As long as your child’s school doesn’t have a policy against it, giving teacher gifts is a good idea, says Tricia Post, spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, a Vermont-based etiquette organization founded in 1946. "It is nice for kids to see that you do say thank you, and appreciate what their teacher does. It can be a lesson in gift-giving."
But that doesn’t mean the gift has to be expensive. In fact, Post says to avoid pricey presents. "It just isn’t appropriate to give a teacher anything that is incredibly personal or extravagant." Post also advises against giving cash. "Teachers are professionals, so this is frowned upon."
If you’re not sure what’s appropriate at your school, Post suggests asking other parents. And if finances are tight this season, you can do something another month. "Thanksgiving can be nice, or later in the school year," Post says.
Whenever you give teacher gifts, it should be something from the heart. And it’s even better if your child helps. "Anything is appreciated," says Kathleen Rose, who has been teaching piano in Maywood for 22 years. "It is just nice to be remembered."
To help stir your gift-giving creativity, here are some ideas from Chicago-area teachers:
1 Homemade baked goods. "You can never go wrong with homemade baked goods—male teachers especially love them," says Rose, whose husband is a high school teacher. If your child is older, let him help. Younger kids can make a card to tuck in, Post says.
2 Letters of appreciation. Just like parents, teachers like to know their work matters. Verbal thank-yous are wonderful, but even better are cards that can be tucked away and re-read. "Every parent takes the time to write when they are unhappy, but very few will sit down and write a nice, long thank-you letter," says Kelly Carlson, a former third-grade teacher in Lombard.
Your child can help by writing her own note.
3 Gift certificates. Many parents avoid gift certificates because they seem impersonal. But many teachers love them. The key is to zero in on a teacher’sinterests, Post says.
"I have really enjoyed being able to go out to eat with my family, or go shopping for a special item with the gift cards that I’ve received from students," says Marcy Stone, a teacher’s aide in Batavia School District 101. "Gift certificates to book stores are always nice because we often end up buying more children’s books for our classroom," adds Cari Neville, who has taught at Goodwin Elementary School in North Aurora for nine years.
4 Flowers or plants. When my son was leaving first grade, he wanted to get his teacher a rose bush because he equated roses with love, and that is how much he loved her. Instead, we found a dianthus appropriately named "First Love." It is something he still remembers giving, and I’m sure his teacher does, too.
Lew Girmschied, now an elementary school principal in Oswego, says an electric pencil sharpener and a rose bush are his favorite teacher gifts. "That rose bush reminds me of that student every year."
5 Stationary or note cards. "Personalized stationary for use in the classroom, with a nice pen, is a good gift," says Shauna Huck, a former Cicero teacher.
"Note cards are nice because they can be used, and can’t accumulate around the house," agrees Batavia resident Julianne Schmitz, a high-school math tutor.
6 Group gifts. Pooling your money with other parents means you can give one memorable item, rather than many small ones. "The best way to do this is by letting everyone put in an anonymous donation so that any amount is welcome and everyone can participate," Post says.
Stone recalls a special group gift for a coach—a canvas chair the coach could sit in during games, signed by each team member with permanent marker.
7 Classroom products. While Post warns against this, some teachers say supplies are good gifts. But make it fun. I bought a carousel of more than 100 different types of Sharpie-style markers for my son’s third-grade teacher last year. She sent back a thank-you note using several of the colors, saying she would have fun grading with them.
8 Scrapbooks. If your child’s teacher is in the middle of a momentous year—her first or last year of teaching, for example—or just likes to remember her students, a picture scrapbook or class journal can be priceless. "That type of gift, that includes special moments that occurred throughout the year, is so much more than a ‘thing,’ " says Post. "It is a packaged memory."
9 Themed baskets. Find out the teacher’s favorite hobby or interest and package several small items that add up to one big gift. "My daughter’s teacher was a golfer, so the class put together a basket that included two golf games, a golf outfit, dinner at the club and a few other miscellaneous things," says Jennifer Reeves, who taught kindergarten in Elk Grove Village for nine years.
Stone also suggests a movie basket with popcorn, movie tickets or Blockbuster gift cards and some candy.
10 Donations. For the teacher who has everything, the best gift may be no personal gift at all. Post suggests making a donation in the teacher’s name. Etiquette experts say to avoid controversial groups and political campaigns, and make sure the organization you choose is well established.
Remembering teachers at the holidays, or any time of year, is a nice thing for everyone involved—and not nearly as difficult as it may seem.
"Just get back to the essence of what gift-giving is all about," says Post. "When you do that, and think of the person that you are giving to … the gift itself is almost secondary."
Heather Cunningham is an award-winning writer living in Batavia who writes frequently on parenting and health issues.