Finding the perfect holiday gift can be maddening — is this the color they’d want? Is it something they already have? Is it so last year? — but really, once you have a sense of a person’s taste, it’s not impossible. This season, we’ll be talking to members of various tribes (we’re calling them the Hard-to-Shop-Fors) to find out exactly what to get that serious home cook, skin-care Redditor, or gamer in your life. Think of it as a window into their brain trust — or at least a very helpful starting point.
The best teacher gifts aren’t knickknacks or desk objets shaped like pencils or apples. The best gifts for teachers are heartfelt, practical, and generally fall into one of two categories: things that can be used in the classroom to enhance students’ experiences, or gifts that make a teacher’s already-difficult job a little nicer — think relaxing things here. But giving gifts that are over-the-top expensive can easily fall into an against-school-policy gray area (unless you pool resources from multiple parents or families).
To find the best gifts for teachers from students and their parents that are both practical and personal, we talked with teachers from kindergarten to middle school, ESL to music and the arts, about the unique gifts they actually want. Below, 26 teacher-approved gift ideas that your kid’s teacher (or the teacher in your life) will genuinely appreciate. Don’t miss all of the Strategist’s holiday gift coverage right here, too.
Gifts for the classroom
Even the smallest gifts, when personalized, can make a huge impact says Kate a music teacher at a Boston-area private school. “For me, as a music teacher, the kids need to have pencils to mark their parts. I think a great classroom gift would be boxes of customized pencils with the school’s name or the name of the class/ensemble.”
Another much-appreciated classroom-related gift would be “Expo markers! Teachers are always running out, and they can get really pricey,” explains Marty Rogachefsky, operations manager at Neighborhood House Charter School in Boston, Massachusetts.
“I totally second the idea of classroom supplies,” says Gus Jacobson, a high-school English and theater teacher in New York City. “Multicolored pens like the Paper Mate Flair series are very popular right now, especially with middle school English teachers. Those can get fairly pricey when you buy in bulk, so it’s not a bad idea!”
Finn Menzies, a first grade teacher at Lowell Elementary in Seattle, Washington recommends giving the eco-friendly gift of lamination, something all lower school teachers can appreciate. “I mean, honestly, it would probably be a laminator. It just makes my centers [classroom work stations] last so much longer and our school’s machine is broken. It’s also an ecological factor. If I have to print papers for each kid — Oh my God — but if I laminate the sheets and they use dry erase marker, I’m saving paper and also I can use the same sheet over and over for years.”
“Stuff I usually end up buying on my own or with gift cards from parents that are also great presents are age-appropriate books that go with the themes we study, such as ancient Egypt, the Ice Age, and the Amazon,” says Tracey Bernier, a kindergarten teacher in Arlington, Massachusetts. So ask your kid’s teacher if there are any topics coming up for which you can buy books to share with the class.
For grade school children of any gender who are starting to learn about American history and could do with some feminist inspiration, this “illustrated, encyclopedic collection of ladies who kicked butt,” as writer Jen Doll describes it, is a no-brainer for a progressive classroom.
“My all-time favorite gift is a picture book full of fun class pictures from the year, from Shutterfly or any of those websites that print books, with handwritten notes from my students within the book or on the back pages,” says Laura Owen, a fifth-grade language arts and social studies teacher at Franklin Academy in Pembroke Pines, Florida. “I like those better than CDs or picture slideshows.” This rainbow yearbook from Mixbook is easily customizable (and would be particularly nice as a present for a teacher who’s retiring).
Giving the gift of continued education is a fun alternative to giving products, says Monica Cohen a visual arts educator in New York City. “A useful classroom gift would be a membership to a subscription site for educators — this could be Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, superteacherworksheets.com, depending on the subject and students benefit as well. I’m a visual arts teacher and so a membership to a local museum would be really nice.” This makes a great group gift too.
“With so much focus on test scores, we don’t get a lot of time to have fun. However, games like Boggle, Taboo Junior, Scrabble, and Apples to Apples Junior are fun and educational. They help teach students new vocabulary and get us all giggling. If I could receive one thing it would be one of these games.” — Christina Ziegler, Reading Consultant in Connecticut
Tim Lesinski, a high-school Latin teacher at Newton North High School in Newton, Massachusetts, would appreciate, “a desk calendar — in particular, a word-of-the-day or trivia-fact desk calendar. We can display these in the classroom, and it’s something that both we and our students can enjoy.”
Gifts for the teacher
No one deserves some pampering like teachers because they spend their time taking care of other people all day long. Liz Kleinrock, Teacher and Diversity Coordinator at Citizens of the World Silver Lake in Los Angeles, says that the gift of a massage or other spa treatment is sure to be a winner. “My suggestion is to gift teachers experiences, rather than things. Self care is incredibly important for teachers, but I do find that when I have extra money, I’m often inclined to spend it on books or materials for my students rather than myself.”
