gifts - like a gardening tool or two - get high marks. Don't forget the gift receipt though!

Hobby-related gifts - like a gardening tool or two - get high marks. Don’t forget the gift receipt though!
© Little Birdie Me

We saved the best for last! Here are the things that we’re told teachers generally LOVE TO RECEIVE:

  1. Cash - teacher salaries generally don’t offer much leeway for luxuries so a little infusion of funds is typically much appreciated!
  2. Gift cards – for the same reason that cash is popular, gift cards/certificates are too. An Amazon gift card offers great flexibility, or if you know the teacher in question relishes their morning cup of joe, a gift card to their favorite local coffee shop might also hit the mark. From our feedback pool, there was also a shout out for gift certificates for fun local experiences and/or outings – for example, a great local restaurant the teacher might not have tried before.
  3. Something relevant to the teacher’s interests outside of the classroom - for example, if you know your child’s teacher has a community garden plot, a high quality gardening tool might be just the thing. Or, if he/she is into yoga, something from lululemon may be the way to go. Keep in mind though, that sometimes these kinds of gifts might narrowly miss the mark - or, perhaps you chose so well, that you’ve actually selected something the teacher already has. For that reason, we were asked to pass on the following request: please always include a gift receipt.
  4. Something personalized – examples we were given included a beach towel with the teacher’s last name on it (Lands’ End offers a wide selection), personalized Post-it notes, and/or a reusable lunch bag with a first initial or first name on it. Obviously, there are only so many lunch bags a teacher needs (one, maybe two?) so try not to double up on something they already have (particularly keeping in mind that personalized items generally cannot be returned or exchanged). Otherwise, have at it!
  5. Pooled gifts. Consider working together with other parents to give a gift to the teacher in question. One example we were given was a group of parents pooling together to give a “California Explorer” annual pass, permitting vehicle access to all of California’s state parks. At the time of writing, one of these passes is $195, so definitely not an inconsequential amount of money. However, when the parents pooled together, individual contributions became budget-friendly. The “California Explorer” gives parking access to a large number of that state’s beaches and parks, and the teacher-recipient in question was/is a keen lover of the outdoors and an active person, so it was a gift that was much-appreciated, much-enjoyed and, ultimately, well utilized. Put on your thinking cap and you may be able to find something like it that might otherwise be beyond the budget of your child’s teacher, but would really make their day – and, maybe even their year!

A few final tips: if you are wondering when to give a gift, the general trend in the United States, be it East coast or West coast, increasingly seems to be during the holiday season. That said, some folks definitely opt to give at the end of the school year. Regardless of what you are giving though, take a moment to think about how long the item will likely be kept. Our friend, for example, has been teaching 15+ years and we imagine it’s simply not possible for her to keep art works from of her students for very long. That said, one of the most memorable gifts she ever received was a roughly 2’x3’ model of the Twin Towers, given in the year after 9/11 by one of her students in New York City - a touching and meaningful gift on many levels. So, this is not to say don’t give your child’s art, but be mindful that it may not be possible for the teacher to keep it forever.

Lastly, and we quote here directly from our friend, “the very best presents incorporate something personal with something desired.” So, for example, a gift card accompanied by a child-made ornament, or a personal letter (either from child or parent) about what made (or is making) their year special – what they loved learning or doing. Pro tip: citing specific examples from the child’s classroom experience tend to make letters especially meaningful!

Well, that’s it folks! Hopefully our informal little reconnaissance mission, sussing out teacher feedback, will help you gift successfully to your child’s teacher this holiday season. Are you a teacher yourself? Please, weigh in! Or, if you’re a parent, please do let us know if you have any great ideas you’d like to share!

Tags: teacher gifts

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