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    Parents face anxieties over holiday gifts for teachers

    Nine-year-old Neely Harrington showed the item she made for her teacher.
    Photos by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
    Nine-year-old Neely Harrington showed the item she made for her teacher.

    A Boston mother of three boys still cringes when she recalls a teacher-gift disaster. She wanted to do something special that year for her children’s elementary-school teachers, who had gone above and beyond to encourage and engage her sons.

    “I wanted the gifts to be personal and meaningful,” says the mom, who asked that her name be withheld as she’s still embarrassed. “I really wanted to let them know that I appreciated their efforts.”

    When she had to leave town for a family emergency, her husband took over the task. The result: the female teachers received Victoria’s Secret pajamas and the male gym teacher got a 12-pack of Samuel Adams lager.

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    “I was mortified when I found out,” she says. “I know my husband meant well, but really?”

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    Even for the craftiest and cleverest parent, finding the perfect — or at least an appropriate — holiday gift for a child’s teachers can be a source of frustration and anxiety. For families seeking to express their gratitude without crossing lines, the decision can feel like a minefield with very real consequences that run the gamut from causing insult to damaging the parent-teacher relationship.

    “The first time I had to buy a gift for my oldest daughter’s teacher I totally panicked,” says Claudia Harrington, a mother of four from Salem. “How much money should I spend? Should I buy something, make something, have my daughter make something? I’m from Switzerland and we don’t give our teachers gifts. So, it was tough.”

    It’s tricky. If you’re too extravagant, it looks like a bribe rather than a gift. (Not to mention you may be breaking state laws and school policies.) If you’re too cheap, it may send the wrong message of disapproval (and hurt your reputation). And, though she’s teaching your rambunctious son how to read, you may not know that much about her.

    Many experts agree that a positive teacher-parent relationship may have an impact and play a role in a child’s success at school. However, fostering this relationship has little to do with gift giving.

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    “A good teacher is a good teacher is a good teacher, regardless of a gift,” says Karen Ruskin, marriage and family therapist and psychotherapist from Sharon. Ruskin is an on-air relationship expert for Fox 25 News Boston and the author of two books on parenting and marriage. “Typically, someone who goes into teaching is passionate about helping kids, even those kids with parents who are uninvolved. There really is no need for parents to fret.”

    Most teachers say gifts are not expected (some educators and schools openly discourage them). Still many parents feel compelled and while experts may say there is no need to worry, families still do.

    “Teachers are some of the most important people in the lives of our children,” says Michelle Cucchiaro, mother of three from Rockport. “I want the gifts from our family to be meaningful, to show that we appreciate them and all they do.”

    Sometimes parents get together and make the process easier by coordinating a class gift. Parents are asked to give what they think is appropriate, and the anonymous donations are pooled. “I like class gifts because it eliminates the decision-making and shopping,” says Lisette Cummins, a Boston mother of a 6-year-old daughter. “I have no idea what I would get the teachers if I had to make the choice.”

    Coming up with the perfect gift may be impossible, but teachers are clear about what to avoid. Skip mugs, holiday ornaments, candles, and teacher-themed knickknacks, they say. If teachers have been at it for a while, they probably already have more than they need or want of those items.

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    “One of the teachers I worked with would collect all the gifts that the teachers didn’t want and bring them to a nursing home to be re-gifted,” says Susan Donnelly, a retired Boston Public Schools teacher.

    ‘I want the gifts from our family to be meaningful.’

    Be careful about personal gifts, too: Odds are that your favorite scented body lotion won’t be hers; a candle shaped like Jesus given to a nonbeliever could strike the wrong chord. (“I’m afraid to throw it away in case of bad karma!” one teacher said.)

    Food items in general are iffy. Do you really know what your son’s third grade teacher likes to eat? Does she have any dietary or calorie concerns? Those chocolate-covered nut clusters that “everyone just loves!” are not so yummy for someone with a nut allergy. And many people are leery of dishes prepared in an unfamiliar kitchen.

