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Edutopia’s 2011 Guide to Holiday Gifts for Teachers

We asked and you answered: What makes a great gift for a teacher this holiday season?

December 5, 2011
Credit: iStockphoto

It’s that time of year again -- time to take a breath, bake a pie, and appreciate everyone in your life, including (and especially!) teachers. Here, through heartfelt responses to a thread in our "Stuff We Love" group and a lively Facebook discussion, the Edutopia community weighs in on what makes a great holiday gift.

True, teachers’ wish lists haven’t changed all that much since the last time we asked, except for a somewhat louder chorus in favor of basic classroom supplies. That's not surprising though as school budgets all but evaporate and everyone is asked to do more with less.

Environmental science teacher Carolyn Stein probably spoke for many when she answered the question with one word: "Sleep!" But what was the most common response to our queries by far? You guessed it. Teachers will always appreciate a simple, sincere thank-you above and beyond any material gift.

That said, an iPad would be nice too. Read on for this year’s suggestions for how to make a teacher’s winter break an even cheerier one.

Gift Certificates

A small fund for something useful can go a long way to help teachers and students. The Edutopia community has leaned heavily in favor of gift cards over the past few years, insisting that the best kinds are the ones that contribute directly to the classroom: a gift certificate to an office-supply store, a bookstore, or iTunes, for instance.

"While I’m flattered and appreciate that parents want to buy mugs and other ornaments for the holiday," writes Kim Simpson, a third-grade teacher at Poland Community School, in Poland, Maine, "they can really help the entire class by simply purchasing an iTunes card so that we can put apps on our iPads. This benefits 20+ children, instead of one adult."

All the same, funds are tight these days, and every little bit counts. "Even grocery store gift certificates are useful," writes Kelly O’Connor Floyd from Tampa, Florida. "In these unsettled times, helping us help our children while we teach yours is always appreciated."

Classroom Supplies

As teachers reach deeper (and deeper) into their own wallets to keep their classrooms stocked, there’s nothing that says "Happy holidays" like a bundle of Sharpies. If not a gift card to a store that sells classroom supplies, why not give some actual classroom supplies? "I always buy classroom supplies for teachers as holiday gifts. I know how much comes out of their own pocket," says KellyAnn Bonnell, education and outreach director at Infinite Spectrum Productions.

What would be most helpful depends on the classroom, but ideas include games, books, puzzles, stickers, Scotch tape, folders, and binders. Coshocton, Ohio, high school teacher Susan Nolan has her own list: "Tissues, hand sanitizer, markers, colored pencils, extra pencils, notebook paper, a bag of candy I can use for rewards, an inspirational poster, or a new paperback book for our shelves."

An iPad or Kindle

"I would kill for an iPad," writes Michelle Moore from Philadelphia. Well, we don't want to encourage violence, but several respondents did drop that one in, either directly or as an eye-twinkling afterthought. (An iPad is second only to a handwritten note of appreciation, according to teachers Erin McCrory Evans and Chris Hassellhick.) It’s a pricey request but could easily be a pooled gift between parents to benefit both a teacher and her students (see above regarding iTunes gift cards and iPad apps).

And Valerie Johnson, from San Antonio, Texas, adds that several gift cards for places like Amazon or Target are ideal because teachers "can combine them towards things like iPads!"

Along those lines, a Kindle or another e-reader is also a thoughtful gift, especially for a language arts teacher. "I must have inspired a kid to read more," writes middle school teacher Jenna Weingart. "As my (other) kids talked about bringing in a few bucks to buy me a Kindle, she and her mother had already bought me a Kindle and a case and gave me a gift card to load it. That was awesome!"

Something Homemade (Especially If It's By a Student)

"It isn’t the amount of money spent; it is the heart behind the gift that means the most," writes English teacher Cathy Williams. Many teachers’ hearts will melt if the item is handmade, whatever it is -- a card, poem, drawing, jewelry, or ornament, for example. Nancy Gear, a retired speech pathologist from Vermont’s public schools, says she always loved ornaments, especially if there was a note on them. That way, every year she could remember that student as she decorated her tree.

Environmental science teacher Carolyn Stein recalls that when she mentioned in class how much she liked the mineral hematite, one student made "a beautiful necklace of various shell beads and hematite. I absolutely love it because it came from the heart, she made it with her hands, and she remembered something I mentioned in class! Best gift ever!"

Another way to help teachers receive kid-made items -- and see some money go toward schools at the same time -- is to buy an Artwork for Education greeting card. Each set is made by kids, and 40 percent of the profits are sent back to the young artists’ school.

Plus, you can’t go wrong with some home-cooked food. "I would never say no to homemade tamales!" says Phoenix high school teacher Susan St. John.

Something Creative and Personal

If you know a teacher personally (you’re aware that she has young children, say, or that he’s a theater buff) go ahead and show it. Pernille Ripp -- fifth-grade teacher in Middleton, Wisconsin, and Edutopia blogger -- was once given a free babysitting pass so that she and her husband could have a night out. Annie Scavo, a longtime educator in New York City’s public schools, says she always appreciated gifts that were based on her interests, such as an old book of Shakespeare after she had led a school performance of Macbeth. Maureen Kowker, a teacher at Bellevue Public Schools in Nebraska, received a unique gift one year from her wish list: an archeological dig site on campus, thanks to parents.

Thank-You Letters

More than anything, teachers yearn for some heartfelt appreciation. A hand-written letter or card from a parent or student is sometimes the only ray of light that gets them through a tough day or week. "If a teacher has shaped your life somehow or if you like what they are doing, tell them," writes Pernille Ripp in a blog post. "This present beats all of the other presents hands-down every year. I have half of a drawer filled with the notes I have received, and I pull them out on days when I need a pick-me-up."

Adds Julia Beers, third-grade teacher at Malcolm X Elementary School, in Berkeley, California, "The most special gifts, the ones that really make me glow, are the letters of appreciation. So often, teachers work months and months without a single thank-you from parents. We do appreciations weekly in my class, and it warms everyone’s heart. Teachers need them too!"

Above all, writes middle school drama teacher Kaleroy Zervos, a simple thank-you not only recognizes teachers’ day-to-day efforts but also helps them "know their idea of making the world better is at least shared by someone outside the classroom."

Hear, hear. Happy holidays!

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