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Why Big-Ticket Is Best

Wondering what to give your staff? A single big-ticket gift is best:

  • It can benefit everyone—no one will think it's junk
  • There's no chance of leaving anyone out
  • It'll last for several years at least (please, toss the microwave before it's old enough to drive!)

Specific ideas are below, but first, let's back up a step…

Gifts Aren't An Obligation

Every year, I see school leaders stressing themselves out over gifts for staff, whether at:

  • Back-to-school time
  • The holidays
  • Individual staff birthdays
  • Teacher appreciation week
  • The end of the school year

Let's be clear:

School leaders are NOT obligated to get gifts for staff. They're a personal choice.

Yes, staff may feel like family, but we're all professionals, and a school is a workplace.

No one in corporate America is Cricutting anything for the marketing department.

Personally, I did not make or buy individual gifts for staff, and while some people might have expected me to, no one ever complained or mentioned it an exit interview.

If you don't do gifts, no one will care.

But a lot of people love giving gifts, and that's great, too. If you like coming up with gift ideas, go for it!

But don't let it stress you out.

Don't feel guilty if you're not staying up all night with a Cricut machine making monogrammed coasters for everyone, or shelling out hundreds of dollars on gift cards.

Why Individual Gifts Are A Lose-Lose

Individual gifts for staff are tricky:

  1. Anything meaningful is hard to scale to the entire staff, either in time or expense. So we tend to end up either spending way too much time or money, or giving everyone something nobody really wants—and often both.
  2. People will feel the need to reciprocate, adding stress and/or guilt at a time when they're already stretched too thin.
  3. You'll inevitably leave people out (Classified staff? Part-time staff? Parent volunteers? Interns? Crossing guards? No matter where you draw the line, the first person on the other side will be offended.)

Being a good leader—who listens and supports teachers—is a far better gift. Jen Schwanke's book The Teacher's Principal: How School Leaders Can Support and Motivate Their Teachers is an excellent guide to addressing these factors.

And if you do want to give an actual gift, it's best to keep it simple.

The Perfect Whole-Staff Gift: A Big-Ticket Extra

The best staff gift is a big-ticket purchase for the entire school—something that benefits everyone, but wouldn't normally be provided.

Since everyone benefits, including you, no one will feel guilty or feel the need to reciprocate.

Think the $100 to $1,000 range (perhaps school or PTA/PTSO funds or donations from the community can help).

If you have an admin team, you can all chip in.

Matt writes:

Matt - ice machine for staff
If you know about Sonic ice, you know. It's a whole thing.

This particular ice maker is a great choice, but the possibilities are endless.

Big-Ticket Gift Ideas For Your Staff, $100-$1000

Furniture

  • New sofa for the staff lounge—ideally one that's easy to clean
  • Better chairs at staff lunch tables
  • Massage chair

Appliances

  • New refrigerator
  • New microwave
  • Air fryer/toaster oven combo (be careful of heat—possible fire hazard)
  • Pellet ice maker

Food & Beverage Equipment

  • Popcorn machine, nacho cheese machine, or other “treat food” hardware
  • Keurig + pods or a professional coffee service (like many companies provide)
  • Filtered hot/cold water dispenser

Time-Saving WOW Prep Tools

These tools can be purchased with school funds, but should be above and beyond what's normally provided if they're to be considered gifts.

For example, providing a photocopier that actually works is a basic expectation, and will feel dystopian if presented as a gift. (See Herzberg's Two-Factory Theory on motivation.)

Some above-and-beyond prep tools:

  • Guillotine paper cutter—I hadn't heard of these, but they look amazing
  • New, sharp paper cutter
  • Comb or coil binder
  • Mega-hole punch or stapler
  • A laminator or poster machine, if those aren't already provided (be mindful of consumable supply costs)

Free or Low-Cost Staff Lounge Improvements

If you don't have the budget for any of the above but can recruit some free labor, here are some simple changes you can make to brighten up the staff lounge:

  • Remove passive-aggressive signage—no one needs to see a wrinkled, coffee-stained “Your mother doesn't work here” note every time they use the microwave
  • Clean the microwaves—usually this isn't anyone's job, and it shows
  • Clean the fridge—it's almost always been too long
  • Clean sink areas
  • Clean tables and chairs
  • Paint the walls or put up new decor
  • Provide warm lighting via lamps or replacement bulbs—update old fluorescent lighting with new warm or adjustable LED lighting

A few cautions:

  • Be sure to let people know in advance if you'll be emptying out the fridge/freezer, so they can claim or save anything they want, like popsicles for a class party
  • Check with your maintenance department before doing anything too drastic involving paint, power, or plumbing

Pitfalls To Avoid with Staff Gifts

Here are a few categories of staff gifts to avoid.

