You're in a hurry. So you drop $5 on a trinket for your child's teacher, then move on to the next item on your holiday to-do list.
These gifts may be accepted graciously, but be honest: Does the teacher really need a candleholder emblazoned with Santa's rosy visage? Or a reindeer paperweight, or that perennial last-minute gift choice - the "World's Best Teacher" coffee mug?
"Sometimes they feel like they need to get something for the teacher and so they buy that 'teacher crap' - an apple that says '#1 Teacher' or something like that," says Shannon Drizd, who has taught first and second grade in the suburbs of Chicago for nine years. "I'd much rather have something personal from the student."
Memo to Santa's elves: So would most teachers.
The National Education Association polled more than 2,500 teachers last spring, asking what gift they most enjoyed receiving from students. Forty-eight percent chose "hearing the words thank you/receiving a thank you card." A heartfelt note of appreciation from you - just a few sentences will do - goes a long way, especially if it's tucked inside a card made by your child.
"A handmade card over a five dollar tchotchke item from the Christmas tree store was so much better," says Vanessa Caporrino, who taught kindergarten and first grade for five years in New York and Connecticut before taking a break to raise her two children, ages 2 months and 2 years. "The child actually put some heart and feeling into it, versus the little Santa Claus with the candle in it."
Still feel obligated to give something store-bought?
There are plenty gifts out there that can be personalized, or that recipients can customize. For example, a simple picture frame could come with a candid shot of kids on the class field trip, and the frame can be reused by the teacher years later. If it has to be an apple, perhaps it could be a useful apple-shaped item such as a cutting board or a pretty serving dish, or some nicely packaged apple butter.
Some other ideas:
- Gift certificates ranked second in the NEA's survey, with 30 percent of teachers saying they were happy to get them.
Karen Ferri of Marlboro, New York, often gives $15 gift cards to nail salons or Starbucks to teachers of her sons, ages 8 and 10. "You really have to give them something for themselves," she says.
Caporrino and Drizd both say they're always pleased to get a gift certificate. But if you opt for one, be sure the teacher can use it. "One time, I got a $100 credit at Ralph Lauren, which I thought was so incredibly generous," says Caporrino. Trouble was, nothing on the sale rack fit her, and the full-price items all cost well over $100. "Had she just gotten me one of those Master Card credits or whatever, then I could go to the Gap and buy something I can afford on a teacher's salary."
- Even if you don't plan to follow the crowd, it's worth finding out what's usually done in your area.
Are group gifts the norm? Do parents splurge or give tiny things? Are home-baked goods considered charming or tacky?
Ferri has found considerable differences in gift-giving trends in the New York City suburbs where she's lived. "In Long Beach, it was out of hand. We bought for the teacher, for the assistant, for the gym teacher, the music teacher. Also we had to buy something for the bus driver," she says. But an hour north of the city, she sees less extravagance: "Their philosophy in Cornwall is, 'Let's chip in get the teachers something because they work so hard,' and their philosophy here in Marlboro is, 'We don't understand why we have to give them something to do their job.'"
- A gift for the classroom isn't a gift for the teacher.
Some families gave children's' books to Caporrino as her holiday gift. "I personally liked books, because I was into books and building the library for the classroom. But a couple of my teacher friends felt like, 'if I was a house cleaner, this was like giving me Windex,'" she says. Even a book store gift certificate may be perceived by the teacher as an implicit request to buy something your child can use in class.
- Reward great teachers, but watch your extravagance.
Large gifts, even those not meant to seek favoritism, may put the teacher in an awkward position or violate district rules.
At San Diego's public schools, the ethics policy states, "'No one can accept a gift from any one party that exceeds $100 in one year,'" says Joan McRobbie, ethics officer for the San Diego Unified School District. Of course, she says, "some teachers, just by virtue of the role they play at the school, they're more visible and parents are more inclined to, as a group maybe, do something really nice for this one teacher."
Ferri agrees that better or more popular teachers will likely inspire more giving.
"People give what they can afford, but the second thing would be that you would give based on how that person treated your child and how you feel about them," she says. "If we happened to get a wonderful teacher, then yeah, I wanted to give her something to show my appreciation. Then there's teacher that you don't feel like buying them anything. That's the teacher who gets the mug."
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