What Teachers Really Want at the End of the Year


This would be nice.

One would think that the end of the school year would be a teacher’s favorite time of year. Because, you know, school is ending, and we all know that teachers have only chosen a woefully low-paying and difficult profession for the perk of having summers “off”. (See this post for more about my take on the teaching profession.)

This is not, in fact, the case. When I was in the classroom, the end of the school year was filled with stress and anxiety. There were angry parents to deal with. (Well, Johnny’s mom, I understand that you are upset that your son might fail social studies, but remember the 800 emails I sent you about how Johnny was drawing tiny stick-figure Hitlers instead of taking notes?) There were awards ceremonies and field days to plan, locker clean-out to supervise. There were days, far too many days after the state tests were over, to fill with activities that would keep spring-feverish adolescents happy and occupied. The hallways were filled with an air of crazed giddiness that simmered and threatened to explode.

It was all a bit much, really, but it felt manageable (well, manageable-ish) because it was also the time of year when I felt most appreciated. There were years when I received a lot of end-of-the-year gifts. There were years when I received fewer. But it was always special to watch a quiet kid come forward with his or her offering and wait while I opened it. It made me feel good to know that there were students and parents out there who felt I was deserving of a small token of gratitude.

If you are a parent who purchases end-of-the-year teacher gifts, read on. If you are a parent who gives your child’s teacher nothing at the end of the year, please stop reading now and go immediately to church. There is nothing you can do now but pray that God will forgive you and spare you the agony of hellfire.

Let’s be clear here: teachers are thrilled to receive any gift at all. We aren’t picky. You could give us an imprint of a raccoon’s foot in a piece of concrete (an actual gift given to a teacher friend of mine) and we’d be like, “Wow, that kid is telling me that I made an imprint on his soul. That is SO nice!”


A 7th grader gave this to me and my heart melted.

Now that I’m no longer a teacher, I feel I can put it out there: All teacher gifts are not made equal. So pay attention, because these are the end-of-the-year gifts that teachers really want:

1. Alcohol. Sometimes your children drive us to drink. As this is, however, unacceptable in most cases, let’s move on.

2. Gift Cards. Give a teacher a little plastic rectangle loaded with money and they will spend it. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are always, always a sure thing, but feel free to get creative. One of my favorites was when a student gave me a gift card to the movie theater. I almost never go to the movies, but it gave me an excuse to get out for a date night, which is a precious gift in itself. A bookstore, a restaurant, Target… honestly, it doesn’t matter. Teachers heart practicality. And did I mention that they don’t get paid enough?

3. Baked Goods (to Share). When I taught the children of a local restauranteur, he and his wife used to send in a cheesecake for the teachers to eat at lunchtime one day toward the end of the year. This was amazing because it was cheesecake, obviously, but also because unlike when I was given a personal bucket full of cookies just for me, I couldn’t stash it in my desk drawer and binge on it for a week straight.


I’ve been known to bake banana bread for my children’s preschool teachers. If it’s terrible, they haven’t told me.

4. Something They Can Actually Use: You can always tailor it to the teacher and what you know about him or her. Is he a coffee-drinker? Is she always searching through her bag for a tube of Burts Bees? One of the cutest gifts I ever received from a student was nail polish. It was clear that she had picked out each color specifically for a certain teacher, like she was trying to match the teacher’s personality. Doesn’t work for most male teachers, but you can give them, I don’t know, a beard trimmer or something. Other gifts in this category: throw blankets, nice hand soap (teaching is a germy profession), a mug or tumbler, a beach towel, stationery.

5. Good Old Appreciation: If you want to give your child’s teacher a gift, then by all means, do it. They will be grateful. They will not turn it away. If nothing else, give them an old-fashioned thank you, in whatever form you wish that to take. Give them a drawing that your child made just for her teacher. Send her to school on the last day with strict instructions to verbally express to her teacher just how much she learned this year. Maybe even throw in a hug, if everyone involved is cool with that.

I received a lot of gifts when I was in the classroom, but a hand-written note from a student or parent expressing sincere thanks for the impact I made on their child and the work I did in order to teach them? I mean, that would be worth at least three cheesecakes. Maybe four. And I would binge on those words all. summer. long.


Seriously, even if this is all your kid can write. The teachers will EAT IT UP.

Could Anything Have Kept Me in the Classroom?


