Is It Bad That I Didn’t Get My Kid’s Teacher An End-Of-Year Gift?

Though I hesitate to give parents one more thing to do, I do think that showing gratitude for the people who spend time with your kids matters.

Good Enough Parent
The Good Enough Parent is an advice column for parents who are sick of parenting advice. Romper writer and educational psychologist Sarah Wheeler answers your questions about parenting with humor and humility — and without the guilt trips.

Dear GEP,

The school year is ending, and once again I’m totally confused about what to get my kid’s teachers as a thank you gift. Do people do that? Do teachers really want them? I never know how to do this right.

I can still remember how I felt the first time I dropped my baby off at a relative stranger’s home, to delight and exhaust someone else. I wandered around in a daze then returned to spotty reports of my son’s day. Our child care provider, an older woman who couldn’t be bothered to master new technologies, never sent a picture, and I wondered whether it was a blessing.

The first day of kindergarten, I dropped my son off through a chain-link fence and ate an Ikea hot dog in the parking lot while listening to slow jams and crying. Of course, some of my grief was about facing the dissatisfying state of my own identity sans caretaking, but also, facing the ever-growing cleaving from my children and the fact, however beautiful, that they would have meaningful relationships that I had no part in was a lot.

That part got easier, though every new stage of separation has taken some getting used to. And those other relationships, with people who weren’t me? They became deeply touching. The potentially rocky experience of having two different kindergarten teachers because of maternity leave instead became an opportunity to learn from two people with different specialties and personalities. He adjusted to and came to delight in the tough-love antics of a man whose role has never been totally clear to me but whom the kids refer to as “Coach,” who barks with evident care and sarcasm at all the kids in the morning, often while fixing a child’s hair or tending a skinned knee. He fell a little in love with his after-school music teacher, who taught 24 5-year-olds how to belt out “Pennies From Heaven.”

Like most things when it comes to parenting, it is really less about executing something at every single opportunity than it is about maintaining a general stance and occasional follow-through.

But when it comes time to thank these folks, I can feel overwhelmed. Even after a career an educator, the gesture often occurs to me on the day before winter break or the last week of the school year, when I already have so much to manage. I worry my efforts will be too much, or not enough.

Though I hesitate to give parents, usually moms, one more thing to do, I do think that showing gratitude for the people who spend time with your kids, however your family’s way of expressing it, matters. Like most things when it comes to parenting, it is really less about executing something at every single opportunity than it is about maintaining a general stance and occasional follow-through. This is not another parenting test you have to ace. No one cares if you go to every PTA meeting.

Never once during my decade of working in schools did I find myself taking stock of which parents gave me gifts that year and which didn’t. But I did take to heart every single token of thanks I received for my work, which extended far beyond school hours and beyond any formal job description. As a parent, my goal is doing this, in some way, at some point, for my child’s teachers.

But what to get them? From my own experience as a teacher, and from talking to many other educators about this, I can tell you that you can almost never go wrong with money. This makes some parents uncomfortable. Does it make it seem like you picture this complex relationship as transactional? Is it insulting to assume a teacher wants or needs extra cash? In a word, no. Remember that, even in affluent districts and private schools, teachers make way less than their similarly educated peers. In Oakland, where my kids attend school, the recently raised teacher salary schedule still begins at around $60,000, and rents are some of the highest in the country. So, yeah, a $50 Visa gift card takes the sting away, ever so slightly.

Actual gifts can be nice, but like with all gifts, you run the risk of essentially wrapping up trash for someone.

Debit gift cards or gift cards to hyper-general places (think Target or Amazon, as much as it is quickly crushing all of the joys of commerce) are usually foolproof. More customized gift cards are a gamble that can pay off if you’ve done your research or feel like a burden if you haven’t. I cannot tell you how many unused gift cards from obscure shops I have sitting in a bag somewhere. But, of course, if you know that a teacher loves bath products, a credit at “Lotions N Things” would feel mighty thoughtful. In one privileged district where I worked, staff received a form twice a year from the PTA with an amount of money and a list of stores at which to allocate it. This is the kind of hyper-organized parent labor that I think is mostly unnecessary and generally oppressive to mothers, who end up doing it all. But, of course, it did feel nice to be able to treat myself to the kind of clothing that isn’t sold in multi-packs.

Actual gifts can be nice, but like with all gifts, you run the risk of essentially wrapping up trash for someone. A gift that is highly personalized — like stationary monogrammed with a teacher’s name on it or a custom whistle for the P.E. teacher — could be deeply loved. With something like this, even if it doesn’t totally hit the mark, the thoughtfulness will likely be felt. The father of a child from a much more religious Jewish family than mine once gave me a scroll with my Hebrew name on it, laying out the tenets of a noble Jewish woman, which he felt I embodied. Did I hang it up, or do I have any idea of its whereabouts today? Absolutely not. But it meant a lot to me. Jewelry, clothing, all of that is a real crapshoot. If you can include a gift receipt, do it. If you can’t stand the impersonal nature of cash, you can add a small, less expensive gift to a gift card and check all the boxes.

If money or gifts are not your thing, or if you don’t have the kind of money to spend on such things (I will just say that in flush times I give more, and in lean times I’ve given a bar of chocolate or a $5 Starbucks card), homemade cards are often a big winner. I still keep a folder of some of the cards students and parents made for me over the years, and a friend who teaches first-grade recently told me that her wall of appreciation notes gives her untold joy and inspiration. If your kid can’t, or won’t, write, do it for them. Ask them their favorite thing about their teacher, or how their teacher helps them. Write a message yourself, too. Teachers usually only hear from parents when something has gone wrong or there is parental anxiety about a school issue. Taking the time to write a message uncomplicated by logistics and sheerly for gratitude’s sake is felt by them, promise.

So that’s the what. But what about the who?

I will say that I think it’s very, very important to consider ancillary staff. As a school psychologist, it was a rare thing for parents, some of whose children I’d spent hours and hours working with and caring for, to remember me. Specialists, like art and music teachers, and particularly teacher’s assistants, who usually make far less than credentialed teachers, seldom get acknowledged. Then there are custodians, cafeteria workers, administrative assistants, you name it. Ask your child who they have relationships with at school, or especially if your children are young and not reliable reporters, ask your child’s teacher for a list of people they interact with daily. Again, you don’t have to get each of these people a comped spa day, but you can, if you have the finances, buy a dozen pens or a value pack of thank you cards every few years or so.

If all of these feels like too much, or if your school year has already ended, remember that you can give love to educators, local and global, any damn time. Send a teacher a thank you email in the middle of October, or remember to tell them something your child said about what they did for them. Bring them a coffee every once in a while (my kid’s teacher loves lavender lattes, which, gross, but I do it). If this all feels like a burden, or it’s important in your own growth to liberate yourself from some of the typical “mom” duties, it’s OK. Search on Donors Choose for teacher projects in your area or that speak to you in other places. Let yourself find your own sporadic, weird way of being appreciative and then move on, and enjoy your damn summer.


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