Q: My kids love their teachers and want to give them each a holiday gift, even though the PTO discourages individual gifts because not all families give. What would be appropriate? For example, is it insulting to give a gift card to an office supply or discount store?
A: What to give or whether to give a gift to a teacher is a perennial parent puzzler prior to the holiday break.
Some schools issue guidelines, ranging from no gifts at all (or nothing more than a certain dollar amount) to encouraging a gift from the whole class, where one parent collects whatever each family wants to contribute toward it. That way, no child feels left out.
Other schools leave it to families. A recent survey of A-Plus Advice Teacher Advisers suggests that gift cards are the way to go. Teachers have more mugs, totes and apple paperweights than they'll ever use. Avoid books, candy, foodstuffs, beverages or personal items such as colognes, lotions and spa services. Also, don't re-gift something you'll think they'll just love.
Teachers value gestures of appreciation, from a handwritten note or a homemade greeting card to gift cards they can use easily, says Illinois elementary teacher Pam Evans.
"While gift cards may seem impersonal, teachers often use them to purchase supplies," she says.
Evans has also enjoyed gift cards to movies, local eateries and bookstores.
"Giving gift cards to a store like Target lets teachers decide whether to spend the gift on themselves, the classroom or both," says California teacher Bill Laraway. "Unless you know the teacher would enjoy it, a gift card to an office supply store may not be perceived as personal enough."
Virginia teacher Jill Warner says, "Any gesture that recognizes us is always greatly appreciated. A gift card to a local drive-through, coffee shop or favorite hangout says so much more than a travel mug."
Laraway adds, "What really matters to me is receiving a card with a handwritten personal message, whether or not there's a gift card inside. I really appreciate it when someone takes the time to write a note of thanks.
"If you choose to offer a gift card, don't just fill in the 'to' and 'from' lines. Include a note; it makes the gift more meaningful, rewarding and memorable. Teachers can re-read it and reflect upon it."
You don't have to spend money to show appreciation. "I teach in a low-income middle school, so rarely do I receive gifts, but I cherish the handwritten notes I get from students because I know they come from the heart. I read them over and over again after a tough day," admits Kansas teacher Valerie Snyder.
Artfully bundling together expressions of appreciation can touch a teacher's heart. "Last year, a parent asked families to submit things for a tribute book -- a letter, story, poem, photos or drawings," says Sally Hawks, a New York educator. "She created it online and then had it printed. It gave me a chance to reflect and share my joys and success with my family. I still look at it often."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)