Does dreaming up novel ways to show staff and teacher appreciation have you stumped? Is the mere mention of Teacher Appreciation Week enough to cause full-on panic? If so, relax. Here’s a collection of clever event themes, activities, and gift ideas from parent groups across the country that are sure to inspire.

Milk and Cookies

Even if you lack volunteer power, funds, or time, there are still plenty of ways to show you care. The PTO at Westfield (Ind.) Intermediate and Middle schools makes small gestures throughout the year. Several times a year they host milk and cookie days. It’s easy because they discovered that parents readily respond to requests to send in packages of store-bought cookies.

Halloween Treats

The Westfield PTO also assembles Halloween grab bags for staff, and rather than simply pile them on a table in the lounge, they’ll walk the halls and deliver them. “It’s a little bit of face time when they can actually see us and hear us saying ‘Have a great day. Thanks for all you do,’” says PTO president BethAnn Buehler.

Fresh Fruit

Glen Hills Elementary in Cranston, R.I., likes the healthy message conveyed by “Bring your teacher a piece of fruit” day during Teacher Appreciation Week. The parent group supplies all teachers with baskets, making for a nice take-home gift.

Dinner To Go

Meanwhile, the Robinson Middle School PTA in Plano, Texas, organizes a casserole night where parents bring in both homemade casseroles and upscale, store-bought frozen dinners to give teachers a night off from cooking.

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Chair Massages

Teachers at Rosa Parks Elementary in Woodbridge, Va., relish the neck and back massages that their PTO arranges for them once a year. The PTO transforms the school’s story room into a calming haven complete with soft music, dimmed lights, and liquid refreshments. The mini massages are provided by therapists from a local massage therapy school. A catered lunch is served another day, and drawings for donated gift cards are held throughout the week. “For me, Teacher Appreciation Week is like Christmas,” says Rosa Parks PTO treasurer Tammy Luczak.

Book Fair Christmas Tree

Given that sentiment, it’s fitting that a particularly inspired idea evolved last December following the school’s book fair. Taking profits in the form of books instead of cash prompted the construction of a creative holiday gift. The PTO took all the books they’d amassed—more than $800 worth—and built a Christmas “tree” out of them. Draped with ribbon, it looked quite festive when presented to teachers for their classrooms. Teachers also received bookcases donated by a local company.

Amazing Race Challenge

In May 2013 the PTO at Morgan Elementary in Shelby Township, Mich., had staff members running through the halls and combing the school for clues during Teacher Appreciation Week—and they loved every minute of it!

The PTO devised a weeklong interactive challenge based on the television show The Amazing Race. On Monday, staff members received a small gift bag that included a passport complete with their picture, a cookie, a water bottle, and a bandana, as well as directions on how to play the game. Teachers and staff were grouped into teams representing 10 different countries. The halls were decorated to correspond to the countries, and the staff room was transformed into an airport lounge, featuring an arrival and departure board. Teams had to solve clues to find specific objects and emailed a photo of each object to the Morgan Volunteers parent group.

Teachers were so eager to play that they arrived early to complete each day’s clues. The Amazing Race-theme food was a highlight, including candy from each of the 10 countries. The week was capped off by an Italian feast, during which prizes were awarded.

Royal Treatment

At Union Heights Elementary in Morristown, Tenn., there’s still buzz about the unique way the PTO honored the principal in the 2012-13 school year. It’s the group’s custom to lavish attention on a different staff department each month. When it was the principal’s turn, the PTO adopted a medieval theme and arranged to have him knighted. A retired teacher dressed as Queen Elizabeth I performed the ceremony accompanied by period music. The principal was suitably attired and received a proclamation and a chart. Union Heights became UH Castle for the day and boasted medieval decor, including “shields of appreciation” and class crests made by students.

Mad Hatter Tea Party

In addition to their principal “knighting,” they staged a Mad Hatter tea party for the cafeteria staff. The women received new aprons with the school’s UH logo, headbands with little hats attached, and a gift card. Students showed their appreciation by wearing crazy hats to school.

