Picks

Real Teachers Dish on What They Actually Want for Teacher Appreciation Week

Don’t get personal. Stick to the practical.

Kaleidoscopic photo collage of teacher gift ideas, including Post-It Notes, pens, stainless tumblers, play money, and pencil grips.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Teacher Appreciation Week snuck up on you? Read Ask a Teacher columnist Matthew Dicks’ piece on how to make your appreciation really count. Carrie Bauer explains why you should think twice before looking to Pinterest for teacher gift inspiration.

Not to panic you, but if you’ve got children in elementary school or younger, an email about Teacher Appreciation Week is probably sitting in your inbox right now: It’s next week. Teachers, many of whom are parents themselves, are the first to acknowledge that gifts aren’t necessary. But for many parents, that implicit expectation to give teacher gifts is real. It may be the norm for parents to give them at your school. Your child’s teacher may have taken a special interest in her. You may be the room parent for your child’s class, charged with organizing a class gift as the school year winds down. Or you may feel guilt knowing that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money on their classes, whether it’s on Purell or pencils.

Since teacher gift-giving is a parenting reality, we asked Slate’s Ask a Teacher columnists to help you out by recommending some of their favorites. Our teachers agree a gift should be a token of appreciation—all are $25 or under. Before we get to those specific recommendations though, here are teachers’ three rules for gift-giving:

Basic is best. Gifts should not be too unique or crazy. Trying to guess teachers’ personal style or interests often makes for a gift that misses the mark. A leopard-print scarf for the teacher who hates accessories? No, thank you. (While some whimsy is OK, you should also keep it professional: Columnist Carrie Bauer explains why cutesy has no place when it comes to teacher gifts.)

Stock them up. You may think this sounds boring, but your kid’s teacher will treasure classroom supplies more than any other gift. By the end of the school year, teachers’ stockpiles of everything are low. And if you’ve ever been surrounded by a class of kids incubating a stomach virus, one of whom just vomited next to your desk, you know how heavenly it is to have a replenished supply of Clorox wipes.

Write something. A personal note or handmade card is always appreciated. Read columnist Matthew Dicks on how to make that note extra special.

Clorox wipes, a gift card to Fandango, a stainless tumbler, Post-It Notes, a lanyard, and a pencil grip.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Katie Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

High school teachers don’t get as much Teacher Appreciation love as elementary school teachers, but I understand. Most of my students are in eight different classes, and the majority have siblings who are also still in school. That’s a lot of gift-buying. I am lucky to work at a school with a very generous PTA that works hard to make teachers feel special. I very much appreciate what they do for us. But if I were writing a list to Santa, here’s what I would ask for.

Germ combatants

At the top of the list, I need bulk tissues, a vat of hand sanitizer, and loads of Clorox wipes. Because your kids are gross. I live in central Texas, where everyone seems to suffer from crippling allergies. I must go through a box of tissues a week. I realize hand sanitizer is frowned upon in some circles, but those people are not surrounded by coughing, sneezing kids during cold and flu season. I have two young children. Ain’t nobody got time for that. The Clorox wipes are not just for staving off disease; they are for cleaning up gross puddles after someone’s lunchbox leaked, or an energy drink tipped over, or a glue stick rolled off the desk and was then stepped on and tracked all over the floor.

Buy bulk tissues on Amazon: $13.99
Buy hand sanitizer on Amazon: $19.75
Buy Clorox wipes on Amazon: $10.59

Post-It Notes

I need hygiene supplies, but I love office supplies. Please buy me colorful Post-It Notes! Oh how I love Post-It Notes. I would fall apart without these. I am constantly interrupted mid-thought and need to jot down a reminder, an item for my to-do list, or an idea for next week. My desk is covered with these. Post-It Notes for life.

Buy on Amazon: $14.57 for 24-pack

Penpal rubber pencil holder

Did that last paragraph make me sound absent-minded? I actually am not, but I will confess that I am the sort of person who is constantly losing her pen and her keys. Stick these onto a clipboard, day planner, or podium, and voila! No more lost pens. I promise.

Buy on Amazon: $6.74 for 4-pack

Breakaway lanyard keychain 

Once a week, there is a school-wide email from someone who found a set of keys left behind in a faculty restroom. I hate being that person. I also hate having to ask someone else to open my door for me. This lanyard helps me keep track of my keys, and the breakaway clip protects my neck. This is one of my all-time favorite gifts from Teacher Appreciation Week.

Buy on Amazon: $12.99

RTIC tumbler

Teachers talk all day long; we must stay hydrated. I rely heavily on my RTIC tumbler. This puppy keeps ice frozen all day long and doesn’t break when I knock it over or drop it. I’m not going to lie—I have the 30-ouncer.

Buy on Amazon: $19.45

Fandango gift cards

Teachers also want to have fun. Going to the movies is fun! Especially when someone else is paying. Fandango gift cards can be used to buy tickets online for movie theaters all over the US. We all love Netflix, but it’s fun to see the movie when it’s new. It’s also fun to sit in a dark, cold theater in the middle of the summer when everyone else is at work.

