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(Note: FI Lessons are kid-related stories loosely linked to reflections on the search for financial independence. These are NOT intended to be hard-core FI content. You’ve been warned.)
Recently, a friend asked me a question: “What should I get my kid’s teacher? All these articles talk about gifts teachers hate and I don’t want to offend anyone.”
She was referring to those clickbait posts/articles like 15 Gifts Teachers HATE and Teachers Don’t Need Another Mug, and so on. You’ve seen them. They’re everywhere this time of year. I can’t stand them.
The question left me in a bad mood all day. How did we end up in a place where someone feels nervous and stressed about giving a gift? It’s especially frustrating given our profession’s common complaint about never getting respect or appreciation.
In the end, my frustration led me to write this post. It’s a story I hadn’t intended to write, but it’s all true. And, I think, a good reminder.
Holiday times with elementary students are amazing. They’re challenging too, but they generate so many powerful memorable moments. There are the sing-alongs with one kid screaming the lyrics so she can be heard over the rest of the group. There was the time a student wouldn’t tell his mom what we were doing at school (he was making her a gift) so she crept up to stare in the classroom windows.
My favorite moment involved a student named Janet and an unexpected gift.
Janet was a second grader in my 2nd/3rd grade blended class. She was one of the quietest, most reserved students I’ve ever taught. She was tiny. Dark haired, dark eyes and mostly very serious. Every once in a while, she’d get a mischevious smile and those moments were incredible.
Janet was a second language learner. She worked very hard at learning English, and spoke it the way she did just about everything: deliberately and with focused effort.
As an example, if I asked kids how they were doing, a typical response might be “Fine” or “Okay.” If I was lucky, they’d add a “Mr. EFI” on at the end.
Janet’s response was almost always, “I am doing very well today, Mr. EFI. Thank you for asking.” No contractions, no rushing, and in a barely audible voice.
I share this as a long way of saying that words were precious and precise with Janet.
One morning, shortly before winter break, Janet came down the hall and handed me a small wrapped package without saying a word. I thanked her profusely and set it on a table along with the two or three other gifts I’d received. Then, I moved on to starting class for the day.
Partway through our morning, I had just finished with a reading group and was preparing to call the next group up. I felt a tug on my sleeve and looked over to see Janet. “Mr. EFI, when are you going to open your present?”
I was stunned. Janet never spoke first and she NEVER interrupted anything. It was literally the longest sentence I’d ever heard her voluntarily say to an adult. This was important.
So, I told her I’d do it right then. I walked over to the table with Janet folllowing.
I unwrapped her gift to find…
…a polar bear soap dish. Used. With grey soap scum crusted on it.
The polar bear was lying on its back, with a flattened belly area for the bar of soap to rest. I tried to find a picture, but I failed!
I was a bit confused, but I smiled (because I’m not a monster) and said, “Thank you so much, Janet! You didn’t have to get me anything.”
Her response: “You are important to me.”
Then she smiled and went back to her seat to read.
Later, I overheard her tell a friend how much I liked it and that she picked it out at a garage sale because “Mr. PFI really likes polar bears.”
She was so proud. And confused, because to this day I have no idea why she thought I really liked polar bears.
But that’s not the point, is it?
What’s the FI lesson here?
Sometimes, in FI conversations we get focused on the hatred of stuff. Eliminating unnecessary things is how we control spending, make extra income, or even just embrace a simpler life. I’ve seen this come up around gifts a lot lately. Some people are aggressively minimalist.
It’s important to remember that gifts aren’t about the actual item.
And yes, it may be annoying to get something you don’t want or need. But that is about YOU, not the person giving you the gift. There is a difference between requesting others do something different and being ungrateful about an item you’ve been given.
I’m in full support of reducing consumerism and clutter. But griping about a gift doesn’t make you a more actualized person. Quite the opposite.
And if you’re a teacher, before you go to the staff room and complain about getting yet another mug, please remember the mug isn’t the point. Your reaction might mean a whole lot more than you imagine.
Maybe you feel like a Teachers Change Lives mug doesn’t take a lot of thought or energy. Okay, but think about how busy all our lives are. How much free time do you have during the holidays? In the middle of all that, someone spent a moment to think of you.
Great Teacher Gifts
Of course, the best of all worlds is getting someone exactly what they want. In my friend’s case, she was asking about Amazon gift cards. I assured her those would be appreciated. If the teacher didn’t want more personal stuff, they could always find something to order for the classroom.
When I mentioned this conversation on Twitter, I got other helpful responses.
I’m always happy with wine…— Frogdancer Jones (@Frogdancer3) December 11, 2018
Though a year 8 kid just gave me 2 teacups and some gourmet French Earl Grey tea, all beautifully packaged up. I was rapt!
Frogdancer Jones of Burning Desire for Fire offers a suggestion for a consumable gift. Trust me, this would work for most teachers I know! And, you can see how much she appreciated the actual gift she received.
And, here’s one that doesn’t cost a thing and means a lot.
You know what I’ve started telling people is an easy gift? If you love your teacher, let their principal know! A parent did that for me once and CCed me on the email. I still have it!!!! That was…8 years ago?! ???— Penny (@picksuppennies) December 12, 2018
Penny also wrote a post that captures what I believe is the vastly more common mindset among teachers.
Please don’t stress over getting someone a gift. If they ask for no
In case you’re wondering, that soap dish became an important part of our classroom painting equipment. Janet was thrilled. Kids loved it for years to come before it met its untimely end. Fragile things always do in an elementary classroom.
I don’t miss the thing itself, but a used soap dish is still one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.
Do you have any odd gifts that you cherish? I’d love to hear about it. Share in the comments below.
You can check out other FI Lessons here.