Are you still shopping for last-minute teacher gifts? Good! I've caught you in time.
Most teacher gift guides will help you decide how much to spend. This guide will encourage you to spend $0.
That's not because I don't love teachers. I've spent the majority of my career teaching, and my colleagues are the most creative, thoughtful, innovative people I know. That's how I know they don't deserve the gifts you're giving them.
Many teacher gifts don't scale well. A gift may seem thoughtful or funny or cute, but next to 24 similarly thoughtful, funny, cute things it loses its allure. Coffee mugs are a prime example. If the average elementary school teacher receives 5 "best teacher" mugs each year, and teaches for 30 years, that's 150 best teacher mugs, which means that teacher has 150 mugs too many. The same problem of scale is true for edible gifts. If every kid in the class brings cookies, a teacher of 25 students will be gifted an average of 150,000 calories before school's out for swimsuit season. Eating all of those cookies will net the teacher 42 pounds.
Many other teacher gifts may not mesh with the teacher's personal style. You probably hold strong opinions about the scents in your home: perfume, bubble bath, candles. So are other people. You're probably particular to clothing and jewelry styles. So are other people.
Still other teacher gifts send the wrong message. Take the most popular gift: the apple. Whether they're on a mug, in an edible arrangement, or on a tote bag, if you're giving apple-themed gifts to the teacher at the close of the school year, you're 9 months too late. In the days when communities were responsible for feeding school teachers, apples may have been considered a treat and sign of appreciation. But according to Smithsonian, apples were also considered a way of tricking the teacher into thinking a student had learned his lessons. Giving an apple to your child's teacher at the end of the year, then, subtly argues that your child has learned nothing. That's the worst gift a teacher can receive.
The philosophical costs of teacher gifts
Aside from the problems of particular types of gifts, the act of gifting itself presents more philosophical problems. Many parents frame their gifts as apologies. After dealing with my child all year, that teacher needs a wine store gift certificate. But remember, that's the job. Your child's teachers have decided to enter the field of teaching, perhaps precisely because they enjoy working with all kinds of kids.
End-of-year gifts are also problematic because they can de-legitimize the work that teachers do. Your child's teachers don't deserve end-of-year gifts because they deserve so much more. They are paid employees doing a job. Giving them gifts as a means of telling them they are doing a good job isn't as important as paying them for a good job in the first place. What might the overall portrait of education look like if all of the money parents spent on teacher gifts was donated to teacher unions instead? Or spent lobbying for school improvements and higher teacher salaries?
Exceptions to the no-gift rule
Maybe you are in a school district where teacher gifting is expected. Or maybe you just can't stand the idea of not personally thanking your child's teacher for his/her work. Here are four permissible exceptions to the no gifts rule.
Exception #1: Any gift your child makes for a teacher is a good gift. Teaching your children gratitude is one of the things a good teacher is doing. Let that teacher see evidence of that gratitude by keeping your hands off of your child's end-of-year gift.
Exception #2: Teachers always need classroom supplies. You'd be surprised how much of their own money teachers spend on their classrooms. If you cannot part with the idea of buying an end-of-year gift, ask what the teacher wants for the classroom and buy it.
Exception #3: Always leave a note. As an educator, the hands-down best gifts I received were the hand-written thank you notes from students telling me what they learned. The gift cards are spent, the knickknacks long ago disposed of. But I still have every one of the cards.
Exception #4: If you have asked your child's teacher to do something outside of the requirements of his or her job, then by all means pay for that effort. Maybe your child's elementary school teacher writes a recommendation that helps your child earn a scholarship. Maybe your child's middle school math teacher has been coming to your house to offer private tutoring. Maybe your child's high school teacher wrote standout letters of recommendation during the college admissions process. Those situations are not part of the teacher's regular pay and absolutely warrant extra compensation on your part. You don't need to overthink this. Pay them for that effort, whether it's cash or gift card.