“Bath salts are always nice, teachers work hard, and they work long hours, often arriving at school around 7 a.m. and staying up late at home marking tests and homework. It’s nice when parents give a gift that says “Thank you for spending so much time caring about my child — we’d love to know that you are taking some time for yourself now.” Kate, a music teacher at a Boston-area private school.
“Nice candles are always welcome since they get used up and are expensive,” says Elizabeth George, a preschool teacher in Manhattan. This scent from Voluspa is apparently one of Selena Gomez’s favorites, and though it looks fancy, it’s under $20.
Several of the teachers we talked to, including Cecily White-Cooper, ESL Teacher and education blogger, mentioned wanting a nice bottle of wine or gift card to a wine shop. “Depending on how well you know the teacher, a gift card to a wine, spirits shop would be very much appreciated.” If you want your gift to give back as well, consider buying wine from a vineyard in Malibu, California, many of which were devastated by the recent Woolsey fire. Your purchase or subscription can help them and their families rebuild.
George would also like “a nice water bottle, like S’well, since we drink a lot of water and those are pricey and useful forever.”
“All teachers have two things in common: We all need coffee and are generally nerds,” jokes Regan Marin, an eighth-grade Earth-science teacher in Queens. “That’s why I think the perfect gift for me would be a science-themed coffee mug. If you want extra credit, aim for the ones that are temperature sensitive. Last year, I got one that turned my dinosaurs into fossils. This year, I have my eye on a star-themed mug that turns into constellations when you get it hot.”
The best gifts show that you pay attention to somebody’s hobbies, likes and dislikes and that you cared enough to tie them into your gift. “I’m currently looking for something fun to spice up my work wardrobe.” says Jake Ziegler a Math Teacher in New Jersey “Socks from creative designers such as Stance or Bombas make great gifts. Stance sells socks that follow my interests like Star Wars or Major League Baseball. Bombas offers a great collection of comfortable, colorful socks that keep my feet cool and relaxed.”
“If a student got me a foam roller (or the even fancier RumbleRoller, hint, hint), I would be thrilled,” says Dan Safer, head of movement training at New York University’s Playwrights Horizons Theater School. “After teaching five dance classes in a row, I am ALWAYS sore, and having a foam roller available everywhere I go — several of different lengths at home, one at school, a short one for when I travel, etc. — would rock. This would even be good for a math teacher. I mean, everyone gets sore, right?”
Terrill Caplan, Coordinator of Student Activities and House Advisor at The Dalton School in Manhattan, agrees the best gifts are personal and show you’ve been paying attention. “Books relating to a course you teach or a conversation you had are always appreciated. When I get a gift that shows kids have come home and talked about conversations we have had or interests we share, it really means a lot. I work with high school students so, for example, if we had a lot of conversations about friendship and I was gifted The Neapolitan Series that would be great.”
Jenn Giustino, an elementary school music teacher, would appreciate, “some sort of array of cute sanitizers or set with lotion, such as from Bath & Body Works. I love this because I certainly go through a ton of both working with younger kids.” This hand-care duo from Philosophy comes with hand wash and lotion, perfect if there’s a sink in the classroom.
Stella Benezra, a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing in the Bronx, agrees that “gentle, natural hand sanitizers” would be nice. SNL comedian Aidy Bryant tipped us off to the gentle-yet-multipurpose Jao Hand Refresher, explaining, “I also spray it on mattresses, zits, makeup brushes, and clothes but mostly armpits. It’s truly not just for hands.”
If you’re still in doubt about what gift to give a teacher, there’s one fail-safe option. “Families often mean well by trying to get you something very specific and elegant but most teachers actually need things that are boring and unglamorous.” says Caplan ”A parent thanking me in a note attached to a gift card can mean a lot and also be used to help purchase a new vacuum I need, groceries, or fun night out with friends.”
“I am lucky enough to work in a school that provides any resource I might need for my students. This year, however, I have partnered with or used resources from a few incredible organizations that continue to work to engage high schoolers in meaningful work,” says Griffin Pepper, an 11th-grade government, civics, and journalism teacher at E.L. Haynes Public Charter High School in Washington, D.C. “All I really want is to support these organizations, like Mikva Challenge, [which] provides students [with] authentic opportunities to become civically engaged and solve problems impacting their communities. This year, our 11th-graders participated in Project Soapbox, a speech competition that asks students to identify an issue impacting their communities and how we can address it.”
You can do that same exercise with your child, asking them about what issues were addressed in the classroom or that they care about and make a donation in their teacher’s name. Jacobson also suggests a membership to a museum or theater company for an arts teacher: “More personal gifts are always better. I’d make sure to talk with my child about their impressions of the teacher. Inside jokes go a long way.”
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