Cartoon teacher with a disappointed face while holding a basket full of bad teacher gifts.

The Real Problem With Bad Teacher Gifts + How to Never Give One Again

Would you be shocked to learn that most people waste money on bad teacher gifts? 

It’s true. 

Bad teacher gifts are bad all around. First, they’re bad for the teachers who receive them. They reflect poorly on the parents and students who spend money on them.

What is a bad teacher gift? 

Something a teacher doesn’t want. A gift that isn’t memorable. It is disappointing when received. In the worst of scenarios, it offends the teacher.

What money is being wasted?

Your money. Your hard-earned dollars didn’t accomplish the impact which is supposed to make the teacher feel genuinely appreciated.

Table of Contents

Low Context v. High Context Relationships

The Emotional Consequence of Bad Teacher Gifts

Examples of Good and Bad Teacher Gifts

Why Using Google, Amazon, and Etsy is a Waste of Money

Teacher Gifts Dos and Don’ts 

Wasting Effort is Also Wasting Money

How to Avoid Giving Bad Teacher Gifts: What Teachers Really Want

Efficient and Profound Gifts in Low Context Relationships

Guidance For Your Next Gift Giving Occasion

Most of us believe we are good at picking gifts for others. You’ve heard the saying: more than half of us believe we are better than average drivers. 

Here is the gifting corollary to that driving adage: most of us think we give great gifts, but the fact is a significant portion of our gifts are bad. 

An economist named Dr. Joel Waldfogel wrote about this in 1993: 

The facts are tied to what Dr. Waldfogel calls ‘low-context’ relationships. In low-context relationships, “33% or more of the expected value of a gift is wasted.” Think about that, only 66% of a gift’s value is received. If this were a grade on a test, you’d get a ‘D.’ 

Low-Context vs High-Context Relationships

What is a low-context relationship?

A low-context relationship is when you don’t know the person really well. When you don’t know someone well, you lack knowledge of the recipients’ valid preferences. 

People you know well: immediate family members in our home, best friends. 

People you generally don’t know really well: aunts, uncles, other relatives, people at work, our kids’ teachers, and coaches. 

Here is a helpful test to determine whether your relationship with someone is low- or high-context:

  • Have you been into that person’s house?
  • Do you know what’s in the fridge or cupboards?
  • How about what’s on their counter, coffee table, or bookshelf?
  • What items do they have in their medicine cabinet by their sink or toothbrush?

Dr. Waldfogel explains that gifting in a low-context relationship incurs Deadweight Loss. Deadweight loss is basically an inefficient allocation of resources. In other words, it’s wasted money. 

The Deadweight Loss of gifts in the U.S. is billions of dollars a year. At Christmas time 2022, that amount was measured at more than $8 billion. 

Be aware of whether the person you are about to give a gift to is a low-context or high-context relationship.

Do you know that person really well? If not, you’re likely about to waste a small pile of money on that gift you are going to get. 

Regarding teachers, knowing that you have a low-context relationship with your child’s teachers is good.


Because it frees you from having to find a great gift where high-context information is required to know the gift will be great. 

This is a beautiful thing. This means there is no expectation to offer a high-context gift when you don’t know the person well enough to give such a gift. 

The Emotional Loss of Bad Teacher Gifts

Cartoon teacher with a disappointed face while holding a basket full of bad teacher gifts.
Bad Teacher Gifts

Dr. Waldfogel’s paper only addresses the economic consequences of bad gifts. 

But there’s an additional loss: emotional loss. 

You’ve experienced this yourself. 

Emotional loss is the disappointment you feel upon discovering that your gift doesn’t match your desire or expectations.

We’ve all been there. The immediate feeling of disappointment when you receive a bad gift.

That disappointment is usually attached to the gift giver.

There is no way for the recipient not to feel this disappointment with a bad gift. It is an emotional reflex. 

Bad teacher gifts work the same way. 

Some money is wasted, and a feeling of disappointment is attached.

