The Greatest Gift of 2015

In this season of giving, educators, students and parents just received one of the best presents we’ve had in a while: the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The new law places student learning – instead of student testing – at the center of everything educators do.

When I count my blessings as 2015 ends, the ESSA will go straight to the top of my list. But as a teacher, I have to admit that my cup runneth over in the gift department.

Not too long ago, we posted a query on NEA Today’s Facebook page asking educators to tell us about some of their most cherished gifts from students. These ranged from the heartfelt to the hilarious.

I taught at Orchard Elementary School in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, and at homeless shelters. I taught students who struggled to succeed in harsh circumstances and those who were lucky enough to grow up well-off in the right ZIP code. No matter what their differences, they had something in common. Each of them taught me, and each of them enriched my life. Whether you’re a teacher, a guidance counselor, school secretary, college professor, coach, principal, or an education support professional, I know you can relate to that.

Many of the educators who responded on Facebook said that simply hearing a student say “Now I get it” was the best gift ever. I know the pure joy of that moment. Suddenly something clicks, and we get to watch it happen. The eyes get wider. The brow unfurrows. The grimace becomes a grin. And before you know it, that Pharrell song, “Happy,” is on repeat in your head.


A chemistry teacher said her best gift was hearing a student say, “I never liked science, but I liked this class.” Others had similar answers: “When a former student tells me about the positive impact I had on their life,” and “It’s the notes and letters! I keep them in a file and read them when I feel the need.”

For some educators, the most cherished presents are handmade. A kindergartener’s handprint Christmas tree. A bookmark. A detailed picture of a student’s favorite classroom activities. A book of poems, pictures, stories, and “what-nots” from one teacher’s entire class. An orange named Oscar with yarn for hair and eyes. Sometimes the best gifts are practical, like the plastic spoons a teacher received, labeled as “scientific stirrers.”

Often it’s the presents from students and families that are least able to give that touch the heart. A teacher in a high-poverty school will never forget the mom who gave her a $5 gift card to a fast-food restaurant. The mom cried and told her what a difference she’d made in her daughter’s life. Another mentioned the student who handed him a shoebox that held a few treasured items, including a book and a teddy bear.

Some gifts tell the heart-wrenching story of trauma. One teacher said a first grader who initially wouldn’t allow any adult even to hold his hand asked if he could give her a hug.

There is the constant gift of our students’ giggles – and then, there are the gifts that make us giggle. Consider: the bikini one teacher received (by the way, it was the correct size), and the two favorite snakes presented to another. (Were these gifts or gags?)

Whatever you’re giving or getting this holiday season, remember that as educators, we have the greatest gift of all: the privilege of inspiring our students’ curiosity, imagination, and desire to learn, and the opportunity to provide them with the caring, committed, and qualified educators they deserve.

2 Responses to “The Greatest Gift of 2015”

  1. Gus Wynn

    The sentiments about teaching are great, but ESSA seems to be a vaguely worded rebranding of testing and top down corporate reform. Not so cheerful about what the law says versus what we’re being told it says.

  2. Rosemary Nelson

    Thank you. How beautifully you have said what all really passionate teachers know. Its all about the love we give and get back a hundred-fold if we have done our job right.


Leave a Reply