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What Teachers Really Want for Christmas

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Winter break is right around the corner, and as usual, all the ho-ho-holiday cheer has left me over-extended and cranky. I still don't have gifts for my kids' teachers. Surely they wouldn't mind some re-gifted tchochkies; after all, it's just a gesture, right? Turns out, they do mind. I asked some of our school's award-winning teachers to tell us what they really want for Christmas.

So long as we're all being honest, teachers would like us to know, very sweetly mind you, that they don't need another "World's Best Teacher!" coffee mug, fragranced bath set or carbon-dated potpourri -- no, they'd like cash, cleverly disguised as a gift card or a heartfelt expression of gratitude. In a perfect Candide world, they'd like both, lovingly wrapped with a great big bow.

Teachers Want Cash

Ever-shrinking school budgets leave precious little for classroom supplies. According to a national survey conducted by Kelton Research, 97 percent of all teachers pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets, to the tune of $350 per year on average. Many Nettelhorst teachers report spending double or triple this amount.

Across the board, teachers asked for gift cards to big box-stores like Staples, Office Max and Best Buy or online retailers like Amazon. Gift cards to bookstores, especially local independents, got double stars as everyone hoped to add to their classroom library. Another good option is to buy some Thank The Teacher Gift Cards online which are tax-deductible and eligible for matching by about 16,000 employers. Check to see if your school already has a fundraising gift card program in place, like Scrip, which allows you to shop for everyday purchases like food, clothing, and entertainment while earning rebates back to your school. As an extra bonus, many retailers, like Target, give back a percentage of sales to local schools, so don't forget to ask if you can designate a school when you buy a gift card or use a store credit card.

Feel inspired to do some legwork? Before running out to buy classroom supplies on your teacher's behalf, know that the variety of scissors, lined-paper, and so forth is downright staggering. Do some reconnaissance or get advice from the principal or room parent first.

In all likelihood, your teacher has already posted a wish list for a classroom project on DonorsChoose. Oprah recently named the website one of her favorite things for 2010, and it's ours, too. Right now, Bing is offering a $5 donation code for any DonorsChoose donation, and lots of other companies are following suit. Want a slam-dunk group gift? Make your teacher's pie-in-the-sky project come true in a click. While you're at it, consider making a second donation to a teacher working at an underprivileged school. All donations are tax-deductible and loaded with good karma.

Selfless to their core, every teacher ranked gift cards for classroom support over personal indulgence, but it was pretty easy to crack that one. "Caribou and Starbucks cards also go a long way," admitted third grade teacher Michelle Gunderson. "Seems the longer I'm teaching kids, the more I need coffee." With a bit of prodding, teachers admitted liking lots more than caffeine. In hushed whispers, teachers say they love, love, l-o-v-e gift cards to local restaurants, theaters, department stores, beauty salons and spas. Raves for any amount to spend at the Apple store.

As you're making your list, and checking it twice, don't forget the folks who teach specialties like art, drama, music, science, language, library and physical education. Superstar drama teacher Chad Kimmel suggests that these workhorses, who see every student in the building, would appreciate "a drinkable bottle of wine or a gift certificate to their favorite masseuse." Both gifts are well deserved, too -- check out our specialty teachers' surprise Lady Ga Ga dance number in the Nettelhorst Variety Show! My daughter Maya, and her best pal Caitlin, who also performed in the show, chime-in: "These are the teachers that make us want to come to school everyday, people. Dig deep!"

If trekking-out to buy gift cards seems like too much trouble, cash in an envelope also does the trick.

Teachers Want Love

All our teachers love homemade gifts from baked goods to creative keepsakes. Fourth grade teacher Michele Herro treasures the countless handmade gifts she's received over the years, including beaded jewelry, knitted scarves, student artwork, and Christmas tree ornaments. "One family gave me a compilation of all their favorite Christmas songs, and I listen to that CD every year during the holidays." she said. "I love homemade gifts because they're completely from the heart, and remind me of my students all year long."

"All in all, my favorite gifts each year are ones that I know the student has a vested interest in, and the ones that they're personally excited to give to me," says fifth grade teacher Nikki Konicek. One student makes her a pair of kooky earrings every year. "I can't wait until I open the little box in front of her and watch her eyes light up!" Preschool teacher Zio Perez cherishes the albums of classroom pictures parents have made her over the years, be they professional books made by Shutterfly.com or simple laminated home projects.

Most teachers only hear from parents when things are going wrong. Hearing that we appreciate them -- and hearing that our kids appreciate them -- was hands down the most desired gift of all. First grade teacher Stacy Holzwarth treasures a handwritten note from a student that reads, "You are a god teacher" instead of "You are a good teacher." My son, Zack, was in Ms. Holzwarth's class two years ago, and just for the record, yes, she is a god.

Give Big

Enjoying a recession staycation like the rest of us lucky ducks this holiday season? Consider recruiting some other families to paint your teacher's classroom for a homegrown version of the inspirational television show School Pride. Winter break is rarely a break for most public school principals and janitorial staff, so it's an ideal time to gussy-up. My school community stayed warm over eight winters renovating entire floors of Nettelhorst with a combination of pro bono professional painters, artists and volunteer elbow grease. Imagine how happy your kids will be to have an extended playdate with their friends, and how thrilled the teachers will be to start the New Year in a completely renovated space. A holiday work project may be one of the most meaningful gifts you can ever give your kids.

So this year, I pledge to get my act together, whip-up some chocolate toffee, and crank-out a few sentences on why my kids' teachers walk on water. After all, you couldn't pay me enough to be in an elementary school classroom all day. I can't even manage to chaperone a field trip without frying-out. Come to think of it, I better slip in an appropriately generous gift card, too.

Wishing everyone, especially our country's teachers, a happy and healthy holiday season! Thank you for helping our children shine!