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Teacher gifts that won’t get tossed.


If Pinterest trends are any indication, teacher-gift season is almost here. And with it the challenge of finding a budget-friendly idea that adequately conveys thankfulness and saves face in the implied creativity competition. (If you’ve ever had a child in elementary school, you know what I’m talking about.)

Although my son just finished his first year of college, I spent a lot of time over the years volunteering at his school. I got to know many teachers and witnessed firsthand the demands of their job and the sacrifices they make for our kids.

Fact: Teachers absolutely deserve our gratitude.

But I also learned the hard way that sometimes the best way to thank them is by keeping it simple.

I showed up to help a preschool teacher get organized on the last day of class. Her entire room was filled teacher thank-you gifts: apples of every kind – real, wooden, ceramic, plastic – along with mugs, pencil holders, statues, frames, baskets, plants and mounds of homemade goodies.

It was obvious how much the parents and students loved her. I was impressed.

But she was clearly less impressed. Instead there were tears. “What am I supposed to do with all this stuff?!”

I helped her sort through the piles, following her instructions to keep the gift cards and notes and take everything else to Goodwill. (I confess that of my own gift -– a metal pail filled with sand toys and sunscreen that had taken a lot of time and effort to put together – only the gift card survived.)

So rather than stressing over what to do for teacher gifts this year, here are some ideas for saving your end-of-the-year sanity – and the teacher’s:

A note of appreciation. If you do nothing else, write a note thanking teachers for the time they spent with your child. Make it personal – if possible, include a specific example that shows them you really noticed their efforts and have your child write or draw something, too. Resist the urge to put the note in a mug (or any other item) from the dollar store. I can practically guarantee it will be thrown out re-gifted.

Update: A teacher friend of mine added this comment on Facebook: “Teacher vote: the [thank you] card. Gift certificates are nice too, but the cards are the savers and really nourish the exhausted June teacher-soul! “So, it WAS all worth it!”

A gift card. I don’t mean to offend – some of my friends consider gift cards impersonal and there may still be teachers who actually want another potholder. But every teacher I’ve asked says that after a note, the best thank-you is a gift card. And a thoughtful gift card is even better.

When choosing a gift card, it’s nice to start with locally owned businesses that support your school. When I lived in Arizona, the nearby Basha’s grocery store contributed generously to every school fundraiser and event, so I always bought my gift cards there.

If there’s not much to choose from locally, you probably won’t go wrong with a popular chain. Did the teacher recently move? A Lowes or Home Depot gift card would be perfect. Is the she crafty? Michaels, Jo-Ann or Hobby Lobby. If you need more ideas, just think of where you like to shop  — Target, drug and hardware stores, restaurants, movie theaters, educational supply stores and craft stores are all good choices.

A few times I collected donations for a group gift and we were able to give the teacher a very generous VISA “gift card to anywhere.” But even if you have only $5 to spend, a well-chosen gift card won’t go to waste.

Simple, lightweight, reusable packaging. Some teachers may have more than 100 students and those heavy glass containers, while attractive, are hard to lug home. Reusable bags (the lunch bags at Whole Foods are only 79 cents) and inexpensive totes are great options that serve double duty for transporting all the other stuff they get.

And you don’t have to completely throw creativity out the window. Pick a fun theme for the gift-card packaging and let your child get involved by personalizing it with paint, crayons, markers, paper cut-outs or stickers.

One year I packed store-bought fortune cookies into a takeout box and tucked a gift card and thank-you notes inside. Outside I attached a “fortune” that said: It was our good fortune to have you as Christopher’s teacher this year. Thank you for everything and have a great summer! Of course, if you really want to make something, you can always bake your own fortune cookies or create them from paper.

The whole thing took about 10 minutes to throw together and cost about 75 cents each (not including the gift card). Incidentally, the beach pail thank-you that got sent to Goodwill cost me more than $10, in addition to the $10 gift card. I could have just given her a $20 gift card instead.

All photographs (c) Christopher Halloran Photography

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Catherine permalink
    04/24 8:38 AM

    Love, love. My problem is that by the end of the school year, I am completely burnt out on everything and thus several years have gone by where I just forget the whole thing. How bad is that??? This year, everyone is getting gift certificates to my favorite local restaurant – locally owned, reasonable, and nutritious Cal-Mex food. Thank you Jen – great idea and perfect timing.

    • Jennifer permalink*
      04/24 8:51 AM

      Funny you should ask — the crying teacher actually said she’d prefer *nothing* to a bunch of stuff she can’t use. So I think you’re off the hook for those years… :-)

  2. 04/24 8:42 AM

    Hi, I can’t remember where I came across your blog (maybe Petit Elefant??)… but I subscribed a while ago :) Your posts are very thoughtful.
    Wow, great advice! I don’t have kids (yet) but this little nugget of information will be stored away for the future. My friend is a teacher, and he often is given Starbucks gift cards, but he doesn’t drink coffee (or anything with caffeine in it). Fortunately his wife loves Starbucks ;)

    • Jennifer permalink*
      04/24 8:57 AM

      Hi GF! So glad you stopped by. Great point about Starbucks — another good case for “know thy teacher.”

  3. Anne Ryan permalink
    04/24 4:58 PM

    Good ideas! My boys’ preK teacher made it clear she loves to shop at Target :). Another class group gift we are planning this year is a shutterfly photo book. We have a class Shutterfly site that parents have been uploading their pictures to throughout the year, so it should be easy to do and not pricey- most of us will probably order one for ourselves, too.

  4. Jennifer permalink*
    04/24 5:12 PM

    Your photo book idea is a great idea, Anne. Wish I’d been that organized back in the day…

  5. permalink
    12/25 4:52 PM

    This specific post Teacher gifts that won’t get tossed.
    Edit by Design, features really wonderful information and I
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  6. 01/11 9:18 AM

    Thanks a lot for applying free time to publish “Teacher gifts that won’t get tossed.
    Edit by Design”. Thank you once again ,Marcy

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