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Gifts for teachers: Try a personal touch

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Gifts for teachers: Try a personal touch

The story of a poem that made a Schenectady teacher's holiday
Gifts for teachers: Try a personal touch
Oneida Middle School teacher Victoria Abulla holds letters written by students Shamiah Walker, 14, and Taniyah Cherry.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

Victoria Abdulla, an English Language Arts teacher at Oneida Middle School, prominently displays a framed poem on her desk.

Titled "My Teacher," the poem was written by now ninth-grader Taniyah Cherry as a holiday present to her favorite teacher, and it told Abdulla all she needed to know about the impact she had on Taniyah.

"English class with Ms. Abdulla was the first time I ever felt like I belonged somewhere," Taniyah wrote in the poem. "When I walked in that room, I knew that for the next 45 minutes, I would get to escape, I would get to share my ideas. There is no better feeling than being heard.

"Like, really heard."  

The message reaffirmed Abdulla's reason for getting into teaching in the first place, she said. 

"That's the goal of teaching; you want to make a difference in a student's life," Abdulla said. "That's why I became a teacher: to connect with students. (Taniyah's note) is a really great affirmation that I did what I dreamed of doing as a kid."

That connection has continued, even two years after Taniyah sat in Abdulla's class. Now a freshman at Schenectady High School, Taniyah and Abdulla still message one another and keep in touch about the things going on in Taniyah's life. Shamiah Walker, an Oneida eighth-grader, also used the simplicity of pen and paper to craft a gift for Abdulla. Shamiah wrote that Abdulla "uses fire to teach literacy," and that her teacher helped her through a hard time after she was suspended from school.

"I got suspended and thought that was the end of me," Shamiah wrote. "When I came back, I was so gone. My attitude was so wrong. But Ms. Abdulla kept me so strong." 

Abdulla said she tries to make her classroom a space in which students feel comfortable opening up about the challenges and successes in their lives. Aided by the stories they read in class, she attempts to fashion a community of trust and openness. 

"I have to be vulnerable myself and show a human side, so they can come in and be here and bring in baggage if they have it and feel free to express it," said Abdulla. "When a child gets you a gift, it's like, oh my gosh, they thought of me beyond the classroom."

So when finishing off your Christmas gift shopping list this week, don’t forget the people who spend so much time with your kids: the teachers.

And it doesn’t take much to please them. Teachers always welcome classroom supplies, books and anything written by a student. Whether its a paperweight for their desk or a handmade ornament, give a gift with a personal spin, and they will appreciate it.

Here a few more gift ideas for the teachers in your life.

A personal note

It might be the most simple gift, but it also might be the most meaningful: a handwritten note from student to teacher. Current and former teachers said many of the material gifts get lost in the clutter or fade away, but they remembered the notes, poems and letters penned by students.

No matter their age, a student can write a personal message, highlighting their favorite lesson of the year or letting a teacher know about plans for the holidays or a resolution for the new year — something for school and something for home.

Just tell your child to write about how class makes them feel, and the kids can handle the rest.

“I cried when she gave it to me,”  Abdulla said of Taniyah's note.

Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring, who started his career as a social studies teacher, recalled a handwritten note from a student that meant a lot to him.

“The material gifts are things I don’t remember,” Spring said. “But I remember the notes about how my class made them feel.”

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Classroom supplies and books

This one is a no-brainer, but a teacher can always use more crayons and pencils. Erasers, glue sticks and art supplies are in high demand. Get something that can go a long way and be a special treat for your student and their classmates. The teacher wins points if they get to dole out the goodies.

Check out the Parent Teacher Store in Latham, a classroom supply store full of educational materials, games and small trinkets that would make any teacher's day.

Or stop by a local bookstore and look for something in the classroom’s age range. Nothing makes a read-aloud pop like a crisp, new book. Or give a middle-school science class a book about the planets.

Gift cards

Don’t be afraid to double down on local businesses, other teachers recommended. Get a gift certificate to a local restaurant or small business.

Corinna Heggen, coordinator of Schenectady High School’s AVID program, suggested a gift that encourages teachers to spend time with their families and loved ones. Teachers are constantly grading assignments, planning lessons and attending workshops, so even a small gift card to a local restaurant or theater might be just the incentive they need for a date night or to get the family out of the house.

“Teachers give up a lot of their personal time,” she said. “So any gift that could promote family time with a significant other (and) children would be appreciated.”

A show at Proctors might be a little more relaxing if the teacher isn’t helping wrangle hundreds of sixth-graders.

Something for the desk

Teachers only have so much desk space, so try to find something that will stand out. Look for something cool at an antique store or flea market. Try to find something that would have special meaning for the teacher or the school. When you are eyeing flea markets and garage sales for something cool, don’t forget the teachers.

If you’ve got something that is going to make other students stop, think and ask questions, you definitely have a winner.

Michael Beatty, former Johnstown High School principal and teacher, said the most memorable gift he received over his nearly four decades in education was a simple paperweight.

“It was a globe, suspended in it was a bee,” he said. “Hundreds of students have stared at it and asked about it over the years.”

Schenectady teacher Juliet Benaqustio cited a homemade ornament she received from a student in her first year of teaching. The student painted the clay-mold ornament by hand.

“Nothing fancy, but 30 years later, that ornament will still be hanging on my tree,” Benaquisto said.


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