Teachers typically claim they don’t need any gifts because teaching is reward enough. Yet the job of any teacher – whether of kids, teens, or adults – is immensely difficult. It requires gobs of patience, compassion, and empathy and an endless supply of enthusiasm. Teachers play a pivotal role in our children’s lives.
Yet they’re also notoriously overworked, underpaid, and undervalued. And that’s especially true now, when they’re going the extra distance to simultaneously teach students in-person and remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. So even though a holiday gift isn’t a requirement, it’s a great way to say, “Thanks for all you do!”
But it’s often a struggle to figure out what to give our kids’ teachers since we rarely have the opportunity to know them on a personal level. Many of us default to generic gifts like soaps, lotions, candles, and mugs. As a teacher, I know we genuinely appreciate any gift we’re given – after all, it feels so nice just to be thought of. But teachers end up with cabinets overflowing with mugs and enough holiday ornaments for three trees.
To uncover the best teacher gifts, I didn’t just rely on my 20-year history of teaching in nearly every grade level. My mother, a 30-year-plus veteran teacher at both the elementary and high school levels, told me many of her own stories over the years. I also canvassed all the teachers I know, including friends, colleagues, and my son’s teachers.
The result is this teacher-approved guide to holiday gift-giving, from which teachers you should buy for to the gifts teachers really – and really don’t – want.
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Which Teachers Should You Buy Gifts For?
Whether your kids are in preschool or high school, they probably see multiple teachers throughout their day. Buying gifts for so many teachers becomes burdensome quickly, especially if you have multiple children. But it’s not necessary to buy gifts for every teacher your child has each week.
Preschool & Elementary School
Many parents like to give gifts to teachers in preschool through elementary school because, at this age, their child typically has one primary teacher for at least most of the day. But even in the early grades, kids often have several teachers, from classroom aides to art, music, and gym teachers.
Customarily, you only give a gift to your child’s main classroom teacher. If their teacher has an aide, it’s also nice to give them something too, but there’s no need to spend as much money. Don’t worry about buying gifts for art, music, and gym teachers unless they’re special to your child.
Middle School & High School
In most middle schools and high schools, kids rotate through different classrooms and teachers throughout the day. Because there are so many of them, it’s far less common to buy teacher gifts at this age.
But a small token of appreciation like candy or a holiday card isn’t an unwelcome gesture. Some parents also like to give gifts to their kid’s favorite teacher or teachers who’ve spent extra time with their child, as special education teachers often do.
When it comes to college teachers, skip the gift altogether. I’ve occasionally received small gift cards, like a $20 Starbucks gift card, from my well-meaning college students. But as much as I appreciate the gesture, in college, even a very small gift could seem like a bribe. In fact, while gift cards are acceptable, it’s considered inappropriate to give cash to any teacher at any grade level for the same reason.
Moreover, most colleges and universities have policies against teachers accepting gifts larger than a certain amount. For example, my current university requires us to hand over any gifts worth more than $50, even if they’re Starbucks gift cards, as donations to the university.
Tips for Giving Great Teacher Gifts
The best gift you could give is to put some extra thought into what you give your child’s teacher. It’s your thoughtfulness that shows how much you appreciate all their hard work and dedication. Spending too much – no matter how great you think they are – is a no-no.
How Much You Should Spend on Teacher Gifts
Don’t buy your kid’s teacher anything too elaborate. While it’s a nice thought to give a hardworking teacher a bottle of Dom Pérignon, gifts above a certain amount are often against schools’ policies. States, school districts, and even individual schools all have different rules about teacher gifts. And some states even have laws that prohibit teachers from receiving gifts at all. If you’re unsure about your school’s policies, call the office or check the website to find out.
In general, don’t spend more than $25. It’s not unusual to spend even less. No teacher expects a gift, much less an expensive one. It’s merely a nice gesture.
What Teacher’s Don’t Want
Teachers don’t need more knickknacks. While it’s tempting to default to yet another “World’s Best Teacher” tchotchke, teachers get so many they often end up collecting dust in a box in their basement or being regifted. While teachers appreciate receiving any gift at all, some have become so common or cliche, you should avoid them unless you know your kid’s teacher wants them.
- Mugs, unless they’re useful in some other way, such as a travel or USB mug
- Apple-themed knickknacks
- Classroom decorations, such as wreaths, wall hangings, and posters
- Candles – and potentially soaps and lotions
- Anything that doesn’t have a practical use
When in doubt, ask yourself, “Would I want 25 of these?” If you’re still not sure, include a gift receipt, and the teacher can always exchange it for something they do want.
Great Gift Ideas for Teachers
The best teacher gifts generally fall into one of two categories: practical or consumable. Supplies that enhance a teacher’s or their students’ classroom experience are always appreciated. The same goes for anything that lets a teacher decompress from a stressful day in the classroom – think edible gifts like chocolate or relaxing gifts like bath salts.