Basic Workplace Supplies

If you buy something as a gift, make sure it's something extra—NOT something your school should be providing anyway. “I got you a photocopier that actually works!” is going to make people feel worse, not better.

Buy the following for your staff because they are basic expectations, not gifts:

  • A working copier and paper
  • Soap, paper towels, and toilet paper for restrooms
  • Water, coffee, soap, and paper towels for the staff lounge

Niche Fun Toys

You may enjoy a Pac-Man arcade game or a ping-pong table, but will most people? When?

Think of something that will benefit the entire staff, not just be fun for a few people, or worse, hypothetical fun no one has time for.

Toys may seem like a way to give your school a fun “startup” vibe, but more likely, they'll just highlight how busy people are, with no time to enjoy them.

Exercise Equipment

I shouldn't have to say this, but don't buy exercise equipment as a gift. People don't usually exercise at work.

I've seen an exercise bike, such as a Peloton, suggested several times, and that doesn't seem like a good idea to me—it might be taken as an insult, and besides, people do not want to get sweaty or even have the time to exercise at work.

You might look into a corporate gym membership, but again, be cautious about insulting people, and consider whether it's something they would actually want and use.

Unsanitary Food/Beverage Items

Be mindful of food or beverage items that sit out all day, or that people have to stick their hands into.

Be sure to include a proper scoop, tongs, or other serving equipment, and a sanitary place to keep it.

For example, if you provide an ice machine, provide not just a scoop, but a clean bin to keep the scoop in, too.

One-Time Events

For one-time “treat events” like a food truck or chair-massage masseuse, consider:

  • Part-time staff who won't be on campus
  • Those whose duties may prevent them from participating—be sure to provide coverage for office staff and aides who don't have a prep period.

Since there's not usually one day when everyone is on campus, hardware is usually better than events/services. 

Poor Taste

Every year, employees get inappropriate gifts from their co-workers—and sometimes their supervisors.

To be sure, there's an endless variety of funny-but-inappropriate gifts out there—and plenty more that would be funny to some people in some contexts, but not at work.

Ask yourself the “Really?” question to be sure your gift idea isn't in poor taste.

How would this gift look to someone who doesn't know you or the staff culture or the inside jokes you share?

How would it look when shared in an outraged social media post or on the evening news?

“I didn't mean it that way” is not a defense.

Think about how it'll look as a newspaper or social media headline…and go boring.

It's a much bigger risk with individual gifts than whole-staff gifts, which are harder to take in a way other than the giver intended.

Remember, This Is Optional

If you can't or choose not to give your staff a gift, don't sweat it. It's not an expectation.

Your Ideas

What ideas do you have? Leave a comment below.


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  1. Thank you for the list and your other article: The Principal’s Guide to Teacher Motivation: Beyond Jeans Passes & Other Extrinsic Rewards which brought me here! It was thought-provoking. I have to say that in my experience, I disagree with your perspective on the exercise equipment. It definitely depends on the culture of your school building, but we have several groups of teachers who like to hit the weight room, rowing machine, running track, or yes the Peloton before or after work. In fact, as long as people are getting their work done, they are encouraged to go get some movement in and use this equipment during their prep period! Treating teachers like professionals means allowing them to then put in the extra hour either before or after their contracted time. I think this is a way to walk the walk when it comes to advocating people take care of themselves mentally and physically. Of course some people will be offended when a school leader challenges them to improve their fitness or go for a walk outside during lunch. However, I would rather work for the person who helps me become healthier and happier instead of buying "treat food" hardware.

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