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A Warning About Gifts for Teachers: READ THIS Before You Buy!

“Which holiday gifts should I get for my child’s teachers?”

“What is the best teacher appreciation gift, or end of year present?”

“How can I show our school’s educators that I am thankful for their hard work?”

The answer to these questions is not what most people think. I’ve been a teacher for 17 years, and I urge you read the following thoughts before popping your gifts into a teacher’s hands. First and foremost:


Yes, we DO want to be appreciated (and I’ll talk more about ways to do that effectively in a moment), but… consider the following issues with educator gift-giving.

Teacher gift ideas for holidays and appreciation
Teacher gift warnings and solutions!

1. Gifts raise ethical and fairness concerns.

Legally, most public school teachers are not allowed to accept gifts worth more than $50, but even if a family gives me a $5 gift, I think about the time and labor that went into it… and frankly, feel uncomfortable.

First, I feel uncomfortable because I empathize with the financial and time stress that gifts incur (even “inexpensive” ones). I never want to be a cause of extra stress, and being a parent myself, I know that the organizational effort to buy or create presents is not small.

Second, there is an awkward question of whether expectations are attached to the gift in terms of altered treatment. Now, I’m sure most families have no intention of bribing a teacher through cookies and mugs, but there are still strange feelings that arise — especially when I receive mid-year gifts while I’m still grading essays. I would never alter my grades based on gifts, but I do have the thought, “How must it feel for a mother to see a ‘D’ given by a teacher to her son, after she spent hours wrapping gifts?” It’s not an ideal combination.

2. Not everyone can afford gifts — either in money or time.

What I dislike most about gifts for teachers is the pressure they place on families who do not have the resources — be it in time or money — to keep up with the “gift giving arms race.” Anyone who is on a message board or social media group for a school can tell you that things get out of hand quickly when discussing educator presents.

Parent 1: “I’m thinking of getting Ms. X a $20 Target gift card. Do you think that’s enough?”

Parent 2: “Oh my gosh — are you all giving gifts to all the teachers?! I didn’t realize I was supposed to! Do we have to give them to the Guidance Counselors too??? I’d better run to the store!” And so on.

All of a sudden, the mother who is working three jobs is “forced” to squeeze in an extra trip to the store, and extra two hours of present organization in order to not “be rude” or “look bad.”

PLEASE, if you start feeling this pressure to give presents and are feeling terrible about it, STEP AWAY, AND DO NOT GIVE GIFTS. It is not worth it. More on alternatives later, but know that no teacher is going to hate you if you don’t give a gift. Presents are NOT required, nor expected, and in many cases they just cause problems.

3. Gifts often perpetuate sexism.

In my experience as a teacher and a parent, gift giving organization duties fall 99% of the time on the female head of household. Moreover, the time, money, and energy burden that falls on these women is not cheap.

As a teacher, I do not want to be part of the mental load thrust unfairly upon my fellow females in any way. I would much rather the women of the world get an extra two hours of sleep than shop for me — or better yet, help their children organize their backpacks!

4. There ARE things teachers need and want… but standard gifts usually aren’t it.

Are there items I would like to have? Sure, but for the most part I’d just prefer to buy them for myself. While I appreciate the sentiment of the gifts I’ve gotten from families in my two decades of teaching, the reality is that almost none of them fit in my life or home.

For example: I’m allergic to most lotions and rarely eat sugar, so any beauty products or sweets are just re-gifted, which feels odd. I have small cabinets at home, and there is no more room for mugs. I have a very minimalistic classroom and don’t like to shop at large chain stores, so most gift cards are unnecessary. Again, I would prefer that the mothers of the world spend those hours and dollars on something and someone who needs their efforts.

Teacher gift ideas, warnings, and advice
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What are the BEST teacher gifts, then?

If most presents for teachers are problematic, then HOW do we show appreciation? Great question, and the solution is far easier than most realize — and far cheaper, too!

