Stand and Deliver! The Etiquette of Teacher Gifts

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Illustration by Brian Taylor.

A few years ago, my friend Kabir raked in an amazing Christmas haul at work. “I got a cashmere sweater, really expensive wine, a super nice pen, a Le Creuset pan, a free dinner at Craft, opera tickets to the Met and a $150 watch,” he remembered. “Plus gift cards to everything from Dean & DeLuca to Banana Republic. I never got cash, but the gift cards added up to over a thousand bucks!”

Kabir is not a hedge fund manager, a high-end male escort, or—despite the fitting first letter of his name—a backup Kardashian. In fact, at the time of this unbelievable bounty, he was a 25-year-old assistant kindergarten teacher at the Grace Church School. 

When the holidays roll around, there are plenty of handy guides to tell you how much to give your mail carrier, your doorman or your dog walker. But what to get the beleaguered liberal arts grad marinating in Yellow Tail Shiraz and student loans who molds the mind of your child?

I’m referring, of course, to teachers, the most vexing of all gift recipients. They provide a service, sure, but educating your flesh and blood isn’t exactly on par with touching up your roots. Then again, you’re probably a lot closer to your stylist than to the person you entrust with your children every day. Their gift shouldn’t be a nominal tip, but it’s impossible (even bordering on inappropriate) to make it personal. And, perhaps most important of all, it should send the right message, whether you intend it as a token of appreciation, a status symbol, or even a cleverly disguised bribe.

I find myself already agonizing over a future of gift-giving. As a freelance writer, I may never make much more than a teacher’s salary, so will they understand if I eschew Bergdorf Goodman in favor of a pan of gingerbread? (What if it has Guinness stout in it, does that sweeten the deal?) Will the value of an iTunes gift card mean the difference between a fun, gossipy parent-teacher conference and one in which the teacher gives me the side-eye and pointedly calls me “ma’am”?

Teachers themselves attest that their haul this time of year ranges from a tower of home-made snickerdoodles to a necklace hand-picked from David Yurman’s private collection. “Gift certificates are probably the best,” one told me, “Because cash can be awkward.” But off the record, the consensus is that the higher the price tag, the better the gift—after all, there’s always resale value on eBay.

The city’s public schools are bastions of construction-paper cards, and well, worse. Susie, a teacher in Jackson Heights, gets “lots of Russell Stover chocolates, regifted jewelry and the like,” she said, adding that arroz con leche is a real treat in comparison. One wonders whatever prompted her to relocate to Queens from the Upper West Side, where a former private school colleague of hers was given $600 in cash one year. (“Any sort of thank-you means a lot,” she insisted.)

The thing is, public schools have tried to ban gifts outright. (I hear that Mayor Bloomberg also sends a yearly memo asking teachers not to accept presents of monetary value, which is summarily ignored.)

So what usually happens now is that a volunteer will collect money from everyone for a class gift, through a series of emails that some parents disregard altogether.“I don’t know what everyone’s situation is,” said a class parent in charge of just such duties. “But there are always people who give nothing and people who give a lot more than average, and am I going to think the people who ignore my emails are assholes? Yeah.”

Private schools have cheapskates too. One class parent recalls a “crazy rich” father who took issue with the $30 minimum donation she requested from each parent toward the teacher’s holiday gift. “You’re spending $30,000 a year to send your kid to school and you’re richer than God,” she said. “And you’re taking issue with spending $30 on your teachers?”

That’s chump change to Kelly, whose kids attend a private school where parents typically pony up $250 for teacher gifts. “Some give one really showy thing, like a bottle of nice Barolo, and others make a gift basket with a lot of smaller things that give the impression of being more extravagant,” she said.

This, naturally, incites panic. “You don’t want to be the only one giving a bag full of Clinique samples or whatever when everyone else is going big,” she said. “So right now, in early December, you get a lot more chatting during drop-off, with people finding out what everyone else is doing. You wonder, is this enough? Am I getting them less than everyone else?”

A few years ago, it was much worse. “All I remember is that one year I was buying little boxes of Godiva truffles, and the next year I was seriously considering getting my youngest daughter’s third grade teacher a Chanel wallet,” said Joyce, a mother of three daughters who attended an elite all-girls private school.

One teacher, who has been at her school for nine years and who refused to allow even her extremely common first name into print for fear of being fired, says that she once received a class gift (funded collectively by over 25 parents) with a retail value of almost $7,000.

To curb competition, some schools have started collecting money anonymously to divide equally among teachers, not unlike tips at a dive bar (although presumably more lucrative). Meanwhile, Brooklyn Friends, Brearley and Collegiate, among others, have a homemade gifts-only policy to avoid any haggling over money, but the results have been mixed. While some parents “buy cookies from a bakery and just stick them in a Tupperware,” according to one former teacher, other school parents interpret “homemade” to mean much more than cupcakes.

“A well-known photographer once offered to take my head shots,” said the former teacher. “And I rationalized it, because it was technically something he made. It was just something that should have cost me tens of thousands of dollars.” (Incidentally, a note to my son’s future educators: I would be happy to write a column about you for no charge.)

But the unrestricted, above-board free-for-all continues at plenty of places. And I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school to say that in the end, that is the policy that some teachers love best, if not parents. “The guilt that very rich parents feel at having their children educated and raised by young people making $29,000 a year is a strange thing,” Kabir—now out of the educational sector and resigned to his gift card-less existence—observes. “But, being young and broke, it was fucking awesome.”