It’s time to thank your teachers. Here’s what to give them (Hint: skip the mug)

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Most parents agree that holiday gifts for those who help and support a family throughout the year — teachers, caregivers, tutors, coaches, and instructors — should not be overlooked.

But on top of all the other planning, events, stress and costs leading up to the holidays, a long list of teacher gifts can feel overwhelming.

Cash, gift card or a thoughtful item? Individual gift or from the group? And perhaps most stressful of all, how much to give?

Cash is king

There may be a teacher who really needs a new mug or Christmas ornament, but most have received more tchotchkes and knickknacks than they could ever use.

Cash is something anyone would appreciate, especially teachers who are often underpaid, and have been known to contribute their own money toward classroom expenses.

“There is no such thing as a perfect gift and everyone appreciates effort, but steer clear of the standards — the mugs, the hand creams,” said Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas.

Before giving cash, Gottsman said, you need to be sure it’s allowed. Many schools, districts or even states have a cap on how much teachers can accept from families or have placed bans on cash gifts. You don’t want to put a teacher in the awkward position of having to refuse the gift.

In lieu of cash, gift cards are sometimes acceptable.

Gottsman said what is often most appreciated is when a group goes in together to get a gift card. “Gift certificates are not cold or impersonal as long as they are for a place the teacher can use.”

Large, national chain stores like Amazon, Target or Walmart are easy to use because of the array of products they sell. Another option is a gift card from a credit card company like American Express or Visa. But when choosing a gift card, beware of extra fees. Some cards may have an activation fee or a monthly maintenance fee, which means it loses some of its value if not used right away.

The first year Leibel Sternbach’s son was in daycare in Plainview, New York, his family gave his teachers fruit baskets. “No one ever responded positively to that,” he said. The next year, one of the parents asked each family to chip in $40, which resulted in a $500 gift card. “That was something the teacher talked about.”

If you can’t afford to give this year, a thoughtfully written card may be appreciated more than a little item, said Gottsman.

How much to give?

For those that give cash, or their gift card equivalents, figuring out how much to give is one of the biggest challenges.

Obviously, much will depend on what you can afford.

For a caregiver or nanny, a gift equivalent to the cost of one week of service is appropriate, Gottsman said. For teachers, the range is wide, from a $10 coffee card to a $50 gift card or even much more. Just make sure to keep it between you and the teacher so other parents don’t feel uncomfortable. “Certainly you can give them a $50 gift card, but you don’t need to announce it,” she said.

Making a contribution to a group gift is often easier for those worried about giving enough. If you’re organizing the gift, keep the suggested donation low and offer the option for parents to contribute whatever they feel comfortable with.

When Mary Nisi’s son attended preschool at a private school in Chicago, the parent association collected money for the teachers before the holidays. While the teachers wouldn’t know who gave what, she still worried she might be judged by parents collecting the money.

“There was a lot of pressure,” Nisi said. “You can say it is anonymous, but it is my Venmo — so it’s not.”

She sent along $50 for her son’s two teachers. “I still felt like it was a lot, but they do so much. I don’t want to undervalue them. There were rich people at the school gifting $1,000 so I knew that would compensate some for my piddly $50.”

This year, her son is at a specialized school in which he has eight teachers and there is no group organizing a gift.

“I’m thinking I’ll get them $25 Target cards. But that’s $200! And I still don’t feel like it is enough.”

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