A student stood over our classroom’s recycling bin on the verge of tears. “But I chose that for you!” she lamented as I followed her gaze to the purple envelope I had discarded after we read her card together that morning. It was my first Teacher Appreciation Day as an instructional aide, and clearly there was a lot to learn about the etiquette of receiving elementary schoolers’ presents.
One crucial lesson was that everybody’s day goes smoother when I avoid using the trash cans on campus to dispose of anything related to students’ gifts. I also realized that if I didn’t conquer my shyness and speak up about my minimalist lifestyle, the children and their families would feel obligated to continue the status quo of gift giving.
I’m passionate about my choice to live without excess. Simplicity benefits my mental health, productivity, and financial security. Plus, minimalism conserves finite environmental resources. Discussing those gains used to be outside my comfort zone, but with years of practice I’ve grown more confident talking about my values at work.
Now the children and adults in my classroom community know I cherish heartwarming experiences that can’t be bought and will encourage students to do the same. Despite my introversion, I’m convinced that one of my core purposes is to share the belief that living our best lives requires precious few material items. By mentioning voluntary simplicity to the families in my network, I’ve given them an opportunity to share their own wisdom about sustainability or ask for decluttering tips.
Our school administrators started providing a questionnaire for classroom staff which is shared with students and parents. Some of the topics are favorite stores, fragrances, and monogramming initials. Because I don’t shop recreationally and I consider deodorant my signature scent, I always find myself with plenty of extra space on the form to summarize my minimalist mindset and explain that I already own all the tangible things I want.
My survey answers reduce pressure on students’ families to spend their valuable time and money buying consumer products for me. Any friendly and honest communication prior to special occasions could fulfill the same goal of eliminating material presents. A spoken message during back-to-school night or a few sentences on a class website can make holidays easier for everyone.
While I have high regard for the compassionate spirit of gift giving on Teacher Appreciation Day, tangible presents pale in comparison to the gifts my class gives me throughout the year. I frequently acknowledge intangibles that make me feel appreciated as a teaching assistant, such as the warm welcome I received returning from an absence or how excited a student was to show me their new Boston Terrier puppy and have me guess his name (spoiler alert: Oreo). My gifts include the pride I experienced when a child responded respectfully to a classmate who cut in line or decided to take a deep breath and ask for help instead of throwing a tantrum over a challenging math problem.
Minimalist teachers and parents should still encourage children to practice generosity, it just takes on a more practical or experiential form. I maintain a wishlist of basic classroom supplies and am exceedingly grateful when we have construction paper through the middle of the school year and enough Play-Doh to replace what is discreetly ingested. Video thank-you messages are an experience gift that brighten my day. I treasure email updates from former students as well. I always enjoy homemade snacks and artwork.
The cards and craft projects I receive on each special occasion are arranged on a table together for a single photograph, which I save digitally. If I kept all of the original art I was given, my husband and I would have enough to wallpaper our entire home, but that wouldn’t provide the serene environment we’re aiming for.
Although I continue to receive some material presents from students, sharing my beliefs in advance prevents any guilt about passing along candles, vases, and makeup palettes to interested friends and charities. Even if I temporarily acquire enough mugs and potholders to open a coffee shop, I think those gifts served their purpose by expressing generosity, and I served mine by cherishing the giver’s compassion.
I don’t want to offend anybody by treasuring meaningful experiences instead of tangible products. If a student sees someone else wearing a scarf that was intended for me, I hope they will understand that I’ve hung onto the very best gifts from them—those that will last a lifetime.