Why The Thought Doesn’t Count

But isn’t it the thought that counts?

Sorry, no.

You can’t simply dismiss the recipient’s feelings and your wasted money. 

In a post-COVID world, you can’t take for granted any of the relationships you have or the services you receive from frontline workers, especially teachers.

Daily, they are the individuals helping our children navigate anxiety, rebuild social skills, and teach a curriculum. 

The phrase “it’s the thought that counts” is a terrible dismissal that diminishes everyone involved: 

a) The recipient’s feelings are invalidated, 

b) The giver is let off the hook, 

c) The well-intended speaker of that phrase is an enabler of the following bad gift.

Free Download: Organizing Good Teacher Gifts Got a Lot Easier

Examples of Good and Bad Teacher Gifts 

Mugs, ornaments, desk organizers, chocolate, coffee, lotions, and scented candles! All examples of bad teacher gifts, most of which can be found on Amazon with two-day shipping. 

Other examples of bad teacher gifts:

  • Items trying to be too clever or have a pun with saying like, “You are Egg-cellent,” or mints with “encourageMINT.”
  • Suggestions of self-care or a coupon, but not covering the cost of the care suggested, like a massage.

Why Using Google, Amazon, and Etsy is a Waste of Money

Google is an easy go-to resource when you’re stumped about what to get a teacher.

Here is what you’ll find from Google searches when seeking “best teacher gifts.” 

Most search results that return lists of the “10 Best Teacher Gifts” or “25 Best Gifts for Teachers” are bad teacher gifts. 

But first, remember when I asked before if you’ve been inside the person’s house? 

I ask because you’ll see that these ‘best of’ items expect you to know what is in someone’s medicine cabinet on their counters. If food is suggested, you’d need to know what is in someone’s fridge or cupboard. 

As I take you through the categories of items that surface on those “best of” Google results, please keep this in mind. 

Also, because I speak with teachers weekly, I know they don’t want or need nearly all these items. 

This is because they don’t make the teachers feel appreciated. Most items are pricey, fancy, and chic, meant to make the reader feel good. 

In other words, these lists speak to the person buying the gift, not the recipient – your kid’s teacher. 

It makes sense that the articles appeal to the reader because the teachers aren’t reading them. The gift buyer is. 

Let me help you with a few “don’ts” and some context why. It will save you some headaches.

Teacher Gifts Dos and Don’ts

Don’t purchase your teacher $20 fancy notecards. 

Fancy notecards put money into the hands of Amazon and the notecard company, not the teacher.

Fancy notecards are “nice.” But they aren’t what your teacher wants. 

Instead, do write her a card telling her how amazing she is. Instead, give her the $20 you saved by not buying the notecards.

In your own words, share the truth: her lifetime dedication to teaching children is something you couldn’t do. You don’t have the patience or the heart for it, especially given the pay. 

She is fantastic for improving the world, one day at a time. 

She is selfless. Her dedication, while underpaid and without enough support from the community, is real hero work. 

For more ideas on what to write in a personal note, we created a list of sentence starters.

Don’t get her a gift card from a store unless you absolutely know that she shops at that store regularly. 

Do give Cash. It’s more effective than gift cards. 

Gift card companies rely on ‘breakage’ to make their profits. That little dollar amount never spent or a lost and expired card is called breakage. 

Gift card companies hope to make between 5% and 20% profit from breakage. So they are counting on you to waste your money through breakage. 

If the teacher doesn’t shop at that store, only the gift card company benefits from your gift.

Don’t give supplies she can get from the supply closet at school. 

Instead, do purchase supplies as you see them on sale throughout the year and bring them in, not as a gift, just as a way to contribute to the classroom. 

Supplies are bad teacher gifts. They are supplies, after all!

When my mom was a teacher, she was always short of supplies. 

Teaching is the only profession where you are encouraged to steal from home to bring supplies to work. 

But supplies as a gift to show gratitude don’t work.

Don’t offer scented lotions and candles. 

