A guide to teacher gifting

What’s that heavy weight you’re carrying over your shoulder? A big bag of gifts — or your holiday stress?

Wow, it’s heavy this year. And why not? There’s plenty to stress about: Who will get mad if you don’t split up your family visiting time just perfectly? Will everything ship in time? Should you let Grandpa give the kids more video games? How will you seat that huge group for the holiday dinner?

And of course: What on earth should you get your children’s teachers?

You probably can’t eliminate all the anxiety from the season. (Hey, why mess with tradition?) But by embracing a few simple guidelines, you can at least lighten the load.

What’s the right gift?

Giving to teachers can be a source of stress and confusion. Suggestions I found online were all over the board, including at least one writer who recommends giving lavish cash tips.

Most folks want to recognize the efforts of their children’s teachers. But what’s appropriate will depend on your school, the age of your kids and other factors. 

To help find clarity, I asked the “Manners Guru to the Youth of America” — Alex J. Packer — a psychologist, educator and author of many books for adults and kids including How Rude! 

So what about those lavish cash tips? 

“Absolutely not,” Packer said. “While we all enjoy being gifted with money, it is totally inappropriate in this context.”

However, Packer said, it’s almost always appropriate to express one’s gratitude and warm feelings with a gift.

“This is especially true for parents whose children are in the elementary grades, where kids have one primary teacher for the entire year whose ministrations can have a profoundly positive impact on a child’s development,” he said.

It’s the thought that counts

A good general guideline is this: Be generous, but stay within your budget. A gift card for iTunes credit turns the crassness of a “tip” into a gift of music. A restaurant gift card can provide an excuse to have dinner out, even if it doesn’t cover the entire tab.

You can always ask other parents what they’re giving to get a feel for what’s appropriate, but don’t feel pressure to keep up with peers. After all, it’s still true that it’s the thought that counts. As Packer reminds us, many of the best gifts cost nothing.

“The most treasured gifts are often handmade or heartfelt. A child and parents, as a joint gift, could each write sincere notes of appreciation,” he said. “In the United States, teachers do not receive anything near the respect, gratitude and support they deserve.”

Parents — who take the time to think and handwrite their thanks (yes, handwrite, not email or text); who include anecdotes and descriptions of how much little Liam or Emma blossomed under their care; who send notes throughout the year, rather than just on obligatory occasions — can deliver far more value than a store-bought, generic gift, Packer said.

What about a group gift?

If a parent in your child’s class is organizing a collective gift, this can be a nice way to not only make things easier on yourself, but also potentially provide something really nice for the teacher.

Packer said: A teacher may much prefer to receive, say, a weekend getaway package rather than 18 bottles of eau-de-fancy-perfume, 13 scarves and 11 boxes of candy.

If you’re offered the chance to contribute to a class gift, you don’t have to give the suggested amount.

You can give less, and you don’t need to explain yourself if you do. It’s also fine to opt out of the class gift if you prefer. Just thank the gift organizers for the invitation to participate and let them know that you’ll be giving something directly to the teacher.

What if money is tight?

You have plenty of options. If you have a unique profession or passion, consider a gift such as a free concert (if you’re a musician), a print (if you’re an artist) or a tennis lesson (if you’re a coach).

A low-cost gift that shows attentiveness to the teacher’s interests or background will also be appreciated — a wacky tie to a teacher who covets them, for example, or a CD to a jazz lover.

The bottom line? The best gift is one that shows thought, caring and emotional investment.

Packer said: “Thus, a child’s card or drawing — a pictorial hug — has more meaning to a teacher than a box of chocolates and a store-bought card.”


Eric Braun is a Minneapolis dad of two boys and the co-author of The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give, a book for young readers. Send comments or questions to ebraun@mnparent.com.