    Sadie Wright-Ward, a teacher from Boston, recalls the time one of her students was out of school with the flu. “He came in, sniffling and feverish, just so he could give me a carrot cake that he’d made himself,” she said. “Nice thought, but it went right in the trash.”

    And while giving alcohol is generally risky, there may be exceptions. “Twice I’ve included a bottle of red wine in a gift basket,” confesses Tracy Steeves, mother of five from Jamaica Plain. “They were given to veteran Boston Public Schools teachers; each had been on the job for more than 20 years. I thought they could really use it,” she said, with a chuckle.

    It’s great to get the kids involved, asking them for suggestions and ideas on what their teachers like. Sometimes the best ideas come from something that happened to them in the classroom, or from what they’ve noticed about the teacher.

    One year, Stephanie Cottrell, a mother of two from Lee, N.H., gave her son’s teacher a bird feeder for the classroom window with a note from her son about how much he enjoyed the book she read the class about birds in the wild.

    Carroll Jones, a parent from Dorchester, once gave a teacher a to-go cup and a twelve pack of Diet Coke after her son told her that the teacher came in every morning with a mug of the soft drink.

    “I can always tell if a student has had a hand in selecting or making the gift,” says Nancy Loftus, a teacher in Plymouth. “Most kids like to be involved, and they really love giving gifts. They can’t wait for you to open them.”

    All teachers say they love a well-thought-out gift certificate or handmade gift that relates to their hobbies and personal activities, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot.

    “I really enjoy the gifts that come from the heart,” says Loftus, “something that shows the student is aware of my passions and interests.” As an avowed cat lover, she still cherishes the cat bowl a student made her.

    Ultimately, whether to involve your children or not in the gift-giving process depends on your goal. “If you wish to give the teacher something to express your appreciation as a parent, then the child need not be involved,” says Ruskin. “If your goal is to express not just your appreciation but also your child’s appreciation to the teacher, then there should be full and complete involvement. It is important to know the goal and make a decision based upon that.”

    Many teachers recall, however, times when a young student has taken matters into his or her own hands, often with humorous results. A number tell stories of receiving gift-wrapped half-burned candles, empty gift cards, half tubes of lipstick, and tattered stuffed animals.

    “Once I received a beautiful pearl necklace from one of the boys in my class,” recalls a teacher in Plymouth. “He had taken it from his mother’s jewelry box! Needless to say, it was promptly returned.”

    Many states now limit teachers’ gift receiving. In Massachusetts, for example, teachers are prohibited from receiving gifts valued in excess of $50, and individual school districts often adopt their own, more stringent policies.

    “The bag of Christmas loot I used to bring home was pretty amazing at times,” says one private school teacher. “I’d get expensive sporting game tickets, $200 to $300 in gift cards, upscale-restaurant gift certificates. Parents were often quite competitive in their gift-giving. Times have changed.”

    But he admits that the small, heartfelt gesture is often the best gift. “A few years back I received a gift from a Chinese mother. I don’t even recall the gift, but the touching note that accompanied it, I’ll never forget,” he says. “She thanked me for inspiring her son’s interest in history and included a quote from Confucius extolling the value of teachers and teaching.”

    When it comes down to it, a simple handwritten note of thanks tops the list.

    “One year, when I was working as a teacher’s aide, a parent wrote a letter to the principal talking about how much I’d helped her daughter gain confidence and how much enthusiasm I brought to the classroom,” says Wright-Ward. “It really meant a lot to me, and probably helped me later to land a permanent position.”

    Sue Lane, in her 21st year of teaching in Shrewsbury, agrees. “What I save and treasure the most are the heartfelt cards and letters from students and parents. They always make me remember why I chose to become a teacher.”

    And for the right teacher, a personal note could come attached to a nice bottle of red wine.

    Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.