Care and Feeding

Will Our Teachers Dislike Us if We Don’t Buy Them Fancy Gifts?

We have four children, and the holidays are a struggle.

Kid giving gift to teacher
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Highwaystarz-Photography/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from around the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington.
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina.
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas.
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York.

Could you please give me some candid advice about teacher gifts? I love my children’s teachers, and I know their jobs are incredibly difficult. But I’ve got four children, and four different teachers. We live in an affluent neighborhood, and I feel like the norm is to go over the top. Our family, however, is not as well-off and has trouble even affording Christmas for our family, and it really adds up. That said, I want to show them our appreciation. What do people typically give, and what is acceptable? Also, what should I do about crossing guards, bus drivers, office staff, etc.?

—Don’t Want to Be a Scrooge

Dear DWtBaS,

Teachers love getting gifts no matter how small. But it’s the act of giving, not the item, that’s important—I light up even when my students give me loose Legos or bent Pokémon cards. Teachers know that the financial struggle is real, especially around the holidays. And personally, I don’t expect my students to get me gifts. In fact, in a December newsletter I send out, I encourage families not to buy me gifts. I do, however, list ideas for some homemade gifts, only because my experience has shown students enjoy showing their appreciation.

These ideas include drawings, a heartfelt letter, baked goods, or any creative or simple craft you might find on Pinterest. Teachers value these types of gifts much more than anything store-bought. In fact, I often hang on to these handmade gifts for a long time, since one of my favorite things about being a teacher is watching my students grow as people and scholars. Looking back at framed photos, drawings, or letters they’ve gifted me allows me to reflect on how these students have grown.

In terms of other staff, there’s no rule, but in your situation, my suggestion would be to only get gifts for bus drivers and office staff if your kid has a special relationship with those individuals. If you want to simply show your appreciation, a handmade card is a great way to go.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t worry about what others are doing. We should teach our kids the true spirit of the holidays isn’t measured with a price tag but with thoughtfulness. Taking the time to sit down and create something that says “Thank you” is more than enough.

—Mr. Hersey

The lockdown drills my kids have to do in school make me scared. They make me sad. They make me fucking furious. How do teachers cope with them? How do you help kids feel safe at school while simultaneously explaining they might get shot there?

—Locked Down

Dear LD,

Scared, sad, fucking furious—that about sums it up for teachers too. How do we cope with them? I don’t know. How does anyone cope with anything? Especially when it feels too big, too gnarly, too beyond your control? I put my head down and do it. I tell the kids that, just like with fire drills, we’re practicing for something that will likely never occur. I pull the blinds and lock the door and explain that we have to cluster in the room as far out of any line of sight as we can be, but I don’t say, “That’s to keep your flesh from being splattered and your bones from being shattered by a bullet.” I acknowledge their nervous giggles but admonish them to remember—this situation is serious. It could be serious. It probably won’t happen, but if it did, boy would it be serious.

I grind my teeth and commiserate with my co-workers, and I look to Emma González, David Hogg, and the other young Parkland survivors who are touring the country advocating for reason and action and who are going to save us from ourselves, if anyone can.

And then, allllllllll of third quarter, I teach my students argumentative writing skills so they too can build a cogent case for enacting the changes they wish to see in the world—strengthening gun laws, dismantling our culture of toxic masculinity, you know, whatever.

—Ms. Scott

My son’s seventh-grade science teacher has a habit of pronouncing words incorrectly, including important words like scientific terms that are part of their curriculum. For example, she says genus as though it were genius and pronounces the E at the end of Robert Hooke’s name (“Hookey”). My son has always bitten his tongue in class and brought the mispronunciations home to me. We all make mistakes, but I can’t bear the thought of someone who should know better passing on errors to students who trust they’re being taught correctly.

This happened before (and was much worse) with a different teacher in fifth grade. At the time, I brought up my concerns privately with the principal, who made it clear in no uncertain terms that she did not believe me or my son and would not pursue it. We have conferences coming up, and I see them as an opportunity to mention it to the science teacher, but I’m not sure how—or if I should drop the subject entirely and just focus on making sure my son knows the correct pronunciations.

—Henry Higgins

Dear Henry,

Several years ago, I was reviewing a text with my class and noticed two boys kept pronouncing the word clergy with a hard G and then giggling. I asked what was up, and they told me that was how my student teacher pronounced it. I teach high school, and this is probably a word a high school English teacher should know how to pronounce, but did that make me doubt her competence? Not at all.

