Teacher Holiday Gift-Giving Etiquette 101

Every year, it happens. December sneaks up on parents, and suddenly, it’s time to come up with holiday gifts for our kids’ teachers. But this particular present often comes with questions: How much should we spend? To whom do we give it? What type of gift is appropriate, and when should we give it?

Luckily, we spoke with some helpful teachers to get the lowdown on school gifting (real talk: They have enough scented candles). The consensus was that gift cards are your best bet. And we got Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette and modern manners expert, to weigh in with helpful holiday tips and her own handy guide to school gift-giving. Read on for the truth about teacher gifts, and happy giving!

What to gift

Most teachers tell SheKnows that gift cards are what they prefer. Especially those that can be used on classroom supplies (sadly). Skip the knickknacks, parents. JoAnna Beernaert is a teacher near Hartford, Connecticut, and she tells SheKnows parents should avoid giving “weird-smelling candles, any kind of chocolate, homemade cookies (sorry moms!) or random weird gifts from home goods. Less stuff!”

Etiquette expert Schweitzer says to remember to check the school’s gift-giving policy before you buy. School gifting culture varies, and sometimes, certain gifts are prohibited. “Public and private schools vary, and some items are considered attempts to influence grades, especially cash and gift cards used as cash,” says Schweitzer. It’s always good to check with the front-office staff.

Some schools organize group gifts via room parents, which takes the guesswork out of what to give. And pooling also avoids favoritism, says Schweitzer.

As for how much to contribute, “I think it’s up to what the parents can afford,” says Jeannette Ybarra Childs, whose Redondo Beach, California, elementary school does group gifts. She says the average is $50 to $100 per parent toward a gift card. “Don’t go broke trying to impress,” Ybarra Childs tells SheKnows, “give from the heart.”

Lisa Santos Jackson teaches kindergarten in Los Angeles and tells SheKnows she receives mostly gift cards to places like Starbucks, Amazon and Target, and the average amount per card is $25.

“As a teacher, the best gifts are gift cards I can use on supplies for the classroom,” Shari Selman tells SheKnows. “Places like Amazon, Target, Michaels. The truth is we spend a lot of our own money on your children before we even meet them, so to have gift cards to help with supplies would be much appreciated.”

“I never expect anything. I just want them have amazing memories, focus on being kind and do the best they can in my class,” Heather Morlock, who teaches elementary school in Redondo Beach, California, tells SheKnows. “With that being said, the families spoil us teachers at our school. I would say gift cards are probably the most common. Between $25 and $100 from over half the students, and the rest may get gifts. Gift cards allow teachers to treat themselves more than they normally would be able to. It’s always fun getting gifts from kids as well; things that they notice you eat or things you say you like in the class and make the gift more personalized.”

Jessica McClure taught kindergarten at a Tustin, California, private school, so she received luxury gifts like Tiffany’s and coach purses, she tells SheKnows. “But I also got Target and Starbucks gift cards. For my own children, I did Pinterest projects.”

Price range

Let’s tackle the subject most parents are interested in: What price range is “average” or appropriate per teacher? Our etiquette expert would like to remind parents, “You don’t have to spend a lot of money, and sometimes, a handwritten note from the heart is the best gesture of appreciation.” That said, Schweitzer says that, depending on the school policy, $50 may be appropriate (and she prefers a pooled gift) if your child has the same teacher throughout the day. “If your child has the teacher for just one period of the day, $10 to $20 is appropriate.”

Melissa Verity Baral teaches kindergarten in Los Angeles and tells SheKnows most parents give $25 to $50 gift cards. Atari Sno has been an elementary and preschool teacher, and she cautions parents to consider the gift card source when choosing the amount. Don’t give an amount to an expensive store or establishment because you don’t want the teacher to have to spend money to use the gift card. “I had some gift certificates for years because I didn’t have the money to come out of my pocket to use them, and I didn’t feel right regifting them,” Sno tells SheKnows.