If you like giving these gifts, do talk to your teacher and ask what her favorite brands and scents are, and if she likes getting manicures, massages, facials, etc.

Then, purchase a salon gift card or spa package for her for the specific salon she goes to.

Overall, self-care items are best left to the individual’s self-care

As for candles, have you visited your child’s teacher’s home to know her tastes? 

Remember, you have a low-context relationship with your teacher. You don’t really know that much about her. Scents are personal.

Just because you like it doesn’t mean it works for your teacher. And allergies, your teacher’s or her family, are always possible. You’d prefer to avoid being associated with a rash. 

Wasting Effort is Also Wasting Money

Both our research and economics researcher Dr. Waldfogel show that humans aren’t very good at getting good gifts for others. 

This goes for gifts to an individual and to groups of individuals. 

In fact, the likelihood of getting a single item for each person in a group that each individual would consider a good gift decreases as the group size increases. 

For example, is it possible to give three third-grade teachers the same book, mug, or gift certificate that all of them will love? Maybe.

Is it possible to give all 18 teachers at a school that teach the K and 5th grades (assuming 3 teachers per level) the same item, and they’ll all love it? Less likely than the example before. 

While Oprah did it with cars, it’s hard to repeat without the proper budget, getting lucky, or knowing the preferences of each individual (high-context). 

For example, suppose a PTA seeks to organize gifts for all elementary school teachers. In that case, the likelihood that the same gift will be received well by every teacher in the school is almost zero.

This is because context matters, according to Dr. Waldfogel in his book, Scroogenomics

To summarize the book, knowing a person well means you are likely better at offering a better gift. People you know well include a spouse, a close sibling, or a close friend. 

However, when people don’t know each other exceptionally well, it is a “terrible way to allocate resources” due to the “gift givers’ lack of knowledge of the recipients’ true preferences.”

How to Avoid Giving Bad Teacher Gifts: What Teachers Really Want

At The Appreciation Company, we are here to help.

We’ve done the research. 

Weekly, in conversations with teachers, we ask about the best examples of someone making them feel like their life has a purpose through work, sacrifice, and commitment to teaching other people’s children. 

Here’s what they tell me:

  1. “I always appreciate a note from the student, especially those that make me feel my effort mattered in some way, that I made an impact.”
  2. “I don’t need another item with an apple on it. And I don’t need more clutter.”
  3. “What makes me really feel appreciated is a personal note and money for something I need, classroom or personal. The money can also go to a fund for supplies and equipment.”

Teachers share profound truths when asked questions about their past feelings. They are sincere. We love them for that. 

These are moments of deep connection with the teachers. These questions surface deep memories when recalled for their answers. The teachers look happy reflecting such feelings. 

Teachers feel good telling someone like myself who will advocate on their behalf. They hope more people come to understand what makes them feel appreciated.

Teachers hope they’ll stop getting bad gifts (even well-intended) from parents and the administration. They are too lovely to advocate for themselves. Most of us are. 

So, The Appreciation Company is advocating for them. I’m sharing the truth that they don’t share casually. 

As the son of a teacher, I’m sharing this.

Key Takeaway: What makes teachers feel appreciated?

A note of Appreciation + Cash (or cash equivelants)

Efficient and Profound Gifts in Low-Context Relationships

Referring back to Dr. Waldfogel and the concept of deadweight loss, cash is the only gift that offers 100% utility maximization every time. 

With cash, there is zero deadweight loss. 

This aligns with what teachers have told us they want in a gift: cash + a note.

But cash doesn’t always feel suitable or appropriate to give, does it? 

Here is the problem:

  1. Our relationships with teachers are low-context
  2. Teachers want cash (and a note)
  3. Cash has zero deadweight loss
  4. It doesn’t feel good to give cash.
  5. So, we give gifts that we want to give, but those gifts require high-context to be effectively received. 

Ugh! I call this the high-context/low-context dilemma.