Buy on Amazon: $25.00

A laminator, carpet circles, pens, a label maker, and play money.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Brandon Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

I teach at a school where the majority of our students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. I constantly weigh whether I should spend my own money on items that will brighten up my classroom, my students’ lives, and also make my life much easier. I personally purchase more of these items than I like to admit, and I don’t know any teacher who wouldn’t welcome an item that will make his work day better. In my book, they yield equal (if not more) joy. As such, my gift list focuses on small items that help turn a classroom into a more exciting and organized learning environment.

InkJoy pens

As a lefty, for my entire life I’ve suffered the terrible fate of watching ink smudge across the page as I write. Upon extensive testing, this ink does not smudge. Seriously. I’ve tried. These pens are lefty-approved, and they come in a variety of colors and sizes. I cannot have enough of them.

Buy on Amazon: $13.99 for 14-pack

Sit spots

Some sort of organized seating is imperative for young kids—I teach second grade—and it often comes in the form of a color-coordinated rug that perfectly spaces children apart. But these rugs are really expensive to purchase initially—between $200 and $700—and they get dirty quickly. I use sit spots to help preserve my classroom rug, and they’re also a godsend when I need more creative seating options. The super strong Velcro patches adhere firmly to the main carpet, and I love how they help me organize my students during instruction.

Buy on Amazon: $21.99

Labelmaker 

Organization is everything. My classroom is full of learning tools, toys, and textbooks. I have bins of worksheets, coloring pages, crayons, glue sticks, and classroom decorations. I dream of being able to glance at a stack of bins, read the beautiful, professional labels, and locate exactly what I need.

Buy on Amazon: $19.99

Plastic play money

Play money is perhaps the most versatile classroom tool an elementary school teacher could have. It’s obviously a fantastic manipulative for lessons on counting, simple addition, and learning about money. But I use it for other instruction, too, like history: I’ll pull some out when discussing the importance of our founding fathers and how their contributions are memorialized on our money. The pieces are small, and kids lose things, so I can never have enough of this stuff.

Buy on Amazon: $14.95

Stickers

Stickers are incredibly useful, and as with plastic money, I can never, ever have enough of them! A diverse selection of stickers really makes a difference to my students. It’s amazing how much a sheet of shiny animal, emoji, or vehicle stickers will motivate a second grader.

Buy on Amazon: $10.97

Laminator

How I’d love to laminate more! Young students have grubby fingers, and they’re prone to touching, spilling on, and generally destructing most papers they contact. A laminator would allow me to better preserve certain classroom materials, and it would also give a longer life to students’ projects that they bring home.

Buy on Amazon: 21.99

Essential oils, a diffuser, a portable phone charger, a steel tumbler, a desk organizer.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Cassy Sarnell (preschool special education teacher, New York)

It goes without saying that I’m grateful for any gifts I receive, whether it’s a $5 gift card or a cute thank you note. Regardless, there are some gifts that are always a slam dunk and others that just make me feel bad: I hate to think of any family wasting their money. So before I get into what to buy, here’s some guidance on gifts I’ve received with some regularity that I’m not overly fond of, or haven’t used or needed:

• Avoid cutesy stationary. Not only do I already have an obscene amount of stationary from students, I rarely send letters. I have more than I could ever possibly need.

• Same with Bic black or blue pens or regular pencils. Teachers can definitely grow short on supplies, but most schools do provide these basics. Fancy pens or pencils are great, but we have plenty of standard ballpoints in the supply closet.

• No instant coffee, please. I’m not a coffee drinker, which makes this gift even less appropriate for me! But my teacher friends who do caffeinate complain about this too. Instant coffee pales in comparison to the real thing, and the weird flavors make it even worse.

• Those big Russell Stover chocolate boxes—these things are large, and they contain more chocolate than my trying-to-eat-healthy diet really allows. Plus, some of these flavors are weird. I’d rather you get me a small amount of nicer chocolate.

Now, onto the gifts I’ve loved:

Portable phone/device charger

I received one of these in April from a charter school I worked at with a little note that said, “Stay charged for the final stretch,” and it’s one of the most useful gifts I’ve ever received.

Buy on Amazon: $15.99

Travel mug with straw

Since I’ve been teaching, I receive an average of about one mug per year, but they’re the kind I keep in my apartment for weekend tea, not the kind I want to take into my classroom. This one has a lid to prevent spills. I work in a preschool class with some inquisitive kiddos, so that’s a necessity.

Buy on Amazon: $11.99

Aromatherapy oils and diffuser

Full disclosure: I bought my diffuser and oils myself. A teacher I worked with when I was a student teacher had them, and after I experienced their amazing effects firsthand, I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes, during independent reading, or on overly stressful afternoons, the lead teacher would dim the lights, put the diffuser on, and it brought a calm to the room. I’ve listed these items together, but I consider this two gifts. You could do it as a joint gift with another parent.

Buy Aromatherapy oils on Amazon: $14.95
Buy diffuser on Amazon: $14.99

Gift cards to a local bookstore

Like most teachers, I have a comically large want-to-read list, and I always love buying new books. Sometimes I spend these gift cards on books I want for my class, which is also satisfying.

Desk organizers

Desk organizers aren’t supplied by most schools, and therefore fall under the category of out-of-pocket expenses. But organization isn’t optional for teachers!

Buy on Amazon: $9.87

You may also enjoy Carrie Bauer on how Pinterest is ruining teacher gifts, and Matthew Dicks on how to make your appreciation really count.