She was empathic, creative, enthusiastic, and patient. She was genuinely excited to teach every day and had true affection for each student. She was the daughter of immigrants and a first-generation college graduate. English was her second language, and here she was, teaching high school English. I knew she was going to be a fantastic teacher, even if she mispronounced a word and students gave her a hard time about it.

Moreover, I have misspelled the word forest when writing it on the board. I have attributed The Iliad to the wrong author and taught the wrong lesson to a class for 40 minutes before realizing my mistake. I have accidentally released my students to lunch five minutes early and stayed in the library with one class 15 minutes into the period for my next class while students waited by the door, confused.

I graduated summa cum laude from a flagship university. I have a master’s degree and am a National Board Certified Teacher. One time I was “teacher of the year” at my school. Sometimes we screw up.

I don’t know what’s going on with your son’s science teacher. Maybe English isn’t her first language. Maybe she’s teaching life science but actually has a degree in electrical engineering but got a composite science certification and here she is, mispronouncing genus and longing for the day she gets to teach circuits. Maybe she’s exhausted and ran out of coffee and was up with a baby three times last night. (OK, maybe that’s me.)

If this is really important to you, you might say, “My son came home and told me he was learning about Robert Hooke. I always thought it was pronounced hook, not hooky?” But I gently suggest you do so with compassion.

—Ms. Holbrook

A recent New York Times article talked about how teachers are no longer relying on phonics to teach children reading. Instead, they focus more on simply exposing kids to reading, even though studies show kids need more than that. I remember all the Hooked on Phonics commercials from my youth. I want to help my pre-reader prepare for her reading education. What are the different theories about how to teach reading, and how are new teachers trained to teach reading? Is phonics really no longer used, even though it’s been proven more effective? Thanks!

—Hooked on … What?

Dear Hooked,

Reading is hard. I know that answer sounds like a cop-out, but it’s a fact. Learning to read is an incredibly complex and challenging process, even for typical learners. My favorite philosophy on how reading works is known as the Simple View of Reading. According to this philosophy, “reading” is two processes.

The first is word recognition. Word recognition is the relationship between the letters d-o-g on a page and the big fuzzy pet that you take on walks. The second process is comprehension. That is a complicated process, one by which the reader makes the connection that those letters mean dog, which is a fuzzy pet, and then the reader takes that knowledge and seamlessly makes a further inference about the big fuzzy pet in whatever scenario is described in the reading—that the dog is hungry, thirsty, a wonderful companion, lovable, or whatnot.

How to teach reading has varied over the years. I’ve found that most research now recommends a balanced literacy approach, utilizing both whole-language (learning to recognize entire words on sight and practicing vocabulary skills in context) and phonics instruction, with a slightly greater emphasis on phonics over whole-word instruction. This article from Educational Connections Tutoring has a good summary of what the differences between the two are and what the specific research says, and this guide from a suburban school district breaks down how balanced literacy programs look.

There are entire classes at most teacher-preparation programs dedicated to how, scientifically, these approaches work on their own and together. And every teacher-training program, and every curriculum from your Department of Education, and every principal and head of reading team have slightly different philosophies about what balance between the two is best. So I can’t speak to what everyone is doing.

I can speak to what you can do at home. As I’ve said before, the single most important way you can help is not through actively teaching your child how to read but to encourage your child to want to read. It sounds corny, but there are several studies that link positive experiences with reading to success as readers. This is easy to do—just don’t make reading seem like a chore. Read books with your kid, and make sure they see you reading for pleasure. Talk positively about reading. Make the library somewhere you go out of your way to go. And when you read aloud to your child, check for comprehension. Ask questions. Not only “What does dangerous mean?” but “Why do you think she called the cave dangerous? How do you think she feels? What is something dangerous you’ve wanted to do? What do you think will happen if she walks through the dangerous cave?” If you’re engaging with the text on as many levels as you can, and asking your child to do the same, he will develop strong listening-comprehension skills, and strong listening-comprehension skills are linked to strong reading-comprehension skills.

You can also work on analytic phonics with your child—that’s recognizing the first sound in the word (the onset) and the ending of the word (the rime). We used to call these “family words” when I was a kid: rat, bat, cat, mat, etc., all have the “-at” rime with different consonant onsets. Likewise, you can begin your whole language skills at home by teaching them to recognize high-frequency words in books like I or dog.

But I think that if your child is still a preschooler, the comprehension piece and the positive attention of reading with you are more important than the technical process. They’ll learn to read in school eventually, but you can nurture that desire to love curling up with you and a book. I would focus on that.

—Ms. Sarnell