Yesterday my children and I engaged in our annual end-of-year ritual: preparing teacher gifts. Each year, we give the kids’ teachers a small gift and little note. When they were younger, I would write the note myself.
(The notes tended to be long and emotional; something about the end of the year turns me into a teary wreck. Probably it’s that “whoosh” feeling of “Where did that year go?” The disbelief that another school year has gone by, with its assortment of daily struggles—some big, some just seemed big at the time—and accomplishments, big and small. The pride mingled with sadness, reflecting on all the effort and energy invested in the year, by both parents and children, and knowing that it has come to an end. And once again, the punch-in-the-gut realization that they are getting too big, too quickly. Thank God, of course, for the getting too big. And thank God, too, that I somehow remain a fresh-faced 25 year old. It’s all the coffee, I think.)
Anyway. So as I was saying, when the kids were little, I would write the note and they would draw a little picture. It was important to me that they have a hand, however small (literally) in saying “Thank you” to the teacher who cared for them all year. Now that 2/3 can read and write, they do the entire note themselves, though I will probably add a few words of “hakarat hatov (gratitude)” as well.
I’ve been doing this as long as my children were in some sort of daycare situation. Many people I know do the same. And yet many are surprised that I do this. Which makes me surprised that they are surprised. How could you not? Maybe it’s because I was (once upon a time) a classroom teacher myself, and I can personally attest to how much I appreciated being appreciated. So when I became a teacher-mother, I figured, “Hey, if it means a lot to me, it probably means a lot to my own kids’ teachers!” And so the ritual began.
As your kids get older, of course, the number of teachers they have grows exponentially, making end-of-year gifts a costly ritual. However, I can assure you with honesty and not even a bit of snark, that most teachers really do appreciate a heartfelt note above all else. Unlike the classic kid-at-a-birthday scenario, I used to put the gift aside and rip open the card first. A genuine, warm note—the more specific the better (“I loved the rainforest project.” “I liked how you read to us at the end of the day.”)—always meant so much more than an expensive bath soap set with a scrawled “Thanks!” on the tag. Most teachers, I can tell you from experience, prefer the investment be from the heart, not the wallet. (Did I really just write such a cheesy line? Yes. Yes I did.)
Hakarat hatov is one of Judaism’s fundamental tenets. For example, in Egypt, Moses was not the one to bring certain plagues, like blood. To invoke the plague, he would have needed to hit the water, the same water that had saved him as a young baby. In a display of gratitude, he refrained from hitting it. Yes, even though the entire extent of the water’s kindness was “not drowning him,” Moses recognized and appreciated it. Later, during the time of the Temple, we had a korban (sacrifice) called a “korban todah.” (korban of thanks). Now, it is true that this korban was brought for someone who experienced a miracle such as recovery from an illness—the Israelites weren’t bringing sacrifices because their kid had a great year in school. Still, I think it speaks to the importance of gratitude, of recognizing and appreciating when someone (or Someone, or something) has performed a kindness for you.
I know that for many Americans, school has already ended; you’re probably thinking, “School? The name does sound familiar.” In Israel, we still have another week. But even if school’s out, it’s not too late for you and your child to write a short thank you note (if you haven’t already) and slip it in the mail. Or, because seriously, what is it, 1986? write a short thank you email and hit “send.”
Teachers work hard, and their hours extend way beyond the end-of-day school bell. Even if you didn’t especially love your child’s teacher this year (I was told once, “My daughter had a good year, but not a great year.” To which I did NOT respond, “Your child is a good kid, but not a great kid.”), they have invested untold hours and expended great energy into educating your child. They taught them math, reading and Torah and also conflict resolution, recess games, respect for yourself and others, passion for learning, responsibility and to always, always believe in yourself. They responded to emails and phone calls and always made time to talk to you, even when you caught them off guard at the end of the day for a “quick thing.”
So please, thank your child’s teachers. And make sure your children thank them as well. (Bath soaps optional.)