1 Question, 1 Challenge, and 11 of the Best Teacher Gifts

Blog Series, Learning, PreK-12, Smart Teachers

Watching my ten-year old daughter and my teenage son open gifts every Christmas produces such enjoyment for me. I revel in their excitement, their curiosity, and their appreciation. With each gift, I study their eyes, their smiles, their authentic and knee-jerk reactions. And at least one gift for each of them never ceases to amaze me. Although I don’t always predict the most successful presents, there is always that one, special gift that stirs up raw, pure emotions of enthusiasm. I call it simply “the perfect gift.”

I’m sure you’ve experienced and witnessed these particular occasions if you are a parent. They are easily recognizable by the tornado-like unwrapping technique, which is immediately followed by a holiday-appropriate exclamation and a spontaneous, yet ugly, living room dance that makes Carlton Banks’ boogie look like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk from “Billie Jean.” No, the collective delight from observing such an animated celebration is not unusual.

So, naturally, being the prototypical, connected educator who struggles to unplug from all things academic and actually rest during the holidays, I found myself contemplating one serious (at least to me) question:

What is the perfect gift for a teacher?

Thanks to the recent replays of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, my flat screen spoke the answer nearly every couple of hours. But the answer did not come from the Griswold family. Oh, no. It came from the antithesis of the Webster’s Dictionary. Yep. The wise one with the wise answer was none other than Clark’s beloved brother-in-law.


After learning of Clark’s prestigious Christmas bonus in the form of a one-year membership to the Jelly-of-the-Month Club, Uncle Eddie surprisingly surmised, “Clark, that’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year.”

Finally, after lip syncing nearly five viewings of the holiday classic, Eddie’s wisdom finally registered in my head. I had my answer, but before I could utter my approval, Clark chimed in with, “That it is, Edward. That it is indeed.”

However, I must admit there is one catch with this flawless present. It must begin with a challenge.

Read on as I unwrap a multitude of educators’ presents below and ultimately reveal the perfect gift for a teacher.

Gift #1: A Challenge

To improve, there often has to be a fire lit under one’s posterior. Well, ‘tis the season for rosy cheeks anyway, right? Perhaps the best classroom experience for any teacher is to have a student suggest, “Is this the best you’ve got?” This necessary sentiment is often expressed through nonverbal cues that practically scream “Your class is brutal!” Or through semi-respectful but blatantly honest comments like, “Your class is so boring that time just snails along as I scratch away at meaningless worksheets while the only thing that keeps me alert and awake enough to make progress are the occasional vibrations from my pocketed, and banned, smartphone.” No doubt a wake-up call is sometimes needed to joggle educators out of classroom stagnation. In fact, a challenge is the gift from which all other educators’ gifts originate.

Need a jolt, I mean, a gift? Let Student X help. Warning: this gift is not for the squeamish.

Gift #2: Purpose

Once a challenge has been issued, all determined educators delve deeply into their teaching philosophies for re-examination. Maybe that coincides with current practices and curricula or maybe that simply coincides with the most important curriculum of all, the real reason teachers choose to enter the classroom…to stir up enough curiosity to send all students on a personal quest that results in self-knowledge, creativity, generosity, and happiness.

Gift #3: Vision

Challenge? Check. Purpose? Check. What’s next? A shared, collaborative, and classroom vision that can sustain the gift of purpose. Founded in 2008, Studio 113’s vision has included improvisational acting, interactive learning structures, project and passion-based learning, and off-the-chain learning practices in a stage-centered and flexible classroom. To establish this vision at the beginning of the school year, Studio 113 bolstered its creative intentions on the following lyrics from “Am I Wrong?” by Nico and Vinz.

Am I wrong
For thinking out the box from where I stay?
Am I wrong
For saying that I choose another way?
I ain’t trying to do what everybody else doin’
Just ’cause everybody doin’ what they all do
If one thing I know, I’ll fall but I’ll grow
I’m walking down this road of mine, this road that I call home

So am I wrong?
For thinking that we could be something for real?
Now am I wrong?
For trying to reach the things that I can’t see?
But that’s just how I feel,
That’s just how I feel
That’s just how I feel
Trying to reach the things that I can’t see

Am I tripping

For having a vision?

Gift #4: Inspiration

Pablo Picasso was accurate when he said, “Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.” In agreement, I say show me an inspired educator, and I’ll show you an amazing teacher who rocks the classroom with the zeal of the Energizer Bunny after inhaling a box of Krispy Kremes and chasing them with two Red Bulls. To be honest, observing inspired, master teachers working their craft is comparable to gazing at a work of art. They are one-in-the-same.