A. The #1 best teacher gift is a letter.

I don’t know any teacher in the world who doesn’t appreciate a note of appreciation that describes specific ways the educator has done well that year. If you’re hand writing the letter, the paper doesn’t even need to be fancy — plain paper works just as well as, if not better than, a glittery $8 card… and incurs less guilt about cost. Even simpler, email is ideal because it is fast, free (except for time), and the teacher can print it out if they want a tangible version.

What should you write about? The key is to use specific details. Tell a story of something your child said about the teacher, or highlight a major skill or idea they refined with your child, or a quirky and delightful aspect that your family enjoys about the class. Trust me — you will make the teacher’s day with a letter like this… and they will treasure it for years to come.

B. The other best gift is something the class or school as a whole actually needs.

If you want your gift to be 100% appreciated and embraced, reach out to the teacher or school and find out what they actually need. While I feel awkward about accepting personal gifts, I am ecstatic about helping our school as a whole to get items that will directly benefit students.

Here are some examples of great gifts that could come out of families asking for what a class or school needs, and providing it:

• A group of parents pool together donations to buy a printer for one ELA class, which will be used for years to come.

• An even bigger group of parents combine donations to build raised planters in the school playground, which generations of children can then use to learn about gardening.

• One family gifts a lovely $5 wall hanging, after brainstorming with the teacher about how to cover a cracking classroom wall. Another purchases a great young adult book for the class library to replace one that has gone missing.

• Another set of families pools funds to help a teacher set up an ergonomic sit-stand desk to address back pain. (Note: If purchasing something big like furniture, make sure to be in communication with the teacher or school about what actually fits, or opt for gift cards to cover it.)

• A generous set of neighbors arranges for meals and gift cards to be donated for students who very much need them that year. Others support a local BIPOC-owned company to buy educational toys holiday gifts for kids, or for classrooms.

My point: If you REALLY want to give a present (gift giving does make some people happy), I encourage you to reach out to the teacher or school to ask what they would actually find useful and nice.

For some teachers, a school supply store gift card for individual use is great, but for others, they would much rather the gift-givers interface directly with the school as a whole, and pool their efforts and do something truly impactful. Teachers can usually direct you to the administrator in charge of whole-school giving.

The best gifts for teachers
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Which gifts are best for preschool and daycare workers, or teachers not earning a solid wage?

Time for an important disclaimer: I am a public school teacher making a livable salary. THIS NOT THE CASE FOR MANY TEACHERS — particularly those in early childhood education, or those without union protections.

If you suspect that your child’s teacher is not making a living wage, by all means feel free to individually give them presents of gift cards, useful items, or even cash — if and only if you can afford it, yourself, and if the gifts fall within the ethics of the particular school. When in doubt, ask the teacher if they would be comfortable accepting a gift, or if there is a present which would be especially appreciated.

Gifts and “Love Languages

Wait, why are we suddenly talking about “love” in an article about teachers?! Don’t worry — the concept of “5 Love Languages” refers to the idea that people show and receive appreciation in varied rankings of five forms: Gifts, Acts of Service, Quality Time, Touch, and Words of Affirmation.

Everyone has different love language rankings, and this is vital to bear in mind when deciding if or how to give presents to teachers. In fact, people who rank “Receiving Gifts” low on their love language list may find presents downright stressful in ANY context, school-based or beyond.

The importance of individual love languages is two-fold: 1) When in doubt, ask the teacher (or other individual) what they want as a gift — and if they even want one at all. 2) Do not exhaust yourself buying gifts for someone who might actually feel more appreciated via another love language, such as “Words of Affirmation” — aka, a nice email.

Summary of this Teacher Gift Advice:

The most important message to take away from this article is that if you enjoy giving teachers gifts, great — do what feels good to you, keeping in mind what will be the most useful and fitting gift for the educator, their classroom, or the school. If giving presents brings you happiness, go right ahead!

However, if you are one of the 80% of humans who find gift giving stressful, I implore you to realize: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO GIVE TEACHERS GIFTS. It breaks my heart to see the anguish families feel each year around this topic. If you want to show appreciation to teachers, a letter will more than suffice.

