For Annandale mom Jill Robbins, end-of-the-school-year gift-buying is a marathon that begins months before June. She searches the sales, scans catalogues and picks up knickknacks and other items for those people who have made the school year special for her three daughters.
This year, Robbins has purchased 35 gifts. The only person involved with her children's lives who won't be on the receiving end of a present is her older daughters' softball coach. He happens to be their father, Doug.
Among others, Robbins's gift list includes teachers, the office staff at her girls' schools, the school nurses, bus drivers, a gym teacher who has been particularly helpful to her middle daughter, the aides in her youngest child's special-ed class and the girl's speech therapist.
"It gets expensive," Robbins, 46, said cheerfully of the $150 she has put out for such goodies as disposable cameras, photo albums, water bottles and Starbucks coupons. "I go overboard probably, but I overtip in restaurants, too."
Time was, an end-of-the-school-year gift meant one $5 coffee mug with an apple emblazoned on it for a child's teacher.
Not anymore. For legions of anxious Washington area parents, June has become a gift-shopping extravaganza second only to December. And with school staffs and extracurricular activities swelling to new levels, shopping lists are expanding, too.
A few fortunate teachers are treated to more lavish thank-you presents such as gift certificates for massages, paid vacations, theater tickets and hefty amounts of cash.
But for most parents, the emphasis increasingly is on doling out gifts by the dozens. Gym teachers, music teachers, even principals -- traditionally not on many parents' gift lists -- are starting to find themselves presented with gift-wrapped packages at this time of the year.
"The office staff, the school nurse, the librarian, the teachers' aides, the art teacher -- pretty much all the people my kids come into contact with," said Arlington mother-of-three Barbara Menoche as she ticked off some of the 35 people for whom she made chocolate roses this year.
Her list includes all nine of her sixth-grade daughter's teachers at Jefferson Middle School, as well as the principal and the office staff. "When I went to school, you only had one person" to give a gift to, Menoche said. "Now it's totally different."
Parents say they've had to expand their June largess because school staffs have grown in recent years to include aides, special-ed teachers, reading specialists, teachers in "gifted and talented" programs and more.
Christine Bergan, who lives in Howard County, had to add to her shopping list when her two sons enrolled in their elementary school's program for gifted and talented students. One of the boys also had a student teacher, and Bergan said she didn't feel right leaving out the gym, music and art teachers.
Since she likes to give each a $40 gift certificate, the end of the school year "is not cheap anymore," she noted.
Parents say they want to show their gratitude to school staff members, whose jobs, they believe, have become more difficult in recent years.
A few years ago, parents at an Arlington private school gave their children's teacher and her husband an all-expenses-paid vacation to Mexico and Key West, as well as a gift certificate for travel clothes. The teacher had had a difficult year personally and professionally, said Mary Carter-Campbell, a parent who helped put together the present.
Parents kicked in frequent-flier miles, cash and resort reservations.
"We were amazed and delighted at what we were able to do for a couple who needed unstressed time alone and who had given above and beyond the call of duty," said Carter-Campbell, who now lives in Montgomery County.
Helen Barfield raised $150 from the parents of her daughter's fifth-grade class at Floris Elementary in Herndon this month to buy the teacher, who is pregnant, a double stroller. Barfield drove house to house on her day off, hand-delivering the flier soliciting contributions.
"She's a real special teacher," Barfield said.
Barfield's effort is not unusual. Some parents devote hours to finding the perfect gift for each name on their list.
Lisa Nicholson carefully is carefully selecting what she gets for her daughter's fourth-grade teacher at Camelot Elementary, as well as the principal, the four office secretaries and the school custodian.
She's still working on this year's list, and it's a struggle.
"I like to find out what people like," she said. "You always want to come up with something that is different and fun." Last year, she gave a polo shirt to the school custodian, who wore it often; wind chimes to a teacher who had mentioned that she liked them; and a gift certificate to another teacher's favorite store, Pier 1.
Such generosity is hard on parents who can't afford to do likewise.
Pam Cave, a Fairfax County single mother, said her five children give teachers, coaches and youth group leaders thank-you cards, sometimes accompanied by a small plant or candy.
"It can be hard for my children when their classmates are presenting expensive and elaborate gifts to teachers in front of them," she said.
Teachers agree that the June gift binge can be uncomfortable. On the one hand, they say, they appreciate that many families want to express their thanks for their hard work with their children. But they also worry that families may feel obligated to bring them a gift -- even when they can't afford it.
"It's awkward," said Laurie Alderman, coordinator of special education in Arlington. Alderman, a special-ed teacher for 19 years, said she felt uncomfortable opening gifts from children in front of other children who didn't bring one. "The problem is, the ones who did bring a gift want you to open it, and they want you to recognize and acknowledge their gifts. Some of them have picked them out themselves."
Alderman's remedy: Open the gift at home and then write the child a thank-you note. But that's not a perfect solution, either, she acknowledged: "It's different than giving a personal thank-you when the student's right there."
Increasingly, some principals are trying to curb the gift-giving impulse. Washington Waldorf, a small Bethesda private school, adopted a gift-giving policy about three years ago to stop parents from making large cash gifts to teachers, said administrator Brian Lake. Parents and students are now encouraged to think in more modest terms, such as handmade presents.
At Wolftrap Elementary in Vienna, Principal Virginia Mahlke suggests to parents that they write a note to a teacher instead of handing over a present.
"Teachers really appreciate letters letting them know that they have made a difference in their child's life," Mahlke said. "That's the best kind of recognition." But, she added, "we still have a lot of parents who will voluntarily collect money and then get a gift or a gift certificate."
Wolftrap gym teacher Heather Petrie receives 40 to 50 presents each June -- bath supplies, gift certificates for restaurants and sports stores, picnic baskets and, one year, a hand-painted rake.
"It's nice," Petrie said, "but the thing that tops it the most is when you get a letter from parents saying what a good job you did. . . . I really enjoy them."
CAPTION: Jill Robbins, of Annandale, right, gives an end-of-the-school-year present to special-ed school bus driver Signe Gee. Attendant John Howard, left, helps Sommer Robbins, 5, onto the bus, with a boost from her 10-year-old sister Kaitlyn.
CAPTION: Barbara Menoche, a mother of three in Arlington, is giving homemade chocolate roses to 35 teachers and staff members at her daughters' schools.