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What kind of gift should we give teachers at the end of this pandemic school year?

Fifth-graders wear face masks and are seated at proper social distancing spacing in music teacher Marshall Toppo's class at Milton Elementary School on Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in Rye, N.Y. Milton reopened to full-time, in-person learning in March for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak.  (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)
Fifth-graders wear face masks and are seated at proper social distancing spacing in music teacher Marshall Toppo's class at Milton Elementary School on Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in Rye, N.Y. Milton reopened to full-time, in-person learning in March for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)
By Sarah Vander Schaaff Special to the Washington Post

As we come to the end of the most untraditional and unpredictable school year in recent memory, it makes sense that even the reliable gesture of thanks – the teacher gift – might get re-examined. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed what matters most to parents as well as teachers, and the right gift may be as much of a hybrid of the tangible and intangible as the past academic year has been a hybrid for learning – and almost as difficult to figure out.

Jay Jay Chu is organizing the class gifts for her son’s second-grade teacher in San Francisco. Even with remote learning, the teacher kept her 8-year-old engaged and built a relationship with parents with daily emails and weekly family meetings. But what really impressed Chu was his willingness to meet the kids at a local playground and organize physical activities and races.

Chu, who had to shut down her business to help her three kids navigate school at home, has asked parents in the class to contribute to a group gift card. She’s also editing a video to give the teacher, a compilation of “thank-yous and general cuteness,” she said, with the students talking about the highlights of second grade. She wants to make sure this teacher knows how meaningful it was to their children that he put in such an effort this year.

At her children’s elementary school in Seattle, Erica Karlovits said the PTA sets the tone for gift-giving, making sure every teacher, aide and employee is “adopted” and recognized. They surveyed faculty and staff members and created a spreadsheet listing each person’s favorite restaurants and stores.

When students were still remote this winter, parents filled the school vestibule with bottles of wine and gift cards. For the end of the year, Karlovits and her co-class parent will collect money from parents and give her son’s third-grade teacher gift cards to his favorite local businesses, using the PTA spreadsheet as their guide.

“The teachers worked really hard to still try to create a sense of community,” she said. She worked to support that effort in ways she could, by making a class photo that kids could keep by their computers, for example.

Bree Williams, who taught her fifth-grade students in Trenton, N.J., from her living room until in-person classes resumed a few weeks ago, said she already received her gift: The past year reminded her to focus on the social-emotional aspects of learning.

Teaching in an urban school district, her students sometimes struggled with parents working long hours or overnight shifts or were asked to supervise a younger sibling’s remote learning while doing their own. She felt more freedom to shift from purely academic material and prioritize mental health check-ins. She asked students to post a photo or emoji that represented their mood to a collaborative whiteboard, a practice she intends to keep next year.

The pandemic forced everyone to slow down and take a look at themselves and the people around them, professionally and personally, she said. “Any time I learn something that makes me a better teacher and a better person is a gift,” she said.

For Dan Boyd, a sixth-grade math teacher near St. Paul, Minnesota, the most meaningful gifts are notes of appreciation, especially ones that recognize his effort to do the best he could in a turbulent year. One silver lining of the pandemic is his district’s regular half-day Friday. He uses the afternoon to catch up on grading and lesson planning, a gift of time he would like to preserve next fall. His own sixth-grade daughter gives her teachers notes and is allowed a small budget for gifts with one limitation: no mugs.

Stephen Mack, a French teacher in a high school outside Chicago, said it was a homemade gift that brought him to tears. His honors French students pooled their money, bought wood and built him a new lectern for his classroom decorated with a fleur-de-lis.

“If you don’t deserve this, I don’t know who does. You’ve had an impact on our lives,” one student told him when he surprised him with the gift during teacher appreciation week in early May.

Mack said the year has been exhausting, especially since the end of spring break when many students returned in person. His beginning French class often has six students in the classroom and 21 calling in from other places, including work, where the sound of a cash register can be heard in the background, he said.

Tops on his wish list – more than gifts or money – would be to change the standard schedule and make every Friday a remote-learning day. The pace of remote days benefits everyone, especially teenagers who are better rested starting at 8 a.m. instead of the typical 7:15 a.m., he said.

He doesn’t sense much enthusiasm for the idea, however. He said support for teachers shifted halfway through the year, with parents becoming vocal about getting students back into the building “full on” and seeing teachers as holding kids out of in-person school.

Liana Heitin Loewus, assistant managing editor at Education Week, said teachers began to feel less support as the pandemic wore on, especially when teacher unions were seen as blockades to in-person instruction. The publication created a vaccine tracker to follow teacher eligibility in the vaccine rollout, which varied greatly from state to state, even as some required in-person instruction. This month, Loewus and her team released a report noting an increase in teachers saying they might leave the profession in the next two years.

Leslie Silverman said the past year of teaching has left her burned out and exhausted in the way she was when she was inexperienced and new 25 years ago. She has been in the school building every day since September, having started the year putting tape on the tile floor to ensure each desk was 6 feet apart and buying her own extra computer to help teach from home during the remote portion of her hybrid school days.

She’s frustrated by her salary limitations (she expects a raise of $3.56 a day next year) and teaching classes consisting of in-person and remote learners, a dynamic she said is unsustainable.

As for gifts, she does not expect any as a social studies teacher in a public high school in New Jersey. “I don’t even get thank-you cards for writing recommendations for college,” she said. “It’s just expected that we do this.”

Gift-giving this year is tricky, said Christina Headrick, who has volunteered to be a room parent for the past six years in Arlington, Virginia, where her two children attend school.

“I’m not sure there has ever been a year of school where teachers have had to deal with so much of the weight of the world,” she said. Headrick said letting teachers know they are really being seen for what they’ve done this year would be a sincere and meaningful gesture.

She organized gifts for teacher appreciation this month – flowers, students dressing in the teacher’s favorite color, notes and gift cards. She’s also spent hours talking to teachers across the district in her leadership role with Smart Restart APS, a coalition of teachers and parents who worked to amplify teacher concerns to the administration about safety and returning to school.

As a parent, she said, she’s immensely grateful to her student’s teachers. “A gift card to Starbucks is simply not enough to say thank-you,” she said.

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