Red Carpet Celebration

And during another monthly event, UH office staff received movie star treatment when they were chauffeured to lunch off campus. In true Hollywood style, they walked a star-studded red carpet to waiting vehicles while fans—their students—screamed. Later they received a movie-theme gift basket.

Australian Outback-Inspired Lunch

Teachers enjoyed an Australian Outback-theme luncheon that featured grilled shrimp and steak kabobs. “It’s so much easier to break down the appreciation days so you don’t feel overwhelmed. That way you get to honor a group each month and they feel special for the entire month,” says Union Heights PTO president Jennifer Frazier.

Party Room Transformations

In addition to many small displays of appreciation throughout the year, a lot of parent groups still like to go all out during Teacher Appreciation Week, the first full week in May. Linda Vista Elementary in Mission Viejo, Calif., converts its multipurpose room into an outlandish environment—something totally unexpected designed to surprise, says PTA president Bruce Wood.

One year the PTA turned it into a pirate ship. Then for a couple of years they did a beach party theme complete with sand and surfboards. The teachers sat on beach chairs under umbrellas while eating lunch.

Roadhouse Theme

Recently, Linda Vista PTA used a roadhouse theme that they plan to repeat this year because it was so popular with teachers. A parent who is a professional musician performed with a colleague on a stage set up in the multipurpose room. The room was transformed to feature a dropped dark ceiling and resulting dimmed atmosphere. Tea lights glowed from tables, old license plates dotted the walls, and a collection of musical instruments lay about. Staff entered through a specially constructed portico entrance, but first a bouncer had to check them in. In addition to the music, staff members enjoyed food and received goody bags. “The roadhouse is a hit because they get out of their element and they can request songs and sing along and just have a great time,” Wood says.

Simple Catered Lunch

When it comes to luncheon themes, simple elegance has a place at the table, too. In 2012, no one at Greenville (Ala.) Elementary could remember the last time teachers were shown any special recognition during Teacher Appreciation Week. The PTA set out to remedy the situation by hosting an elegant sit-down, catered lunch with colorful table linens, a nice punch bowl, and pretty floral arrangements. Parent volunteers kept watch on classrooms, and teachers said they felt like kings and queens dining uninterrupted among their peers. They each received personalized keepsakes—a booklet filled with letters of appreciation from students moved several teachers to tears.

It’s the Thought That Counts

Simple or elaborate, traditional or off-the-wall, slightly pricey or for a bargain, gestures of teacher appreciation run the gamut. The most important part of any staff appreciation effort is the heartfelt sentiment behind it, so don’t worry if your group hasn’t yet planned its appreciation efforts—just grab an idea, run with it, and pay homage to the people who make a difference in your children’s lives.


Teacher Appreciation Dos and Don’ts

DO extend recognition efforts to support staff. Glen Hills Elementary took time to honor its longtime custodian Ray Casale, staging a “Mr. Ray Day.” Children dressed in blue as Mr. Ray does and gave him drawings or letters. During the lunch period, he lounged in a lawn chair and ate a special meal while 6th graders cleaned the cafeteria. If you can, take a page from the Union Heights Elementary playbook, the school that honors a different department each month.

DO share teacher wish lists with parents. At Linda Vista Elementary, parents can pull paper apples off a tree and fulfill a classroom need listed on it. Schools can also use TeacherLists.com to create wish lists that can be viewed online or on mobile devices.

DO provide little pick-me-ups throughout the year. Morgan Elementary welcomes teachers back in the fall with “supply cakes”—essentially a creative assemblage of necessary school supplies. Westfield Intermediate and Middle schools never fail to organize their much-loved holiday cookie exchange in December.

DON’T feel like you have to knock yourself out coming up with an event to top all others. You could end up pushing your volunteers too hard and risk losing them. Instead, keep in mind that teachers really are happy with simple expressions of appreciation.