To put this in a picture, it might look something like this:

Chart distinguishing between low context and high context relationships in relation to bad teacher gifts.

What we are seeking is to feel great about giving cash. We want to feel like the high-context scenario but still deliver a low-context gift of cash. 

You want to feel like the high-context smiley face on the left, not the low-context frowny face on the right. 

It takes a little more science to unlock this final piece and feel amazing.

Dr. Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia, Canada, explains that: 

“Benefits of giving spikes when people felt a real sense of connection with those they were helping and can envision the difference they were making in another person’s life.”

To feel good about offering a note and cash, gift givers must “envision how exactly your gift is going to make a difference.”

As Dr. Dunn says, “Appreciate your shared humanity. Don’t reward them with pens or calendars. Reward them with a specific understanding of the impact of being human together…This isn’t a moral obligation; it is a source of pleasure. “

How to Feel Good About Giving Cash to Teachers

The key to everything lies in the phrase “understanding the impact of being human together.” 

Teachers are seeking a note. Teachers say, “I always appreciate a note from the student, especially those that make me feel my effort mattered in some way, that I made an impact.

The note is the key to feeling great about giving a low-context cash gift! It solves the high-context/low-context dilemma. 

In other words, you can give a teacher exactly what they want and feel amazing about it. 

Here is how you do it:

Give a note and cash. Envision how your teacher will feel about reading that note you just wrote. Imagine her reading this and feeling the words you just shared. 

If this is a group gift, with a dozen or more notes from the other children, too, envision her reading all the notes simultaneously. 

A thought exercise:

Take 30 seconds to close your eyes and envision this exercise:

Recall a favorite or most impactful teacher from high school. Maybe a coach or a counselor. Imagine writing your teacher a note today about their impact on your life back in high school. What was one specific lesson or skill they taught you? You share with this teacher where you now live, the names of your children and spouse, and how much you appreciate a specific lesson or skill she taught you.

Now, 10 other classmates also write notes to your teacher. And you are the one to hand your teacher the 11 messages. Watch her open and read each one. How does your teacher feel, all these years later, learning the impact she had in your lives? What emotions does she feel? What is the look on her face?

Can you envision what your teacher will feel reading a note from your child letting her know that the lessons imparted during the school year made a difference? 

You could include a message about what your child learned from the English or math curriculum. 

There may have been a milestone, life lesson, or piece of feedback that the teacher was present for and your child shared with you. 

To paraphrase Dr. Dunn, giving your teacher what she wants isn’t a moral obligation. Instead, it is a source of pleasure for both of you.

Guidance For Your Next Gift Giving Occasion

Cartoon comic show bad teacher gifts, then using The Appreciation Company to organize good teacher gifts.

You have a choice now. This is called a decisive moment. It is the moment before you act in one direction or another. 

What emotion will you elicit from your teacher when appreciating her? 

  • Do you want to give her a deeply meaningful gift that has a lasting and efficient impact? 
  • Want to do it in a tasteful manner that is ideally suited for a teacher’s gift? 
  • Do you want to reflect her hero behavior of self-sacrifice and dedication to a worthy cause?  

If you want to step into this, but need to know how to proceed, here is the transformation. 

This is the single solution that works for gift givers (you) and your recipients (teachers). Every time. 

We call it a new era in gifting. 

Give your teacher what your teacher wants. Make her feel appreciated with a meaningful note from your powerful emotions of gratitude. Also, give her the money equivalent because it is 100% efficient compared to other purchased items. 

This is precisely what The Appreciation Company was built for. This gift isn’t glamorous or flashy. It is simply the right gift. 

Don’t waste money on the sites that peddle the ‘best teacher gifts’ or ‘best gifts for teachers’ when they are far from the best for the teacher! 

Be a hero reciprocating the hero behavior of your teacher. 

Sign up for The Appreciation Company and put your gratitude into action today. Better yet, organize a group gift for your teacher and help the other parents stop wasting money on bad teacher gifts. 

And, welcome, to the new era in gifting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *