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Teacher Appreciation Done Right

To be meaningful, teacher appreciation must be more than a once-a-year activity. These tips and creative ideas will help make a lasting impression.
by Joy Underhill

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


#28 LAURA MAYBERRY 2011-09-14 19:43
#27 Anjilla 2011-05-02 16:31
Sharing a Thank a Teacher video is a unique way to thank teachers in today’s digital age. This video, created by Mudpies & Butterflies, a social networking that connects parents and educators together, reminds us that teachers have the ability to inspire greatness and change lives.

It can be seen on You Tube by searching for “Thank a Teacher.” It can also be passed along by visiting .../.
#26 sher 2011-04-20 00:21
this year we have:
1. A luncheon on tues of teacher appreciation week, this year's theme is fiesta - we will decorate the teacher lounge ^ parents bring in dishes. Last yr we packaged leftovers in fridge and the teachers ate well for the next few days!

2. We asked for donations for appreciation week. We put a big box in the front of the school for parents to donate snacks, bubble bath, notecards, gift cards, etc and put together baskets 4 the teachers.

3. We sold carnations to the student body for any teachers they want to send to & will deliver during teacher appreciation week.

4. Make big banners that say 'thank you' & have every student sign the week before during lunch then hang for them for the whole week.

5. Print up inspirational quotes for the teachers on note cards and put in their mailboxes daily as a small thank you.
#25 John 2011-04-08 14:22
There's a really cool contest that White Pages is running this year called Run and Hug. They're taking nominations to name "America's Favorite Teacher" in time for Teacher Appreciation Month. To nominate their favorite teacher, the entrant must submit a memory of their teacher with either an appropriate photo or video. The winning nomination will win a trip for both the entrant and the teacher to New York City so they can be reunited. Also, for every entry received, White Pages will donate $5 to the educational non- profit, Digital Wish, so they can help even more teachers.

I encourage everyone to nominate a teacher that has made a lasting impact on their lives at
#24 Dana Hennelly 2011-04-04 16:47
I implemented an adoption program at our school. We have two staff members for every classroom teacher. I felt the teachers were feeling appreciated, but the important staff members weren't. I gave two staff members to each class and printed their picture and a little info/bio on each person including the teacher. They were distributed to all families. Now, the classrooms & kids think of their adopted staff members when buying a starbucks latte or bringing in lunch. The adopted members are invited to classroom parties, etc. It has been a HUGE success at our school. I'm in charge of the teacher appreciation committee. Hope this helps!
#23 Marilyn 2010-07-19 04:23
I love all of these ideas! We used to have a formal lunch for our teachers. Something really fancy. But a couple years ago we got a new principal and she suggested that maybe it would be better to have a quick dinner for our teachers on the nights of parent/teacher conferences. They usually only have about 30min from the end of the school day til the 1st conference so a lot of them wouldn't eat anything until after. We have done this ever since and the teachers absolutely love it!! It is very much appreciated by our teachers!
#22 Tina 2010-04-17 03:26
So many wonderful ideas! We already have our week planned out but I will certainly take the ones everyone mentioned for next year. We are trying to be as cost-conscious as possible so we are doing a "gift of time" at lunch and recess for our teachers and aides, mints with a cute poem, a carnation from each student upon arrival at school and a continental breakfast (our principal was worried about differing tastes and well, cleanliness standards in home kitchens). The car-washing idea is great, practically free and I'm sure very appreciated!
#21 Criss 2009-09-18 02:41
This is a wonderful article and I found all the comments very useful . We have done everything from sending the teachers and their spouse out to dinner to having different things each day of appreciation week . I really like the idea of doing small things all year long . We are a small school with only 8 teachers and one aide so doing things year round would be very easy to do . Thanks for all the great ideas !
#20 Barbara 2009-08-31 20:34
We purchased this item for our teachers. They were whimsical flower pots with a teaching quote. They loved them.
#19 Lori 2009-05-06 23:20
We spent 70.00 this yr...we used 50 to get huge bags of prepared salad, croutons, bacon bits, plastic bowls & forks, napkins *the good kind* , 4 diff kind of salad dresssings, 2 cases of bottled waters and 3 diff kinds of bottled water flavor mixes. The rest we spent on a custom made cake (which turned out smaller then we'd thought, so we'd have been better off buying one at a grocery store). This will provide lunch for our teachers and staff the entire week! so ONE lunch but avail four days. (we have 4day weeks) We also put up posters thanking the teachers and staff for all their hard work and dedication! Some of the staff members & parents are deciding to bring in a huge batch of something to add to the salad (one brought in spagetti in a crockpot). I'll be making brownies at home and taking them in as an extra treat on Friday. We also did not want to spend much from our budget and wanted the majority to go to the kids, so we feel 70. is not too bad, but still more then we really wanted to spend!

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