A Glimpse of What Teachers Give—and Sometimes Get—During the Holidays  

By Elizabeth Heubeck — December 20, 2022 4 min read
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Teachers give all year. They give their time and talent, and their own money. According to recent data, teachers spend, on average, $745 each year on school supplies. Typically, teachers’ selfless spending at the beginning of the school year gets the most attention. But that’s not the only time teachers are shelling out cash from their personal stash for students.

The December holidays finds many teachers dipping into their personal bank accounts to provide gifts for their students.

And while employee holiday bonuses doled out by some schools or districts generally outweigh what teachers spend on their students this time of year, the padded holiday paychecks don’t necessarily compensate for year-round salary woes that, according to Education Week research, rank as a top reason why teachers consider leaving the profession.

Spending on students

Salary woes notwithstanding, some teachers shared with Education Week how they spend to make their students’ holidays a little more special.

Jessica Saum, an elementary special education teacher in the Cabot school district in Arkansas and the state’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, spends up to $150 during the holidays on her students—between $7 and $10 on each student. She stuffs stockings with a book; a small educational manipulative or toy; and filler items like candy, crayons, and pencils plus a small coloring or activity book. She also creates personalized mugs for “Polar Express Day” hot chocolate. And, as part of her lesson on “holidays around the world,” the former resident of Germany fills students’ decorated boots with treats in honor of that country’s tradition of celebrating Saint Nicholas Day.

Former elementary school teacher Cassandra Williams recounts spending upwards of $50 on student gifts during the holidays, and a total closer to $200 that included gifts for room parents, the principal, and colleagues. In a Linkedin blog on the topic, she wrote: “Overall, it’s fun, exciting, and a joy to receive fun items but it can be a financial burden.”

Holiday bonuses lessen, but don’t alleviate, teachers’ load

Though annual employee holiday bonuses are not standard fare in every school or district, December is a popular time to distribute them. This year, Maryland’s Anne Arundel County schools is recognizing its employees with a holiday bonus. Last month, Superintendent Mark Bedell announced a $1,000 “employee appreciation bonus” for all permanent staff to be distributed in December.

In a letter to staff, Bedell wrote: “No school system can be great without great people. As I have said before, the work you are doing in the face of some stiff challenges is incredible. No matter your role in our school system, our students benefit every day from your dedication and passion. Please don’t ever forget that.”

The district’s employees are even less likely to forget the additional burdens they’ve borne as a result of systemwide vacancies.

As of Dec. 14, the district had 196 vacancies. In response, teachers have been covering classes or adding students to their classrooms, a procedure known as absorption, according to Nicole Disney-Bates, the president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. Savings accrued from those vacancies paid for this year’s employee bonuses, according to a district news release.

In an email to Education Week, Disney-Bates wrote: “The bonus was unexpected from [the district]. We are appreciative of the thanks that the bonus shows our teachers and related service providers. We look forward to continuing to work with [the district] to make our salary competitive to our neighboring counties. We believe that a COLA [cost of living adjustment] that keeps up with inflation will be one way to improve our competitiveness among the central counties.”

Superintendent Bedell has acknowledged the lagging salaries—referring to them as “embarrassing compensation gaps” between Anne Arundel’s employees compared to those in neighboring jurisdictions. Earlier this month, he recommended to the Board of Education that more than $80 million go toward raising pay for all staff in his proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

“We need competitive pay for our teachers,” Bedell told the board in his budget address. “We also need competitive pay for bus drivers, custodians, maintenance employees, secretaries, food service workers, and all of the employees who work in this school system.”

The superintendent’s message is timely. Teacher pay nationwide has steadily decreased over the past decade.

In 2020-21, teachers’ average starting salary was $41,770, a 4 percent decrease over the prior academic year when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Education Association. Similarly, the NEA reports that, after adjusting for inflation, teachers currently earn on average $2,150 less than they did a decade ago.


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