There is no need to pour so much time and money into presents. So many other methods exist to show love to our world’s dear educators. Heck — you could even advocate for pro-education legislation and make systemic change.

What are YOUR opinions on presents for educators?

There’s my take on the teacher gift question, after 17 years as an educator and seven years as a parent. But what about YOU? If you’re a teacher, which gifts do you like and not like? If you’re a parent or guardian, what have you felt around gift giving and schools? If you’re an administrator, what would you like to see happen around gifting and education? Do share!


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Friday 25th of June 2021

Thank you for this! I feel this article on so many levels. I single parent, I have a single income and as much as I am ever so thankful for our teachers it stresses me beyond belief to give gifts. I would be much happier to send and email of thanks like in your suggestion of a way or story that teacher has impacted my Childs life. When I asked a friend recently if she was gifting her son's teacher she replied "i'm not a monster". Though I"m sure she is giving some mugs LOL.

Your article was very validating!

Lillie Marshall

Saturday 26th of June 2021

Maria, I'm so happy to have taken some of the pressure off! On behalf of teachers everywhere, I promise you, there is NO NEED to get a gift. A note is life-changing on its own! Sending the best to you and your family.

Alex F.

Friday 14th of May 2021

Great perspective from a parent point of view! I am in the minority of folks who LOVE gift giving, but HATE any kind of credit. It seems like a consensus that teachers feel uncomfortable or at the very least awkward receiving gifts. How would you feel about an anonymous gift card received AFTER grades are turned in at the end of the school year? Here's my conundrum: The teachers at my small private school are severely undercompensated yet are fantastic with our kiddoes, and I would love to be generous to them. They deserve so much more than they make, and I don't know how else to help bridge that gap!

I appreciate all your feedback.

Lillie Marshall

Friday 14th of May 2021

Thank you for your comment and great question, and for your commitment to honoring teachers. I'd say that an anonymous gift card after grades are turned in would be fine, especially because it doesn't pressure other families since they wouldn't know about it if it were after the year ended. If you do end up doing this (or a version of it), I'd love to hear how it goes! I'm a curious person, so if this happened to me, I'd spend a while wondering who the mysterious person was -- and then ultimately be thankful.


Saturday 3rd of April 2021

All good points. There is so much candy and sugar that come around Christmas and so many of us are trying to eat healthy. We appreciate the gifts of sweets but the temptation is not a gift. I also can’t eat gluten or dairy. I appreciate a coffee card because you can choose a drink that suits you. I don’t drink wine and I know of at least one teacher who would be offended. Gifts for the classroom like books and heartfelt letters/drawings are the best bet. I appreciate being remembered (as a specials teacher) and am thankful to receive but don’t expect it.

Lillie Marshall

Sunday 4th of April 2021

Well said, and I'm glad you agree!


Wednesday 25th of November 2020

These are really great points! I never really thought of/considered this as much when I was younger/giving gifts to my teachers/professors. I usually wrote them a letter + tried to go for something thoughtful/handmade.

Lillie Marshall

Thursday 26th of November 2020

Letters are so lovely! Your gut was right as a child!


Tuesday 24th of November 2020

Spot-on! As a parent and and educator, I concur with all your points. I love handwritten notes from parents (bonus if illustrated by the child!) and am also happy to get a gift card to a local coffee shop. Having taught overseas the last five years, I must say that popular culture has the upper hand in gift giving, despite school notifications to parents about limiting gifts to teachers. This is particularly true on Teacher's Day when a huge plate of pastry shop-bought cupcakes (to each teacher) is considered an average gift, while designer watches and handbags pop up every now and then. The intent with the latter two gifts is something different than the cupcakes; it is sad to think of what that says to students when such a gift is given.

Lillie Marshall

Wednesday 25th of November 2020

Thank you for weighing in! Yes -- it is an uphill battle to stay strong against societal pressure. But... designer watches?! Oh my goodness!

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