As school calendars wind to a close across the United States, a child's imagination is wrapped in thoughts of summer, but a parent's concern quickly turns to finding a way to show appreciation for the teachers who've shepherded their little ones through the year -- and doing it without blowing all your summer vacation cash.

I, too, feel that growing angst. Three little boys with lovely teachers and a lot of experience writing about parenting are my qualifications. Two siblings and many friends who teach are my advisers. I can say with this authority: When it comes to gifts for teachers, the thought truly is the thing that counts. Just don't do candles.

Every time I've ever made up a list of ideas for teacher gifts, I've received two responses consistently.

One is that teachers most appreciate a card, note or letter thanking them for teaching your child -- even better if it's longer than two sentences and includes a drawing or note from your child. "Letters are wonderful. Simple, sincere, priceless and easy to accept," says Travis Wittwer, a 7th- and 8th-grade teacher who commented on a post I wrote in December. I was thrilled to hear this, as writing is my specialty and it's very nearly free.

The second response I get? no candles, no mugs, no scented bath soaps -- unless you know your teacher loves them. Evidently, during the winter holiday season and at the end of the school year, millions of parents go to their favorite big box store or shopping mall and buy candles, bath gels and cute mugs with "A+ Teacher!" printed on them. My research suggests teachers do not need any more mugs and take very few candle-lit bubble baths. Robin, a teacher in Portland, Ore., agrees: "Lotions/bath stuff aren't really high on the list of things we like getting. And you're right, definitely, no mugs!" she posted on UrbanMamas.com.

The most-loved gift by teachers is a gift certificate. While these certainly aren't an inexpensive option, they're worth considering, especially if you know your teacher (like so many these days) is struggling to make ends meet. Every time I've asked teachers what they wanted, a good portion of them mentioned that gift certificates to grocery stores, especially nice ones (Whole Foods, for instance), and other department or one-stop-shopping stores are a boon for your teacher's summertime blues.

Teachers also often mention gift certificates to craft or school/office supply stores -- a sad comment on the underfunded programs where many of them
care for our children. My youngest sister, who teaches at a preschool in a tony suburb of Lake Oswego, Ore., confides that her favorite gift is a Starbucks gift card. I've found few teachers who don't appreciate the occasional coffee shop outing.

Homemade gifts could be the best approach of all, especially if you can somehow involve your child and if it's not the sort of thing that would become a storage problem for the teacher (no teacher really wants an 18" x 24 " painting your preschooler made). Homemade gifts are cheap and they show that, indeed, you put some thought into it. If you're so inclined, here are a few ideas and things to remember:
  • Flower seeds collected with a child's help. Calendula, cosmos and sunflower seeds are very easy to identify, collect and save. They also come up pleasingly well in the garden and are lovely flowers. Even an inexperienced gardener, or a teacher with little more than a balcony to plant on, could manage to grow a few calendula flowers. Early June is a fine time to plant these flowers, too. I like to make a little envelope out of one of the larger, heavier "art" pieces my preschooler made to slide the seeds into, and I always include simple planting instructions. If you don't have a shelf full of jars of various saved seeds (something to think about come late summer -- it's my best source for free gifts), you could buy a few large packets and split them up in homemade envelopes among your child's teachers.
  • Reusable shopping bags. Gone are the days when homemade canvas tote bags embarrassed me (when I was a kid, my mom always brought a bag to the grocery store for the cents-off discount). Now reusable bags are cool. And depending on your energy level and crafty desires, you can make them out of everything from fused plastic bags (a project your child could help with in varying degrees depending on his age) to cloth (I like to find old curtains, sheets old bed skirts to use as materials at thrift stores or in "free" boxes) to a rice bag or birdseed sack.
  • Card made from child's art. If your child is too young to participate in the gift-making process, chances are, she comes home with a lot of art from school. My favorites to re-purpose are those Jackson Pollock-esque paintings: Cut up into strips or other small shapes, they make fantastic collage pieces. These valentines made from paintings were a particularly satisfying, and simple, project.
  • Lavender, other herbs or cut flowers from your garden. If you have a lavender plant or a peony bush that's gone riotous, you probably won't miss a few blooms and your child's teacher can display them on his or her desk, or bring them home. Chances are, there's not much room for cut flowers in a teacher's budget. I like to tie bunches of herbs (especially those, like lavender, that dry nicely) with a piece of leftover yarn or ribbon.
  • A small, knitted object. A few Christmases ago, I made several of these balls from a variety of yarns. Meant as baby gifts, they're equally lovely displayed in a bowl on a table (you could do the lemon version) or as stress-reliever balls. For experienced knitters, it's another use for leftover yarn that means you don't have to go buy new yarn. Other simple projects, depending on your skill and time, include scarves, hats and potholders.
  • Homemade canned goods. If you, like me, get a bit obsessed with the preserving, chances are, you have leftover jams, jellies or (if your teacher is amenable to the consumption of alcohol) homemade liqueurs left from last season. Gifting these to your child's teacher is a fine idea. Strawberry borage jam is my son's favorite and was my get-out-of-the-doghouse-free card played last Christmas for my 4-year-old's preschool, where there are three teachers.

The most important advice when giving gifts to teachers is this: Get to know them. It's nearing the end of the school year, so this could be a heady task if you haven't already tried. But try coming right out and asking, What sort of gifts would you like? Or at least strike up a conversation about your favorite foods (maybe a batch of chocolate chip cookies?), what's growing in your garden, or whether or not she's a fan of the funky art made from bicycle parts. Surely you can find out enough about your child's teacher to eliminate the things that wouldn't work at all -- you'd hate to give liquor to someone who just earned their one-year AA chip -- and perhaps come up with a simple, elegant gift idea from this list or your own imagination that will be inexpensive and meaningful.

Whatever you end up giving, make sure you include a note, clearly indicating your name and your child's name and saying something appreciative and genuine. Teachers may get less money than they deserve, but they get far less appreciation. You can change that, for virtually nothing, so do so, and remember that giving is its own reward -- if your teacher forgets to send you a thank-you note, chalk it up to overwork and let it go.

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