Q: Our kids love their teachers and want to buy Christmas gifts for them, but our district discourages it. Doesn't that stifle the generosity we're trying to instill in our kids? What is the appropriate thing to do?
A: Few topics spark more lively discussions at PTO meetings than whether or not to give a teacher a gift for the holidays. Some districts and states attempt to answer it with policies banning or restricting gifts to teachers.
But when kids love their teachers and parents wish to show appreciation, a "no gifts" policy is unenforceable. Kennewick, Washington, educator Brenda Mehlenbacher learned this when she was an elementary school principal. In consultation with her staff, she sent letters home two years in a row, "thanking parents for their loving generosity, but asking them to contribute to a charity in their teacher's name rather than send a gift. They contributed to the charity and brought gifts anyway."
Mehlenbacher adds, "We realized that bringing gifts to teachers was important to the kids, and it was futile to try to stop it."
Instead, she explains, they put the focus on "simple gifts from the heart" and discouraged anything expensive. They told parents that gifts are not expected and that a "card a child made or a note of appreciation is one of the best gifts of all."
To reinforce the spirit of the season, Mehlenbacher started a "Giving Tree" tradition. The school counselor writes items she knows that children in less-fortunate families need on paper ornaments. Children who wish to participate choose an ornament, buy the gift and place it under the tree.
"No one knows who participated," Mehlenbacher says. "Something like this is a good way to promote the message that Christmas is about love, not shopping."
One Maryland mother, Janelle Perkins, channeled kids' desire to give into service opportunities that pay tribute to teachers and help others.
"Maryland schools require community service, so we volunteer time for local charities in teachers' names," she says. "It's a nice way to bring families together. We create a card for the teacher with the message that the Perkins family will volunteer four hours collecting goods for Open Cupboard, for example, in her honor."
If your kids want to give a more traditional item, keep these guidelines in mind, say teachers:
-- No food; you don't know who has allergies or other food restrictions.
-- Nothing personal, such as perfumes, soaps or clothing.
-- Forget the mugs "and all things with an apple," says Jenny Foster, a Texas elementary teacher who has "more apple paperweights than I'll ever use!"
The most useful gifts, say teachers, are certificates to stores where the recipient may purchase something for the classroom.
If you have time, consider coordinating a class gift with other parents, suggests Sharon Paul, a Massachusetts mom who has been a classroom teacher.
"It removes the pressure of everyone feeling like they have to do something big," she says. "If people chip in a few dollars -- and everyone can give what they wish -- you can give a great gift certificate from the entire group."
(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.)