As we approach the holiday season, it’s natural for parents to think — or worry — about holiday gifts for teachers. This used to bring great stress for my wife and me, and I know others have felt the same way.

However, from my perspective as a teacher, I have learned a few things that can take the stress or worry out of holiday gift giving.

First, no one is obligated to give their child’s teacher a gift. Teachers are professionals, paid to do a job; a gift isn’t required.

Still, we have always tried to give our children’s teachers something at the holidays, even though it’s very modest. Most teachers routinely work beyond contractual obligations. Acknowledging this effort with a gift can have a replenishing effect, and the value of the gift often exceeds the actual cost.

Some families have established gift-giving traditions — special recipes, keepsakes, or favorite treats. If you are in this category, wonderful! It is so kind of you to think of your child’s teachers.

If, however, you worry about lack of creativity, lack of time, or lack of funds, perhaps these ideas can help simplify a busy time, assuage stress, and maximize the impact of your generosity. Based on my own experience and a nonscientific survey of other teachers, I’ve created what I hope is a no-guilt, low-stress guide to teacher gift-giving.

  1. It really is the thought that counts. As a teacher, a list of my favorite gifts over the years would reveal no pattern beyond the fact that someone acknowledged my efforts and remembered me. Everything from movie passes to a musical snow globe to Amazon gift cards to homemade fudge have come across my desk at the holidays, and each made an impact because of the thought. Most teachers feel the same.
  2. Start with a note. You needn’t find a unique tchotchke, an apple-themed ornament, or make a clever craft. One of the best gifts will be free and totally unique: a detailed note of gratitude. Everyone I surveyed expressed 100 percent consensus in this regard. Teachers cherish sincere, specific notes from a child or parent because they generally go into education hoping to make a difference in someone’s life. Notes of appreciation validate this hope, providing a powerful emotional boost.
  3. Consider gift cards. It’s hard to go wrong with a gift card. They may seem impersonal, but who doesn’t love to buy themselves something fun? Even a modest gift card can be a welcome indulgence for a teacher on a tight budget.
  4. Stay general unless you know otherwise. Unless you know the teacher’s specific preferences, a good rule of thumb might be to go with something that allows many options. For example, a Visa or Amazon card may feel generic, but will allow the teacher to find exactly what they want. Gift certificates to local bookstores are also perennial favorites. If you want to do something a little more personal, you can always ask a teacher’s co-worker or spouse for information: a favorite restaurant, spa, or store.
  5. Consider group gifts. One year, the parents in my son’s class all contributed what they could, then purchased a generous gift card. Every child also drew a picture and wrote what they loved about the teacher; those entries were then compiled into a book.
  6. Ask about instructional supply needs. Depending on the fiscal situation of your child’s school, your teacher might need instructional or classroom supplies. However, talk with the teacher or room parents first, since this can vary widely from school to school.
  7. Think about food spoilage. Homemade treats can be a lovely way to show appreciation — that’s usually what we do. However consider something that won’t spoil quickly. My children ensure nothing ever lasts long enough to spoil at our house, but in smaller households it can be challenging to consume everything immediately.
  8. Be sensitive. If your child has multiple teachers, it might not be feasible to give the same gift to everyone. If you can, that’s wonderful. If not, be thoughtful and discreet. I once stood in a crowded lobby as a student handed literally every one of her teachers a gift — except me. Teachers are human beings with feelings.
  9. Remember those who might be overlooked. If you’re able, look beyond the obvious candidates. Every school has a few popular teachers that everyone loves. But the less charismatic teachers work hard, too, and so do the nonteaching members of the staff. One parent at our school remembered the custodians and receptionist every year with a plate of baked goods.
  10. Consider the gift of time. This is somewhat controversial, so I’ll simply leave it as food for thought. A few years ago, we specified that the gift we were giving our teacher was a thank you to the teacher, thus no thank you note from her was needed. That drew an overwhelming response of appreciation from teachers who were feeling frazzled. Like parents, teachers are busy. Every minute of their day is prescribed for them, and they are always “on.” While every teacher I know is happy to write a thank-you note, many will quietly admit it would be a luxury to not spend the break writing notes or buying stamps. Some respondents to my survey took strong issue with this idea, feeling that writing a thank-you note was an important way to model appropriate behavior. But things revolve around the student all year long, and teachers are constantly working hard to model correct behavior. Thus, it strikes me as a generous gesture to let the teacher know nothing is expected. This allows the teacher to simply enjoy something as a person, providing a short break from the need to always be modeling. Of course, if the teacher feels strongly, she still has the option to write a note of thanks.

I hope nothing I’ve said has sounded harsh, overly-prescriptive or Grinch-y. The bottom line is this: if you are giving your child’s teacher a gift of any kind, it’s a wonderful gesture.

And now I need to get my kids writing some notes.

Braden Bell is a teacher, writer and director from Nashville. Bell is an author who blogs and writes a newsletter with reflections about parenting adolescents. Follow him on Twitter: @bradenbellcom.

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More reading:

How to build an alliance with your child’s teacher

10 ways to take the struggle out of homework

10 things I learned as a teacher that helped me as a parent