Best Teacher Ever?

Don’t keep it to yourself. Here’s what to do.

A thank-you card addressed to the author is held.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Teacher Appreciation Week snuck up on you? Slate’s Ask a Teacher columnists dish on gifts teachers actually want. Carrie Bauer explains why you should never look to Pinterest for teacher gift inspiration.

It’s the last day of fourth grade. Kids are so loud and excited that it feels like summer vacation has started one day early. Except the classroom also looks like Christmas, at least to me. My classmates are filing into the room carrying boxes of every size and shape, wrapped in colorful paper and ribbons—gifts for our teacher, Mrs. Lavern.

I don’t have a wrapped gift for Mrs. Lavern. I like her as much as everyone else, but my parents have never had the money to purchase gifts for my teachers. I wear my cousin Russell’s hand-me-down clothing—every item too long and too wide—and I raise my hand every morning when Mrs. Lavern asks who is getting a free hot lunch. Giving Mrs. Lavern a box of chocolates is simply not my parents’ priority. And I get it. Still, I feel small and stupid every time my classmates bring in gifts and all I have to offer is a homemade card. I can barely muster the courage to hand it to her when the time comes.

Thirty years later, standing before my own class of two dozen fifth graders, I cherish these personal cards from students and parents more than anything purchased from a store, and I’m sure Mrs. Lavern felt similarly. This is why when I’m asked, as I often am, what parents should give their children’s teachers, I always say the same thing: a heartfelt letter.

This isn’t just because my family couldn’t afford presents, though that certainly shaped my point of view. It’s also because, as a teacher, I’ve seen how valuable a truly thoughtful note can be. I know that many parents are looking for a quick token to express their appreciation, and as a busy parent myself, I understand that perspective. And those gifts are certainly appreciated. But a sincere thank-you note can have a deeper impact than you might think.

Teachers exist in an odd bubble. A student might say “thank you” at the end of the day or offer us a hug after we help them tie their shoes. They may even leave a note on our desk, like the one I recently received from one of my fifth graders that said, “You make me mad in a good way.” But for the most part, we work hard every day for students who don’t always have the words, inclination, or awareness to express their appreciation.

We spend thousands of hours with these little people, struggling to teach them to read and calculate and write. We relentlessly encourage them to make good decisions and treat others with kindness. We fall in love with our students, but in June they exit our classrooms. They may cherish the memories of our time together, but we often never hear about the difference we’ve made in their lives. As you’ve no doubt heard, teaching is often described as “thankless work.”

In fact, most of what we hear are questions, concerns, and complaints from parents. Parents wonder if their child has friends, is reading at grade level, or is behaving in the cafeteria. Does Charlie need math support? Shouldn’t Elizabeth be in the gifted program?

These are perfectly legitimate questions, and I love discussing my students with their parents, who are, and should be, their children’s fiercest advocates. But many of those same parents are also watching their children grow over the course of the year. They know if their child’s teacher has celebrated their child’s successes or focused only on her struggles. They can tell you with perfect accuracy if a teacher has taken a special interest in their child or if their child has seemingly fallen between the cracks.

If your child’s teacher has made a real impact on your child, take a moment during Teacher Appreciation Week to let that teacher know how much her dedication and effort has meant to you. In fact, take it one step further. Rather than simply sending a thank-you letter to your child’s teacher, forward it to that teacher’s superintendent and principal too, or even better, write directly to the superintendent and principal and forward a copy to the teacher as well.

I know how helpful these letters can be because I once received such a letter. In June of 2001, I had just completed my second year of teaching, and I was hoping to get tenure soon. On the last day of the school year, I found a note in my teacher mailbox, written by the mother of one of my students. It was addressed to the superintendent of schools, and I could see from the envelope that a copy had also been sent to my principal.

I expected the worst—a note addressed to the superintendent is never good—but in fact, the mother had written to express her appreciation for me: “I am pleased to write to you to sing the praises of one of your elementary school teachers, Matthew Dicks,” it began. She told the superintendent that I am tough and that I “challenged the students effectively.” She said that her daughter had developed a deep love for reading, writing poetry, solving math problems, and “even Shakespeare!”

After that note, I had no trouble getting rehired for the next year. While a principal conducts formal observations of a teacher and spends time in the classroom throughout the year, a teacher teaches for more than 1,000 hours per year. An administrator might be lucky to see three or four of those hours. Superintendents almost never enter a teacher’s classroom, and even if they stop by for a visit, they don’t get a measure of a teacher’s skill and dedication. That parent’s insight into my teaching meant everything.

Teachers held in high esteem can become team leaders, which is often the first step toward an administrative position, and these positions are often accompanied by a bump in pay. A solid reputation makes it easier to facilitate or avoid a grade-level change or transfer to another school. It may also help a teacher to counteract the words of a parent who has lodged a complaint. If parents are clearly happy with a teacher’s performance, the lone complaint can appear as more of an outlier than the beginning of a pattern to an administrator.

Teachers whom administrators trust are able to deviate from the curriculum and work more creatively. They are able to take more risks and teach outside the box, like teaching Shakespeare to third graders. And for a teacher hoping to earn tenure, a letter like the one I received can serve as ammunition when a principal argues in favor of that teacher’s tenure to the powers that be.

Save yourself some money on Starbucks gift cards this year. Instead, sit down and spend an hour writing something meaningful and impactful about your child’s teacher. Then send it to the principal and even the superintendent. It’s the least-expensive and most-appreciated gift you may ever give.

Thank-you cards

Thank-You Cards

A thoughtful letter can be worth more to your child’s teacher than a gift.

You may also enjoy Slate’s Ask a Teacher columnists on gifts that teachers actually want, and Carrie Bauer on how Pinterest is ruining teacher gifts.