“I need inspiration for end-of-year teacher gifts! What’s everybody doing?” When I recently read this innocuous and familiar question in a Facebook parenting group, I opened the thread with trepidation, knowing what I would likely find. A few comments in, there it was: the “Orange You Glad It’s Summer?” gift basket. It featured an orange sand pail with an array of carrot-colored items artfully tucked inside—a tiny carton of cheddar Goldfish, a fluorescent highlighter, a travel-size tube of Banana Boat sunscreen, a case of orange Tic Tacs, a stick of tangerine lip balm—all wrapped in shimmering orange cellophane. The commenter’s photo was showered with likes, loves, and appreciative comments. Awww, so fun! How creative! Wish I had thought of that! Cute! Cute! So cute! I didn’t respond; it was a large group and this mom, a stranger to me, was clearly proud and excited to provide the requested gift inspiration. But behind my screen, I cringed.
I’ve been a public school teacher for nine years, and in that time I’ve noticed social media sites and Pinterest take an ever-expanding hold over parents. I’ve certainly experienced it as a parent myself. I, too, have opened Instagram and discovered that scores of my parent friends are now sending themed treats to day care for the Fourth of July, or offering presents to caregivers at Thanksgiving. Where occasions like Teacher Appreciation Week or the end of the school year were once cause for a smattering of modest tokens, the number of gift-giving holidays and the lavishness of the celebrations seems to have erupted. And a particular hallmark of this trend—the one I both expected and dreaded when I read that Facebook thread—is the cutesy teacher gift.
A Pinterest search for “teacher gift” offers an endless stream of suggestions. Elemental to this particular present? First, Pinterest-y teacher gifts require some assembly on the giver’s part, often in the form of multiple small items united by a theme and tidily packaged together (which, of course, demands extra time, money, and skill from the giver). Two, many of these gift-giving occasions are completely made-up. Think St. Patrick’s Day, the first day of school, flu season (not a thing, not a thing, so extremely not a thing). Third, these gifts are deliberately precious, using some predictable decorative flourishes—ribbons, jewel tones, scalloped borders, faux–hand-lettered brushstroke fonts—to evoke a particular “teacher cute” aesthetic.
Not to mention the puns. No pun is too tortured, no gift concept too contrived for the adorable teacher gift. Thanks for helping me SHINE! (Everything is yellow.) I couldn’t have PICKED a better teacher! (Everything is strawberry.) I’m SODA-lighted to have you for my teacher! (It’s a six-pack of Coke.) NACHO average teacher. Thanks for PUDDING your heart into teaching. I was MINT to be in your class. You hapPEN to be an INKredible teacher! (I did not make up a single one of these.)
I certainly understand and appreciate the spirit driving this type of gift. Teachers spend the majority of their professional lives in the company of kids, and that begets a natural humor and whimsy that is one of the joys of the job. Also, the gift is ostensibly from a child, or at least given on a child’s behalf. Often, though, the impulse to offer something unique and creative, combined with the fact that teachers work with children, results in gifts that would be more appropriate for children.
Public school teaching is widely regarded as poorly compensated and thankless work; this year, teaching forces across the country have gone on strike to protest their working conditions, and in 2018, for the first time, a majority of Americans professed that they would not like to see their own children pursue a teaching career. I am sincerely grateful to anyone who wants to mitigate the challenges that teachers face, and it’s always rewarding to know that a family appreciates my work.
Here’s the thing, though: For me, those cutesy gifts contribute to the feeling that my role, while generally perceived to be a selfless and noble one, is also, at the root, not especially serious or sophisticated. The “Orange You Glad It’s Summer?” bucket I saw on Facebook was given to an elementary school teacher, but it’s just as appropriate as a favor at a second grader’s birthday celebration. Good teaching is challenging, intellectual work, requiring regular research and professional development, constant problem-solving, and skillful pedagogy, and to have all of those high-level demands reduced to “a work of HEART” (as an all-time favorite pun goes) and a handful of items from the Target Dollar Spot bins undermines teachers’ professionalism.
