No One Wants Another Mug: A Brutally Honest Guide to Holiday Teacher Gifts

Every year around the holidays I get a few gifts from my students. Most high school students don’t give teacher gifts, so I always have one of those “You like me, you really like me!” moments when a student does. 

I also get questions from fellow parents about good teacher gift ideas. I always tell them the same thing: A heartfelt card is the best gift of all. Remember the brutal honesty part of this post? I am not just saying this because it sounds good. I have every card a student has ever given me. Kind words mean more than a tangible gift ever could.

However, I know you don’t want to hear “Just a card is nice.” I’m a parent too and I want to show teachers how much I appreciate the time, effort and money they put into making school an awesome place. I once had a friend with some amazing special needs kids who just cut right to the chase and sent their teachers a bottle of alcohol. Another teacher friend remembers a $50 gift card for Victoria’s Secret from a seventh-grader in her very first classroom in the Bronx: “It was weird, but I totally used it.” However, since alcohol and lingerie may not be your go-to teacher gifts, I have compiled an honest list of gifts teachers love and those they could do without.

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The not-so-hot gifts:

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1. Mugs, travel cups, water bottles

I am not a fan of mugs and cups. Teachers get a lot of these. I don’t drink coffee at work (Ask your teacher how often she can make it to the bathroom during the day… Coffee is not a good idea!). I can only use so many mugs as pencil holders, and my travel mug/water bottle cabinet at home is already overflowing.

2. Homemade food items

I know I’m going to get some hate on this one, but I promised you brutal honesty, so here it is. I am a germ-a-phobe. Pot lucks gross me out. I have also seen one too many teen movies where the kids do something to the teacher’s food or drink. Although I always appreciate the gesture, I do not eat home-made treats brought to me by students. I’m sure your teacher is much nicer and less picky than I, but I would still suggest store-bought treats if you want to go that route.

3. Scented lotions and candles

When I asked, I heard this one over and over. One teacher said “With all love and appreciation, please no more lotion!” Many people mentioned sensitive skin, allergies or collections of lotion gifts under the bathroom sink that they never use. Teachers are not allowed to burn candles at school, and we pretty much live at school, so those are out too.

The good gift categories:

1. Things to keep at school

Teachers love school supplies. It’s half the reason we went into teaching. Office supply stores are like toy stores for teachers. Teachers also spend a LOT of their own money on their classrooms. I love getting nice pens or cute note pads as gifts. This past year I gave both my girls’ teachers a pack of my favorite Flair marker-pens. I got a note saying “Thank you for my favorite pens of all time!” They are amazing pens, people. You could also add pretty paper clips or binder clips to some of these items to make a cute gift set.

Teachers also spend long hours at school. If you ever see your child’s teacher for a 7 p.m. conference, chances are she has been there since 7 a.m. Sometimes I make a “survival kit” gift by putting useful items into a pretty box or bag: nail files, lipgloss, facial blotting papers, a tooth brush, mouthwash, breath mints. I know it’s hard to believe, but sometimes you aren’t totally fresh after herding 30 kids all day long. Also, Tylenol. I never have Tylenol when I REALLY need some.

2. Hand-made items

Some of my favorite gifts have been things students made themselves- a scarf, crocheted pot holders and dish scrubbies, bead earrings. 

I make cards in my non-existent free time. Last year along with the awesome marker pens (see above) I gave each teacher a set of 10 birthday and thank-you cards to keep on hand. Even if you don’t make them yourself, a set of cards your teacher could keep on hand for forgotten birthdays and a nice pen would make a great gift.

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3. Snacks, chocolate, and coffee!

Teachers love to eat. I currently have an entire desk drawer dedicated to little packs of hummus and pita chips and other semi-healthy snacks for the days I forget to pack a lunch. I have another drawer dedicated to chocolate. You could put together a snack basket for your teacher with shelf stable items and even bottles or water or soda. Sometimes I forget a water bottle and go thirsty all day because I don’t have time to go looking for a clean cup!

When I asked about favorite gifts, another teacher said “Chocolate, coffee. In that order.” Many mentioned that they loved getting gift cards for local restaurants of coffee places as well.

4. Unexpected, personal or slightly quirky

As a moving gift, a student brought me a doormat for my new home that said “Hola/Adiós” (I’m a Spanish teacher.) I think of this thoughtful student ever time I step out the door!

Another teacher mentioned a rose bush and said “Every time I see it I think of my first year of teaching and the sweet girl that gave it to me.”

An English teacher described a basket woven from pages of The New Yorker. Extra points for this one also being hand-made.

One teacher described getting a pair of cute, comfy leggings and said “What a great surprise!”

While most teachers I asked said “Please no more ‘#1 Teacher’ photo frames,” one of my most treasured classroom decorations is a photo the class took on a day I was out, then each student signed his or her name in gold pen around the black frame. A music teacher mentioned a Christmas ornament signed by each member of a family she taught.


Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

5. Books!

Teachers love books and classroom libraries are expensive! Many elementary teachers said that books for the classroom are a great gift. I like to give bookstore or online retailer gift cards and include a note asking the teacher to use it for her classroom or her own fun summer reading.

6. Gift cards

So many teachers mentioned gift cards. Coffee shops and restaurants are always appreciated. Try a mani/pedi or salon gift card if you want to be a little more personal. Sometimes I add a bookstore gift card to a basket of school supplies or a $10 coffee shop card to the survival kit I mentioned above.

It really is the thought that counts

As I was collecting ideas from others teachers for this post, I heard some hilarious stories about used lip gloss, an open jar of pickles and even a coupon for a weight loss center. But over and over each teacher said “I still appreciated the gesture.” (Except the weight loss coupon recipient!)

Many teachers reiterated my thoughts on thank you notes. Ultimately, your child’s teacher is there because he or she loves kids and wants to inspire in them to a lifetime of learning, knowing that they are succeeding is the best gift of all!



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