Almost exactly a year ago, I sat at my desk in the classroom where I had taught middle school social studies for three years. Spring break was starting, but I was furiously trying to finish grading a project that students had just turned in, a timeline of the major events of World War II. Grades had to be entered and finalized a few days after the break, but I wouldn’t be returning. My third child was due to make an appearance in the next couple of weeks, and I had decided that juggling three children under the age of five AND a full-time teaching job just wasn’t doable for me. Something had to go, and teaching was it.

I spent eight years of my life teaching, six of them in public school. Deciding to leave the classroom was a process that took several years and caused me serious mental anguish. The truth is, I loved my job. I loved the feeling of camaraderie I shared with the other school employees. I loved the vast majority of the kids, excluding the ones who went out of their way to be assholes. (Yes, I said it. Sometimes seventh-graders are assholes.) I loved when I made an obscure joke about Napoleon and ten percent of the students actually got it. There were many things about teaching that were creative and fun and rewarding. But then there was all the other stuff.


Things teachers do: Dress up like their favorite author and host of “Crash Course: World History”

I stay in close touch with many of my teacher friends. Each time we get together, I hear them talk about school, and I marvel at the fact that I stayed afloat for as long as I did. Their daily lives read like a revised version of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried: They carry laptop cases. They carry Thirty-One bags stuffed to bursting with spelling tests and homework sheets and lab reports. They carry their lunches in microwaveable Pyrex containers of various sizes. They carry the burden of responsibility, not just for their students’ education, but for the children themselves, who carry their personal histories with them to class each day. They carry frustration, thinly-veiled, about the newest accountability initiative forced on them from the top down to prove that they are doing their jobs effectively, in a way that can be quantified.

They carry too much. I was carrying too much. Leaving the classroom was a viable option for me financially, and I understand that my ability to choose to leave was an enormous privilege. For me, it was the right choice. Even though my days at home are equally challenging and equally exhausting, I don’t regret my decision for a second. But I wonder, sometimes, if there is anything that could have convinced me to stay. If the conditions were different, perhaps. The answer is, frankly, yes. And I need someone out there, someone who has some kind of power over the working lives of our country’s educators, to hear me.

I left the classroom because I couldn’t do it all. Thousands and thousands of other really dedicated teachers have done the same. What would have made the difference? For starters:

Pay teachers more. Like a good teacher, I did some research. Nationwide, in 2014 the median salary for a middle school teacher was $54,940.  Actually, I didn’t make anywhere close to that. Who gets paid more, on average, than teachers? According to the same U.S. News and World Report list, MRI technologists and dental hygienists are just a couple of the listed occupations with a higher median income than teachers. I’m not hating on MRI technologists or dental hygienists; my husband is a dentist, and I know how important it is to have skilled, sociable hygienists. Those ladies rock. My point, I guess, is that these are jobs that don’t necessarily require a four-year degree, and that you don’t take home with you, at least not in the, “Honey, I know you need mommy to get you a snack, but I’m just finishing up this dental cleaning,” kind of way. And for the many teachers who hold a Masters degree, it’s discouraging, to say the least, to be at the bottom of the list of earnings potential with a graduate degree.

Okay, so you’re not willing to pay us more. At least reduce class sizes to ease the burden. In South Carolina, where I taught for six years, class sizes in grades 6-12 cannot legally exceed a ratio of 30 students to 1 teacher. For those of you who have never tried to teach a room full of thirty 12 and 13-year-olds about Imperialism in Asia in the 1800s, I dare you to try. Also, I taught five class periods per day. So I could have potentially been dealing with 150 students every day. I could have been grading 150 tests, 150 essays, 150 homework assignments. Luckily, I think the most I ever had was 130, but seriously. Do people even understand what they are asking teachers to do? IT IS INSANITY. It is unsustainable. Oh right, and then there’s the whole proven fact that students learn better in smaller classes.

Do what is in the best interest of the students. Students get the most out of school when their teachers are happy. I have no evidence for this statement, though I’m sure there’s some study out there. But let’s look at it this way: At home, if I’m stressed, my kids feel it. At school, it’s no different. A teacher who is distracted by her ever-growing list of responsibilities and pressured to get her students to perform is going to be less focused on the children in front of her, and aren’t they the whole point?

Next year I will send my oldest child to kindergarten. I know she’ll learn. But I want her teachers to have space in their lives to love her, the way I felt loved by my public school teachers when I was in school. And I want to make sure that her teachers feel appreciated, not just by me, but by the society they are serving. I just don’t think that’s asking too much.