There’s a line between “clever” and “infantilizing,” and the more adorable and insubstantial the gift, the more unserious the implication. When friends or acquaintances ask me about teacher gifts (and they ask me all the time), the standard I offer is to think of another adult with whom you have a professional relationship, someone whose skills you respect and appreciate, like your Realtor or your accountant. Let’s say you want to give that person a token of your gratitude for their services. Would the gift you’re planning for your child’s teacher seem oddly juvenile in that context? If you wouldn’t deliver a colorful themed basket of tchotchkes tied up with a bow and affixed with a punny card to your father-in-law’s cardiologist, you should rethink it for Teacher Appreciation Week, too.
So what should you do? You may have heard this caveat before, but there is certainly no need to give a gift at all, and teachers do not think any differently of families or students who forgo it. If you’re moved, a note from you, or a thoughtful sentiment from your child is more than enough. But many parents do feel a need to present a modest token, especially in elementary school, and many room parents and PTAs are charged with planning Teacher Appreciation Week gifts or festivities. If that’s the case, here are some guiding gift-giving principles.
First: Remember teachers are normal human adults. We need all the same things as you do, and we like the same stores. Second: Useful gifts are often best. Third: Although I’m advocating for teacher gifts that respect our professionalism, that doesn’t mean you need to aim for stodgy or impersonal. In a job not usually known for its glamour or excess of resources, gifts that will add a little luxury or more functionality to your favorite teacher’s day are always welcome. Here are a few suggestions for gifts I would be delighted to receive.
One of teachers’ workday challenges is the rigidity of the schedule. If kids are in the classroom, so are we; there really isn’t much room to pop out for a snack or a trip to the drugstore. So I try to keep a lot of personal items on hand for any unforeseen issues that may spontaneously arise during the day. These zipper pouches are an attractive, functional way to keep a supply of ibuprofen or an emergency protein bar organized and accessible, yet discreetly tucked away in my desk.
A veteran teacher likely owns enough student-gifted mugs to serve tea to the entire population of Great Britain. The Zojirushi coffee tumbler, however, is not just any mug. Through some feat of engineering wizardry, this travel thermos keeps coffee hot. Like, steaming, fresh-out-of-the-pot hot, for a very long time. It is honestly a little startling the first time you use it. It will be a blessing to any teacher needing a boost midway through hour three of the One Hundred Days celebration.
I’m on my feet and using my voice most of the day, which makes me really thirsty. By noon, the idea of gulping a fourth round of tepid, aluminum-flavored drinking fountain water is really unappealing. Anything that makes staying hydrated more palatable is a great option. These citrus powders, or a fruit-infusing water bottle, would be a nice treat.
You watched American Vandal, right? (You should if you didn’t!) Remember the kid who sharpens his pencil every few minutes every day to drive his teacher crazy? Real kids sharpen their pencils twice as often. Most electric pencil sharpeners quiver and die when faced with the demands of an average public school classroom, but not this workhorse.
Finally, how can I aptly communicate to you the sublime perfection of PaperMate flair pens? They are, no lie or exaggeration, the single most useful item in my supply drawer. I treasure them, and I hoard them. In my classroom, I project with a document camera, and I give my students guided notes or a model for their work just about every day. Ballpoint pens wash out under the camera; fine point permanent markers bleed. But flair pens! They create a crisp, bold line that shows up perfectly, and they never leak or blur. They are worth their weight in gold and are an all-time favorite gift.
Since I’ve been writing about teaching for Slate, one theme that’s arisen again and again is an undercurrent of wariness, even tension, between parents and teachers. I don’t want to compound that, and I most definitely don’t want to add one more bullet point to the list of all that society tells parents they’re doing wrong. In fact, in writing this, I want to let you off the hook. Our jobs are hard, but so are yours. This Teacher Appreciation Week, don’t overthink anything. Stand down from Pinterest, save your orange sand pail for the beach, and do whatever’s affordable and easy for you.
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