Good Gifts: Sweet Potato Fries and Green Salad

For as long as there have been teachers, there have been gifts for teachers. Historical Fiction often depicts teachers in one room schoolhouses being gifted with a portion of a harvest, a fresh baked cake, a dozen eggs, or a single perfect apple as a sign of the student’s affection. When I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s, the quintessential teacher gift had morphed to anything printed with an apple on it: mugs, pens, note pads, jewelry- anything! Then came Pinterest. Since that time, the teacher gift has evolved to include monograms and other more customized gifts. I have received coffee mugs, jewelry, book marks, and t-shirts with my monogram on them. Other common teacher gifts are chocolate, favorite beverages, and gift cards for local restaurants. When I worked in a private international school, teachers were gifted with bottles of wine, and one student gave me a Prada perfume gift set. Wow, right?A teacher’s job is challenging, and sometimes appreciation feels scarce. So all of these gifts are lovely and appreciated.

As cliche as it may seem, the greatest gifts in the life of a teacher are their relationships with students. May I never lose sight of the honor it is to have someone hand their child over to me for 8 hours a day. Kids are a blessing. They are a messy, glorious, challenging, joyful, and sometimes frustrating gift in my life and in the lives of my colleagues. Seeing them “get it” after a long struggle? Total win. Total joy.

One of the best gifts before me as a middle school teacher is the lowly cafeteria side dish. I work in a small school, and the students know us pretty well. Almost daily, a handful of kids cruise by the teacher lunch table to bring us an offering. They know that we love the sweet potato fries, so they bring us the ones they aren’t eating. They are also aware of our affinity for green beans, salad with ranch, and fried okra. If my students hear me say that I am pumped for rectangle pizza on a Monday, someone will usually ask if I want theirs, since it isn’t their favorite. These kids, ya’ll. They often bring us more little plastic cups of goodness than we can manage, and we usually have to tell a bunch of them “thanks but no thanks”. I am honored by their generosity.

These same middle school babies know that I love student artwork, so my desk stays littered with drawings, origami, and other creations. Anything a kid gives me is displayed or tacked up on my bulletin board. These are small things with big import. A cup of sweet potato fries given freely is symbolic of so much work and love and sweetness and hardship and blessing. In the gift of an extra ranch packet, I see a student who recognizes both my work on their behalf and my love for them.

We don’t teach to achieve the American “dream” of financial dominance and power. We teach because we want to be a part of something bigger, and we love walking alongside students as they discover the incredible world that we live in. We teach because we know that the richest things in life come about in the context of human relationships. We teach because an extra serving of mac and cheese feels like a winning lottery ticket when it is given by a student that you had to send to the office the week prior.

Teacher Appreciation Week is around the corner. Some of the kids will remember, and there will be gift bags and sweet note. Probably one of the local churches will cater Chick fil A biscuits one morning. It will be fun. But the biggest gift this year is the knowledge that during the hardest and weirdest year of my career, I had an opportunity to invest in my students and to see them flourish. We have cried, and struggled, been quarantined, and fought battles with COVID. We have learned to integrate evidence, analyze an argument, and appreciate the beauty of poetry. This year is a gift. These students are a gift.

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Katie Stewart

I’m an English teacher who is passionate about authentic literacy practice and the intersection of faith and practice. Jane Eyre forever.