Kimmi Anaya-Rodas taught middle school in Riverside County, California, and tells SheKnows she saw a $10 per gift average. Since kids in middle and high school have more subjects, those teachers get smaller gifts (if any). After-school teacher Erica Willis tells SheKnows she sees parents spending between $10 to $20 on gifts.

Don’t forget older grades

Preschool and elementary teachers get gifts aplenty, but don’t forget about middle and high school teachers. Even though there are more of them, they like to feel appreciated too. Natalie Arrington taught high school in Los Angeles, and while she never expected gifts, she tells SheKnows a few kids would bring in gifts up to $20. But her best gifts were free: good behavior! “All I wanted was the kids to try their best in my class and be kind to each other. Just one good day where a kid pays attention and tries their best!” She says a thoughtful card or note is always appreciated as well; parents needn’t spend money.

Burbank, California, parent Alice Clark’s husband and family are teachers. She says parents should feel free to give whatever they want for high school; her husband gets maybe 5 to 10 things per holiday season. “When you have a lot of teachers, even a $5 Target or Amazon card is appreciated and adds up,” Clark tells SheKnows. “Gift cards are best unless you really know the teacher and what they like. Personalized stuff is cute, but it adds up fast.”

“I remember getting a small craft box filled with holiday candy and I was so happy someone remembered me,” says former middle school teacher Lisa Welch Rhee. “Why do the upper grade teachers get left out? Part of it is having six or seven teachers to buy for… some may be couldn’t afford it… And some… well, parents tend to disengage when their kids hit middle school,” she tells SheKnows.

Angela Johnson Malone teaches middle school and tells SheKnows they truly don’t expect anything but “a $5 Starbucks/Sonic/Chick-fil-A gift card is like receiving a gold medal for a middle/high school teacher.”

“The best gifts are those letters that bring tears,” says Rodas.

Glendale middle school teacher Beth Curtis agrees it’s difficult for parents to buy so many gifts once their kids have more teachers. “I really do appreciate it when parents give us a $5 gift card! I generally get between $5 and $50 — the $50 is rare, but so exciting — gift cards.”

When to give

When should your child bring the gift in to give? You might assume the day before break, but Schweitzer cautions that it’s best not to wait until the last day before vacation to give your teacher a gift because you run the risk of the teacher being out. “About 1 to 2 weeks before Christmas vacation is a good reference,” she says. But also, play it by ear according to your individual school. “You can also gauge the right time by when other people start bringing in gifts for the teacher.”

Special cases

What about a unique scenario, like the teacher dislikes the child or vice versa? It doesn’t matter, says Schweitzer. “Your gift should not be based on whether or not your child likes the teacher,” she explains. “Teachers are your partners in raising your children. Leave your personal feelings out of it, and show your gratitude for the time and effort this person shows to prepare your kids for the future.” Good advice!

Who else?

Who else should you gift at the school? After all, your child’s teacher isn’t the only person participating in their education. “Don’t forget about all the people who teach your child — including their classroom teacher, but not exclusively,” Portland, Oregon, elementary literacy coach Karin Harrington tells SheKnows. “Often, those that work more behind the scenes are forgotten.”

“I teach music, string orchestra,” says Beernaert, “Although I don’t spend all day with my students, I am a ‘favorite’ teacher and believe I have a deep impact on kids.” She loves to get written thank-yous from kids “and gift cards — any amount appreciated — with notes from parents.”

Here is Schweitzer’s handy guide to school gifting:

  • Principal: holiday card and baked goods or flowers in vase
  • School teacher: group gift with pooled funds along with child’s handwritten note
  • Multiple teachers: group gift with pooled funds
  • Assistant/aide: holiday card, group gift, gift certificate
  • School secretary: café gift card, small gift or gift certificate
  • School nurse: café gift card, small gift or gift certificate
  • Tutor or private music instructor: café gift card and handwritten thank-you note
  • Day care staff: a card from your child for each staff member, plus a cash or group gift

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