Gift #5: Creativity

Personally, this gift is what gets me out of bed at 5:30am every morning. Whether the day calls for interactive learning structures, acting on stage, students’ presentations, or wild-and-wacky learning activities, I can’t wait to see students’ talents and interests expressed out loud.

Gift #6: Happiness

The cumulative effect of the first five gifts is humor, laughter, and just overall professional happiness. I’m betting Confucius’ claim, “Choose a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life”, is true. I know I surely love coming to “work.”

Gift #7: Community & Family

The day a teacher walks around the classroom to assist students and suddenly realizes a community and family-like atmosphere are present is a day unlike any other. Collaboration, cooperation, mutual respect, ownership of learning responsibilities, and a genuine concern for others make up the wrapping for this gift.

Gift #8: Connectivity

Breaking down the four walls of a classroom and making connections outside the local community is so liberating, and quite frankly, real-world. Today’s educational technology affords classrooms an unlimited supply of tech tools to extend and share knowledge beyond the brick-and-mortar setting. Not trying to oversimplify, but connecting to another class of passionate learners is just a few tweets and one Google Hangout away. Take a look at this assignment that took connectivity to another level outside of school hours.

Gift #9: Fortitude

I’m not going to lie. Teaching…can…be…tough. If you have ever been front-and-center in a classroom with 35 students daring you to grab their attention, then you’re picking up what I’m laying down. But that’s where a determined teacher rolls his sleeves up, plays a Springsteen song, and Charlie Hustles it in the classroom. You know what I mean. The Pete Rose in the classroom. Minus, of course, the alleged affiliation with steroids and gambling. But as sure as I am a bald-headed, forty-year old man who way out-kicked his punt coverage in the marriage department, I promise you that the gift of fortitude is invaluable. Teaching will definitely sound the alarm on a teacher’s insecurities. However, with the right attitude and toughness, that same alarm will morph into a triumphant song of success.

Gift #10: Balance

Ahhh, balance. That four-letter expletive, as many people refer to it. Highly sought after; hard to achieve. Illusive it sometimes seems. But with the unwrapping of the previous nine gifts, balance is bound to occur. Balance in the classroom. Balance outside the classroom. Balance between the following: work and home, students and family, weekend grading and recreational activities, professional life and personal life, stress and workouts, care-taking and self-care, and….well, just overall balance.

And that gets us to the greatest gift of all for a teacher.


I am grateful to be entrusted with such an important job.

I am grateful to share key, and oftentimes pivotal, learning moments with students.

I am grateful to witness students shrug off fear, step on a stage, and courageously share their talents, interests, and knowledge at such a vulnerable age.

I am grateful to accept suggestions from the true “customers” of education…the students.

I am grateful to experience the energy of students who have their whole lives, their wishes, and their dreams directly in front of them like a brilliant painter with a blank canvas and unlimited paint.

In fact, gratitude is ceaseless. You might even say, “That’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year.”

And with a heart full of gratitude, I will look all students in the eye, accept their challenge, and respond, “Yep, my best is exactly what you’ll get, and together we are gonna unwrap one heck of a gift.”

Are you a teacher? Think back to your favorites that didn’t come gift wrapped. Share by commenting below!

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John Hardison

John Hardison

John Hardison is an interactive facilitator of learning and blended learning specialist at East Hall High School (Studio 113 & EPiCC) in Gainesville, Georgia. By creating a flexible class where literature creatively comes to life on a stage with students as the stars, Mr. Hardison focuses heavily on creativity, interactive structures, and student choices. In the past 18 years at East Hall High School, he has taught AP Language, American Literature, World Literature, and Applied Communications. Through original learning structures and a shared classroom concept, students are inspired to connect literature with their own talents and interests. Mr. Hardison shares his classroom concept and interactive structures by presenting at professional conferences and upon request by various schools. Look for John at ISTE and follow him on Twitter at @JohnHardison1.


jill /

Love your enthusiasm and fervor. I am thankful I get to work with you. You are the gift that keeps on giving. Love catching butterflies.

John Hardison /

Thanks, Jill, for taking the time to post a comment. I appreciate all of your insight and brilliant ideas. Very creative. Best wishes with all your endeavors. I know you will rock them all. Blessings…