The best teachers choose the perfect gifts (most of the time)

In my opinion, giving presents can be much more rewarding than receiving them. When you give a great gift – a gift that the recipient really wants and needs – it feels amazing. It feels like you have the inherent power to improve someone’s life. What can be more rewarding than that. Unfortunately, giving the wrong gift, especially when you thought it was the right gift, can be incredibly disappointing, for everyone.

Teaching is a lot like gift giving. As the teacher, you need to decide which present your student(s) need at any given time. You know that certain lessons are critical to the class; they need to learn a certain skill to be successful in that grade or your classroom. You also need to know students individually, so that you give them personal gifts that inspire, help them build on previous lessons, and might even get them in a little trouble to really spark their learning.

Each of the following gifts/lessons is in our teaching repertoire. Which of these lessons we teach, and how often we teach them, should give you a pretty good idea of what kind of teacher we are.

The Savings Bond 

US Savingsbond

A savings bond is what I would call an all around solid gift. In the moment, it is underwhelming. At least it looks like money, though. To a young child, it may not be flashy, but you know that there is some inherent value. When you get to cash that savings bond 10 years down the road, you realize how important it was and think, “I wish I had thanked Grandma with a little more excitement when she gave this to me.”

In the classroom, the Savings Bond lesson is one that has been taught for years and, while it does not wow any students, the teacher is confident that later on, it will be cashed in and its value understood. Unfortunately, we rarely have students coming back to say, “Wow, (teacher’s name here), I’m so glad you taught me that way back when.” Generally, I feel like we think our lessons fit into this category too often.

The Cook Book 


I am really talking about the the cook book that is traditionally given to the young adult transitioning to the post-dining hall stage of their life or some other significant moment in young adulthood. It is perfectly useful, in the giver’s perspective. Sadly, my guess is that most of these end up on a high shelf in the kitchen or stuffed in a box that never gets opened after said young adult moves into their new apartment. I honestly like cook books and read some of those that I have received. I am confident there are others who appreciate them. However, most people probably aren’t thrilled to receive this gift, and most cook books are given without considering whether the recipient will use it. If I give someone a cookbook, but they spend their early adult years ordering out for a meal, is it really useful.

Basically, the cook book lesson is the savings bond without the payoff. If the lesson never gets used, probably because it’s forgotten somewhere along the way, what was it’s true purpose or value in the first place. If I teach a student all the rules for commas in fifth grade, but never allow them to write freely enough to care about commas, why would I think that they would use the rule appropriately.

The Lanyard


If you haven’t read or heard Billy Collins’s poem, please watch here. Here is a brief segment if you don’t want to watch:

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.

This is the lesson drawn straight from the curriculum guide, directly from the reading/writing/math program book. It gives little meaning to the teacher or the learner. I am sure we are all guilty of this at some point. Paradoxically, I think we need to give a lanyard in order to recognize the fact that we never should have given that gift at all.

The Drone

(Backup title – The official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time)

How-to-get-a-drone-out-of-a-tree-1This gift is cool! It is exciting. It is what all the kids are asking for, and all the cool parents are giving. It is high tech. My ten year-old nephew will love this drone. He will play with it for hours after he gets it. He will connect it to his tablet and fly it around his neighborhood and then one of two things will happen – it will get stuck in a tree or be shelved within the week. But hey, it was cool while it lasted. (I don’t think I need to explain the lesson half of the analogy.)

The Nimbus 2000

(To be honest, this was the hardest to name, I used this movie gift list as inspiration – the Invisibility Cloak, Crappy car from Good Will Hunting, Glass Elevator from Willy Wonka, or freedom for the genie in Aladdin were all options.)


This gift represents the best gift possible. It is exactly Harry needed at that time to be successful. The fact that it was high tech and the best of its kind at the time were a bonus. More importantly, it helped Harry reach his potential as a seeker. Not without some bumps and bruises, but it changed his trajectory at Hogwarts significantly.

In Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets book and online course, she talks about the importance of letting students struggle and make mistakes before we give them the lesson we think they need. By allowing them to take on a challenge, use their prior knowledge, but reach a point of minimal frustration, you prime them for a lesson. You help them understand the need for a certain lesson. When they receive that information, they will be so excited to use it, to move past that frustration level, that the lesson will stick with them for longer. Open-ended questions and tasks give students more opportunities to reach that point where they want and need the lesson you want to teach them.


We can’t always teach a Nimbus 2000 lesson, but this what we should strive for. These lessons prove that we know our students. They are personal, they are useful, they are meaningful beyond the lesson given. They make a student feel understood. They show that we have developed a relationship with that student or class so well that we know what they need in a given moment and can provide it for them.

The truth is that these gifts and lessons are not inherently good or bad. A Nimbus 2000 would have been a waste for Draco Malfoy, who probably already had three. My aunt has given me a number of great cook books, because she knows me as a cook. A lanyard would be great for a coach who keeps losing his keys and a drone might be the perfect tool to launch someone toward a career in aviation. The item (what) is rarely the most important part of the gift. The who, when and why are much more important. We need to give students what they need when they need it. To do that you need to know who your student is and why they are learning the way they are.

Please share your own gift/lesson ideas in the comment section. I’m sure there are more, better analogies than the ones I have chosen. It was a great exercise for me to consider the teaching and gift giving analogy. It has made me think fondly on specific lessons I have taught, but also disappointment in others. Maybe you can only give a Nimbus 2000 after you’ve given a lanyard.


4 thoughts on “The best teachers choose the perfect gifts (most of the time)

  1. That Billy Collins “Lanyard” is hilarious! I was thinking of your questions at the end. Maybe we need to save up enough money to be able to purchase the Nimbus 2000… Maybe, after years (and years!) of teaching, we can finally afford (or know when and how) to give these gifts… This post makes me think of when I present regarding Genius Hour. I like to tell teachers that “you’re not giving time up for you students. You’re giving time OVER to them.” That time for students to learn/create what they want is a gift, for sure.

    Most recently, I read THE FEEDBACK FIX by Joe Hirsch. He said, “When we give feedforward and talk to other people [students] about their strengths and burgeoning potential, we hand them the tools of autonomy, or self-management.” (121) I hope that most of the gifts I’m giving the next ump-teen years I’m in the classroom are gifts such as these.

    Thanks for this post, Chris – you’ve got me thinking! Keep the conversations going!


    1. I love that feedback idea – feedforward. I think it plays on our natural tendency to focus solely on improving weaknesses rather than developing strengths. To me, the greatest thinkers are typically just much better at one or two things that the rest of us do pretty well; they on the other hand seem to have mastered it. I talk about it with my basketball players sometimes; while it is important to do many things well, the best players often do one so much better than everyone else that it is impossible to contain it. I would never say to stop improving on weaknesses, but if that is all we focus on, it will serve mainly to frustrate the recipient of the feedback and keep them from believing in themselves.


  2. Not all lessons revolve around the “3 R’s.” I believe in the importance of teaching the whole child, so the “lesson” i teach daily is one of service–what can we do to help others in our class, school, community, country and world? Our gifts do not have to be tangible objects, but can include raising awareness, giving our time, and/or donating money. At the winter holidays, I ask my class to make donations in my name to their or my favorite charity in lieu of any gifts they may generously wish to give me. I don’t make this request because I don’t need another teacher mug, scented candle, or box of chocolates, I am modeling the lesson I teach every day. When a parent thanks me for teaching this lesson or a student tells me they volunteered at a local charity event, that is the gift that keeps on giving.


    1. Love this Lynn, thanks so much for sharing. There are really too many lessons to name, but I thought it was fun to try a few. What would you name yours? Or are there too many in here to name?


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