Teacher appreciation is a simple idea. It means showing teachers you value their work. If your group’s goal is to enhance the educational environment at your school, it makes sense to help energize the teachers.

Teacher appreciation activities can be elaborate, weeklong events or simple gestures throughout the year. What matters isn’t how much you do but how thoughtfully you do it. We’ve collected some ideas to add pizzazz to your next event—plus keep those treasured teachers and staff members smiling.

Planning Ahead

Jennie McClelland, PTO president at St. Mary Catholic Academy in Port Huron, Mich., recommends setting a budget for teacher appreciation at the beginning of the year. Knowing the budget in advance lets your group decide whether to have several smaller activities or, as St. Mary did, plan ahead for a larger event. “We’ve had success holding an off-site luncheon during teacher appreciation week,” McClelland says, “with parents supervising kids during a schoolwide movie.”

The St. Mary PTO also understands the importance of recognizing other staff members besides teachers. “We thanked our custodial staff with a meal to help build relationships. Then we presented them with gift cards to a home improvement store,” McClelland notes.

Many PTOs find it easier to plan staff appreciation events and prizes for everyone at the school instead of recognizing teachers, administrators, custodial staff, and kitchen staff individually. There’s no wrong way; just base it on what works best for your school.

A few more options:

  • Budget for a welcome-back treat—muffins, cookies, or candy—at the start of the school year for each teacher. At the end of the year, present a snack box of fresh fruits, nuts, and bottled water.

  • When the school year begins, ask teachers to fill out a survey about their likes and dislikes. Use this information to create personalized gift baskets or other items.

  • Run a schoolwide raffle to raise money for something useful, such as gift cards to a local grocery store.

  • Put up a “bravo board” near the school entrance. Select a teacher (or teachers) of the week and decorate the board with photos and personal information, such as hobbies, favorite books, and pets. Ask other staff members and parents to write short notes of appreciation.

  • Get a list of birth dates from the school secretary, then leave a card in each staff member’s box on her birthday. Bonus: Have students make their own cards, and let their teacher discover a class set of notes in her mailbox.

(See “Gift Guide” at the bottom of this article for general tips on selecting gifts for teachers.)

Staff Appreciation Week

A lot of parent groups focus their appreciation efforts on a week of activities and events. Teacher appreciation week falls during the first full week in May.

At Southwest Elementary in Howell, Mich., planning begins two months in advance. “We request donations of gift cards, merchandise, and services from businesses in the community,” says PTO Copresident Laurie Ackerman. “Our goal is to give each of our 75 staff members a prize during the week.”

During those five days, Southwest treats its staff to themed luncheons sponsored by each of the grade levels. “We announce prizes won by staff members each morning and make sure they find notes of appreciation and candy in their mailboxes,” Ackerman says. “This year, we created a cookbook of the items brought in during the week and gave each staff member a complimentary copy.”

The parent group at Myers Park Traditional Elementary in Charlotte, N.C., launched a “love letters campaign,” for which students were encouraged to write a note or draw a picture showing their appreciation. “For a week, children placed their notes in a large moving box at the school entrance,” says Corey Stewart, who chairs the PTA’s staff appreciation committee. “The response was overwhelming.”

First-grade teacher Susan Caskey already knew that teachers were appreciated. “But to have so many take the time to put their gratitude into words, words that we could take home and read over again, was fantastic!” she remembers.

Other activities during the week included daily treats for the staff, breakfast donated by a local restaurant on the first day, low-cost baseball hats customized with the school slogan, and a cake and ice cream party. A local TV station even came in to film some of the events and interview staff. The week culminated in a party at Stewart’s home that included spouses and baby-sitting services.

“We work together every day and consider each other family, but we rarely have time to meet socially,” says fifth-grade teacher Susan Laney. “This was truly a special occasion for us!”


Themed Meals

Luncheons are a traditional way to honor teachers and staff, but they don’t have to be ordinary. Creating themed meals can turn them into something special. It’s a great place to be imaginative and even involve the students, who can help with invitations or decorations.

The best meals include a few main dishes with plenty of sides, salads, and desserts to accommodate food preferences and sensitivities. Although most lunches are serve-yourself affairs, have volunteers on hand for setup, replenishment, and cleanup.

Some themes to start with:

Western. Serve grilled burgers with baked beans, barbecue potato chips, and coleslaw. Use tablecloths that look like denim, and make centerpieces from miniature hay bales and toy horses or put cut flowers inside cowboy boots.

Tex-Mex. Provide build-your-own-taco fixings and salads. (Don’t forget salsa and guacamole!) Turn 10-gallon hats and sombreros upside down and fill with basic classroom supplies. Or leave them right-side up and pile the party favors around the brim.

Italian. Try deep-dish pizza, stuffed shells, lasagna, and eggplant parmigiana. Serve on red-and-white-checked tablecloths and play music by Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin.

Soup and Salad. Get volunteers to bring in pots of homemade soups and chilies, and serve salads and breads on the side. Slice up a few 6-foot sub sandwiches, as well.

Hollywood. Roll out a red carpet leading to the staff lounge and decorate with stars signed by kids. Announce teachers as they come down the “Walk of Fame.” Post movie-themed cards to identify each dish, such as Million-Dollar Meatballs, Lemony Snicket’s Lemon Bars, and Harry Potter’s Magic Muffins.

Around the World. Create invitations that resemble passports. Have volunteers bring foods that represent their ethnic or cultural heritages. Include cards that describe what’s in each dish and its origins. Hang flags from different countries and geographic stickers like the ones put on old-fashioned luggage.

If volunteers bring food, ask them to use disposable containers and serving utensils to avoid the hassle of returning items. As an added treat for staff, offer doggy bags or place leftovers in school refrigerators for later snacking.

More Time

Sometimes the best way to say thanks is as simple as making every minute count. “In the past, we’ve given gift cards and carry-in luncheons to show our appreciation,” says Melissa Turner, PTO president at Washington Elementary in Vincennes, Ind. “But when we spoke to some of our teachers, what they really wanted was time.”

The Washington PTO decided to give teachers a couple of hours alone in their classrooms to work on grades and catch up. “Toward the end of the semester, we rented a large-screen TV and some movies. Then parent volunteers took three grades at a time to the gymnasium for a movie, popcorn, and drinks. “After the movie, we took the students outside for recess,” Turner explains. Teachers had about two hours in their classrooms, and they agreed that it was the best gift they had ever received.


Gift Guide

Without knowing what a teacher loves or loathes, it can be difficult to pick out a present she’ll treasure. So for those times when you’re flying blind, here are some suggestions for gifts that are generally pleasant surprises—and others that don’t always make the grade.

Gifts To Give

  • Homemade gifts, such as small plants in pots decorated by students
  • Notes of appreciation from students (for example, a class photo with the children’s comments written around the edge)
  • Certificates for practical gifts (like car washes, groceries, and dry cleaning) or indulgences (coffee treats, restaurants, movie theater passes)
  • Classroom supplies or gift cards to a store that sells them

Gifts To Avoid

  • “One size fits all” items; they aren’t picked out especially for someone, so they don’t make the receiver feel special, either.
  • Perfumed items such as candles, colognes, and fancy soaps—they’re a big allergy trigger.
  • Christmas ornaments and other religious or holiday-themed decorative objects
  • Items with a teacher or apple theme; most teachers have plenty of these gifts already