The 2020-2021 school year will be long remembered — without nostalgia. Whether your child’s school was held online or followed a hybrid schedule, education was tough for parents, students and teachers alike.
Early childhood educators were asked to teach kids they’d never met in person. Kindergarten teachers had to capture and hold the attention of an age group with notoriously short attention spans — from a screen. Teachers and students in Baltimore County Public School lost school days due to hackers and ransomware. Other teachers elsewhere had their Social Security numbers shared on the dark web. And many were teaching while their own children were learning virtually from another room at home.
But somehow teachers got it done, persevering through a sudden process overhaul, endless technology glitches and the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of connecting with students through a computer.
While a coffee shop gift card may have seemed expressive enough in past years, teachers who survived this challenging school year perhaps merit a bigger thank you during Teacher Appreciation Week (May 3-7), or at least one that employs even a fraction of the creativity and positive energy they were asked to bring to the classroom every day.
The Big Class Gesture
The first graders in Martha Edwards’ class at Stoneleigh Elementary School in Baltimore rose to this challenge in February when they planted her front yard with handmade yard signs, each of them sticking out of the snow with colorful well wishes for Edwards’ 50th birthday.
The 17 signs that dotted the yard were all decorated on both sides. One student’s sign read “Happy Blue Birthday!” because they knew that “blue was my favorite color,” Edwards says with a laugh.
A first-grade parent, Kerry Vayda, arranged the surprise. “She wasn’t a room mom,” says Edwards. “I didn’t have the heart to ask anyone to be a room mom this year. She lived in my neighborhood and organized the whole thing.” Vayda even conspired with Edwards’ husband to time the late-night sign delivery after Edwards went to bed.
“I’m not a crier,” says Edwards, “but that made me weepy.”
How did parents know about Edwards’ birthday? Well, online school has at least one benefit.
“This year the parents really know me,” says Edwards. “How can they not? I’m in their living room. They get to listen to me all day long.” And, in first grade, “we all talk about birthdays, all the time, and I said I’d be halfway to 100 on my birthday,” she says.
That week in late February had been particularly stressful, as Edwards’ school was preparing to reopen the following week. “I was so stressed,” says Edwards. “Just the technology involved in teaching a hybrid class is complicated.”
But the yard signs gesture “gave me so much energy for that week,” says Edwards. “It just energized me to jump into hybrid learning. All the messages were so sweet, so innocent and pure. It was the sweetest thing ever.”
The Kind Word
“Any kind words, whether it’s a nice email or anything, it makes a difference,” says Edwards. “It gives me so much energy and fuels me to keep going.”
My nonscientific study backs up Edwards’ claim. I sent a Google survey to all the teachers who work at the school where I work, then sent this survey to my teacher friends nationwide.
I posted on social media, asking teacher friends about the best ways they’ve been thanked and asking how they’d like to be thanked this year.
As it turns out, the overwhelming answer, from nearly every person who responded, recounted some variation of the following quote from educator Vicki Shields of Hereford Middle School in Monkton: “Nothing is better than a note of appreciation from a student.”
Retired Jemicy School teacher Ginny Bishop says she was “always most touched by personal notes. It’s a bonus they never get used up or stale.” Notes, she says, “keep forever.” Drawings, adds Sara Wallace of the Greenmount School in Baltimore, are also loved.
In a year when so much human contact has been off-limits, many teachers wrote that they missed hugs. Until hugs are possible again, teachers will love “cards and notes for sure,” says Alicia Danyali, Lower School head and dean of students at The New Century School.
The Personalized Gift
If, like Edwards’ class parents, you’re able to eavesdrop while you help your child with online school, you have the benefit this year of knowing your child’s teacher better than you would have during a typical school year. Put this knowledge to use when you thank your teacher. You could name a star after a teacher who is a NASA fan or adopt a critter at the zoo for the animal-loving teacher whose pets made cameos in the online classroom. A student of Emily Brewster, a teacher at St. Thomas’ Preschool and Kindergarten in Owings Mills, made her a “personalized face mask.”
There’s no excuse for a catchall coffee shop card this year, unless your child’s teacher showed up on Zoom every morning with a coffee cup on his or her desk. Check out the Zoom background, and while you’re at it, check in on the teacher. Does your child’s teacher seem a little stressed out? A gift card for a massage or aromatherapy treatment might be appreciated.
The kids who filled Edwards’ yard with signs hadn’t met her in person. It demonstrated to Edwards that “it is possible to make those connections virtually. Building relationships is the key to teaching students — even if we aren’t in the same room.”
That’s what teachers have been doing all year, she says: “making connections, Googling, finding solutions.” Although Edwards says she won’t miss the 2020-2021 school year, she will miss all the
students in her class this academic year. For the end of the year she wants “nothing. Really.”
She pauses, then concedes there might, in fact, be something she’d like.
“Pictures,” she says. “We haven’t had much opportunity to be together. I wish I had more pictures.”
DIY Teacher Appreciation Gifts
What better way to demonstrate your appreciation for all the hard work your child’s teacher has done this year than with a gift requiring a bit of your own handiwork? Package these items with a heartfelt card from your child, and you have a gift that any teacher will cherish.
Fabric Tassel Bookmarks
If your child’s teacher loves to read, consider pairing a bookstore gift card with a homemade bookmark. You can make these stylish bookmarks together by following the easy step-by-step instructions at Purely Katie. purelykatie.com
Personalized Fabric Tote Bags
Purchase plain fabric tote bags and let the kids embellish them with permanent-marker drawings or cutout shapes and designs that you help them iron on. “Pretty Handy Girl” Brittany Bailey shares more decorating ideas for tote bags on her blog. prettyhandygirl.com
Tell your child’s teacher “You Rule!” with a school-inspired planter by DIYer Melissa Caughey. Fill it with an easy-care plant, such as succulents, that don’t require much effort to grow. hgtv.com
Help a teacher relax after a stressful year with a sugar scrub and whipped body butter made by you and your child. Amanda Smith of Bayside Beauty, a producer of natural handcrafted soaps, shares the recipes.