It seems tough at first to find something thoughtful to buy your child’s teacher for under $25, especially when avoiding most people’s go-to gifts in that price range. But there are loads of inexpensive gifts teachers will really use and appreciate.
When asked about their favorite gifts, teachers commonly place gift cards near the top of their lists. They’re a great option for teachers you don’t know well – or even the ones you do – because they allow them to pick out what they want. You don’t need to know what book is up next on their must-read list or their go-to Starbucks order, only that they like to read or enjoy Starbucks.
1. A Target, Walmart, or Amazon Gift Card
You really can’t go wrong with most gift cards. But if you’re unsure what to get, a gift card for a big-box store like Walmart or other mega-giant retailer like Amazon is an excellent option. Retailers like this have just about anything a teacher needs or wants for themselves or their classroom.
If this option feels impersonal, dress it up by presenting it in a clever way. A quick search of Pinterest reveals dozens of free printables for nearly any store or occasion. Simply choose one, print it, and attach your card. Or opt for a practical container that appeals to teachers – think a Target card tucked inside a Yoobi pencil case.
2. A Restaurant, Ice Cream Parlor, or Coffee Shop Gift Card
A gift card that provides a well-deserved treat is especially lovely. Teachers often spend big-box gift cards on their classrooms, but a gift card to Cold Stone Creamery, Cheesecake Factory, or their favorite restaurant is just for the teacher. Try tucking a Starbucks gift card inside an insulated travel mug and tying on a cute note that reads, “Thanks a Latte!”
3. A Spa Treatment Gift Card
If you can’t find a deal that puts a spa day in the teacher gift price range, suggest to other parents that the class pool their resources and buy their teacher a gift card for a massage. While many schools frown upon expensive gifts from a single student, they generally allow them when they come from several. And, although they may feel uncomfortable using it during the current COVID-19 pandemic, gift cards typically retain their full value for a year or more.
4. A Barnes & Noble or Other Bookstore Gift Card
Most teachers are big readers. It comes with the territory. So treating your child’s teacher to a gift card from Barnes & Noble or another bookstore is a great way to help them unwind over the holidays. Bonus points if you slip it inside an inexpensive copy of a beloved book signed by your child. I know I would cherish that forever.
5. A Movie Theater Gift Card
Lots of people like to go to the movies over the holidays, so a Fandango gift card is well-timed. Fandango lets you buy tickets to movie theaters all over the U.S., meaning it doesn’t matter if a teacher is home or out of town with relatives. Or treat them to a night in with a Redbox gift card — the perfect gift to stay entertained at home during a pandemic. Package it in a popcorn container with a bag of popcorn and some candy for a nice presentation.
According to a 2018 federal Department of Education survey, 94% of public school teachers in the U.S. have paid for school supplies out of their own pockets, as reported by CNN. It made no difference whether they taught in upper-income or lower-income districts or in suburbs, cities, or rural areas. I don’t know a single teacher, myself included, who hasn’t paid for at least some of their supplies themselves.
And the average amounts spent aren’t small. The surveyed teachers reported paying close to $500 annually on supplies, with some spending as much as $1,000 or more. So teachers are always grateful for whatever you contribute to their classroom stores. Anything that was on your kid’s school supply list is something they need. It means they won’t have to buy these things themselves when they run out.
6. A Teacher Essentials Gift Basket
Every classroom needs the basics: paper and binder clips, notepads, highlighters, pushpins, and chocolate. (Maybe not the chocolate, but it’s an excellent teacher “emergency” treat to include.) Compile your collection of essentials in a personalized box for them to pull out when they need it.
7. A Collection of Dry-Erase Markers, Sharpies, or Pens
One semester when I was teaching at a community college, I kept reaching to jot things on the classroom’s whiteboard with dry-erase markers that were never there. Compounding the problem, when I brought my own, I’d forget to stick them back in my bag when I left. Of course, they were never still there when I returned to the classroom. After several rounds of this, a student gave me a large package of dry erase markers. It was enough to keep me stocked for a while, even when I accidentally left one behind. To this day, it’s one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received.
Teachers are forever running out of basic supplies. Help keep a teacher well stocked by presenting them with a collection of dry-erase markers, permanent markers, or pens. They’ll love it even more if you present it in a container such as a terra cotta pot or Mason jar painted by your child.
8. A Fancy Pencil Sharpener
A common classroom annoyance for many teachers is the noisy pencil sharpener that falls off the wall. So one teacher designed a better pencil sharpener. It’s quick, quiet, and mounts securely. Plus, they come in a variety of colors. But the best part is you’ll be helping two teachers when you buy one. A portion of the proceeds goes to building schools in developing countries.
9. Personalized Supplies
10. Clorox Wipes, Hand Sanitizer, & Tissues
Teachers are constantly surrounded by germs — not only from the novel coronavirus, but also colds and flu. Going into cold season, Clorox wipes for disinfecting surfaces, hand sanitizer for disinfecting hands, and tissues for combating the sniffles become classroom essentials.
If your child is in preschool or elementary school, classrooms are in constant need of books for read-alouds and kids’ choice time. It’s exactly the right age to inspire a lifelong love of reading. So buy the class a few books. Even better, offer to come in and read them to give the teacher a much-needed 15-minute break.
If you’re not sure what to buy, your local bookstore is a great place to start. Those who work in the children’s section are generally knowledgeable about children’s literature and the latest releases.
12. Board Games
As the days get colder, indoor recess becomes more likely. Thus, elementary school teachers need board games to keep the kids busy. The best, most affordable board games are still the classics. When I worked in after-school care, the kids always wanted to play Monopoly. Some other fun games that also reinforce learning are Scrabble, Boggle, and Apples to Apples Junior.
Teachers love gift sets. And gift baskets are easy to make at home with a collection of small items bought piecemeal. But there is one caveat: While it’s easy to come across lots of adorable ideas – especially if you’re a Pinterest junkie – the best gifts are the genuinely useful ones.
13. A Winter Skin Care Gift Set
Although teachers receive a lot of lotions from parents – in fact, Bath & Body Works soaps and lotions are the most common gifts I’ve received over the years – many teachers genuinely enjoy it. Plus, they’re especially useful moving into the winter season when cold air and dry indoor heat wreak havoc on skin.
One word of caution: It can be tricky to give lotions because fragrance preferences are so personal. Teachers also receive a lot of them. But Bath & Body Works will exchange any of their products – unused, of course – even if you forgot a gift receipt.
14. A Foot Care Set
15. A Spa Set
No one deserves a little pampering like a teacher who spends all day caring for others. Even if a spa day is out of your budget – or against school policy – a spa experience is still on the table. Look for fancy sponges or loofahs, bath soaks, bubble baths, face masks, or bath salts and bombs – like this snarky bath bomb just for teachers from Whiskey River Soap Co.
16. An Adult Coloring Book & Colored Pencils or Markers
Downtime means more than just bubbles and bath time. Self-care involves anything that helps a teacher relax, de-stress, and take their minds off – or help them laugh at – their stressful jobs.
Coloring can be as meditative and absorbing for adults as it is for kids. Hence, the ongoing adult coloring book craze. A coloring book like “#Teacher Life” takes that to the next level by pairing coloring with humor. Package it with a set of colored pencils or art markers to make a gift set.
One of my son’s teachers said her favorite gifts are always the edible kind, especially chocolate. I would’ve seconded that – at least, before I gave up sugar. If you opt for food gifts, there are a couple things to keep in mind.
First, avoid giving anything homemade. Although my son’s teacher said she has no problem with homemade food gifts, some teachers toss them straight in the garbage. You never know exactly how people prepare food in a home kitchen.
Also, some people have food allergies or restrictions. Gluten intolerance has become especially common, and conditions like diabetes prevent some people from eating sugar. Issues like these make giving food tricky.
Still, more teachers than not report they love food gifts.
17. A Tin of Christmas Treats
Unless you know the teacher’s favorite sweet, look for upscale store-bought cookies or other treats – something they wouldn’t normally buy themselves. Cheryl’s Cookies makes a right-priced “Thanks a Latte” treats tin filled with an assortment of buttercream frosted cookies, including mocha latte cookies, that are perfect for thanking your child’s teacher.
Or, for just a little bit more, opt for a “Happy Holidays” treats tin with buttercream frosted cookies plus chocolate pretzel clusters. If you don’t mind the extra email in your inbox, sign up for Cheryl’s cookies email list for an extra 10% off, which will bring this tin under budget.
18. A Holiday-Themed Mason Jar Filled With Candy
Another fun idea is to dress up a Mason jar with a holiday theme. For a snowman, fill a Mason jar with white chocolate- or yogurt-dipped mini pretzels, glue black buttons down the front of the jar, and tie a strip of red fleece around the jar neck to make a “scarf.” Or make a Santa jar with a Mason jar filled with red candy, such as red licorice bites. Glue a black ribbon and a small buckle around the jar to make it look like Santa’s belt — or use the free printable on Balancing Home.
19. Cookie or Brownie Mix in a Jar
Although homemade food gifts are tricky, filling a Mason jar with the necessary dry ingredients to make a batch of cookies or brownies usually gets you around it. Make sure to include a recipe card with this gift.
20. A Coffee-Themed Gift Box
It’s no secret teachers wake up before dawn all year. Though the average teachers lounge stocks plenty of coffee, it’s not often the best quality. Show your kid’s teacher you get it by packaging together some fancy coffees, coffee syrups, and even a bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans. And while you want to skip the mug, a coffee warmer is a thoughtful addition.
After spending the day dealing with kids, teachers are sure to use this gift. Many teachers reported wine is their No. 1 gift of choice. Although figuring out wine preferences is tricky, classic wines on the sweeter side, such as moscato or merlot, appeal to the broadest range of tastes. Affix a fun, personalized label geared toward teachers.
Just be sure to keep your kid out of the principal’s office by dropping this one off yourself, and check your school’s policies on giving alcoholic beverages to teachers.
22. Hard Liquor or Cocktail Mixers
Teachers also report appreciating gifts of the harder stuff, such as a bottle of tequila. Like with the wine, attach a humorous note that says something like, “This is for putting up with my kid.” Or if you like this theme but would rather not give an actual bottle of liquor, a box of cocktail mixers also shows how much you appreciate what teachers go through.
23. Champagne Gummy Bears
If you’re reluctant to give your kid’s teacher a bottle of booze, another idea is liquor-infused candy. Unlike some other candies that are merely flavored, Sugarfina’s Champagne gummy bears are infused with real Dom Pérignon.
Chocolates top almost everyone’s list of favorites. To make this an extra-special gift of gratitude, go for the good stuff, like a holiday bag of Ghirardelli squares. Or try a chocolate squares gift pack from Dylan’s Candy Bar. It includes 18 pieces of chocolate with flavors like caramel, s’mores, cookies and cream, and toffee crunch.
Like everyone else, teachers love it when their students pay attention and remember the things they like. My mother was very into “Star Trek,” and one of her most cherished gifts was a Spock Christmas ornament. It was less about the gift itself than how touched she felt that her student put thought into getting her something personal. Teachers report these more personal gifts are the most cherished and remembered because they’re thoughtful.
25. A Trinket From Their Favorite Fandom
While this entire article has been a caution against buying teachers useless trinkets, when it’s something that specifically relates to their interests, the thought that went into it is especially moving.
For example, if your child’s teacher is always working “Star Wars” references into their math problems, an R2D2 book light is just the thing. Or if they got your child into reading by introducing them to “Harry Potter,” one of the illustrated editions is a lovely gift.
Do some detective work and quiz your child on what their teacher likes. It takes a little work, but the effort is both fun and well worth it.
26. A Hobby-Related Gift
If your child knows their teacher loves spending their downtime with a favorite hobby — like knitting, painting, or golfing — go with a gift that will help them enjoy it during their holiday break. Think: a bowl for holding their yarn, a set of paints or brushes, or some golf balls signed or decorated by your child using a permanent marker.
27. A Donation to a Cause They Care About
It’s still true, however, that most teachers don’t need more things. So in lieu of another knickknack, donate in their name to a cause they care about. This is another gift that requires some detective work.
Some schools are set up with a program at DonorsChoose.org. The site lets teachers tell parents about school-based projects – such as field trips, new books, and science equipment – they need funding for. Parents can donate directly through the website.
Something Your Child Makes
The best gifts aren’t the most expensive. They’re the ones that come from the heart. Although a higher salary would certainly help a teacher feel valued, teachers don’t enter the profession for the income. They do it for the rewards that come from making a genuine impact in others’ lives. The best gifts for teachers are the ones that personally express what a teacher has meant to your child.
28. A Letter of Appreciation
Though it doesn’t cost a thing, a handwritten note or homemade card expressing your child’s sincere gratitude and all the things they appreciate about their teacher is by far one of the best gifts a teacher can receive. Chocolate gets eaten and gift cards get spent, but this is the kind of gift a teacher hangs onto forever. I still have letters I look at to remind me on even the worst days why I teach. The best gift is to know you’ve made an impact on a student’s life.
29. A Special Craft
Teachers will cherish something your child makes with their own two hands, whether it’s a trinket, jewelry, or artwork. Yes, these things are technically knickknacks. But the thought that goes into making something especially for that teacher is precious. And you can always throw in a gift card.
30. A Memory Book
Make a memory book by putting together a bunch of letters written by the class or pictures of precious memories over the school year in an album. I have one assembled by a kindergarten class over 20 years ago. It includes letters and drawings made by each student and still holds a coveted space in my keepsake box.
It’s hard to choose just the right gift, but your child’s teacher will appreciate whatever you give them. In this case, it really is the thought that counts. But the best gifts are those that show genuine gratitude for teachers and the unique demands of their jobs. Anything that enhances their classrooms, makes teaching a little easier, or adds to their off-hours enjoyment will make an excellent gift. And although the holiday season is budget-busting for many families, you don’t have to spend a lot to show a teacher your appreciation.
Do you have an inventive idea for a teacher gift? If you’re a teacher, what have been your favorite and least favorite gifts?