I Think One of My Gurus Got This One Wrong

I’ve mentioned Dan Ariely several times before in my posts (here, here, here, here, here, and here). He’s one of my favorite behavioral economists, and has written a couple of best-selling books on decision making, including Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. Dan is a Professor at Duke University and has also published in many of the leading academic journals. He also writes a frequent column for the Wall Street Journal titled “Ask Dan”.

Given how many times I’ve written about him, I think it’s obvious I have a lot of trust in what Dan and his research studies have to say on a lot of interesting issues.

But today I think Dan gave an answer to a question that he may not be qualified to answer.

The question had to do with what is the right type of gift to give a teacher. While Dan is a teacher, I think the person sending the question was asking about what is type of gift a parent should give to their child’s teacher. I don’t think that sort of thing happens very often to a college teacher (well at least it’s never happened to me).

Since I also don’t think it’s the type of topic Dan has researched, he was giving an answer that perhaps in theory sounded good to him, but in reality, was the exact opposite of what the correct answer should be.

Anyway, here’s the question, followed by Dan’s answer:


Dear DanI always agonize this time of year over getting the right gift for my children’s teachers. I hate gift certificates, which feel so thoughtless and generic. So what should I give? —Raquel

Dear Raquel, You’re absolutely right about skipping the gift certificate. A present for a teacher shouldn’t be a financial transaction; it should foster connection and express gratitude. Gift certificates get spent or forgotten. For that matter, flowers die, and apples get eaten. You’re much better off with a nonperishable gift that will strengthen the relationship between your family and the teacher. Consider giving a funky little piece of art (such as a decorated planter) made by your child, inspired by something he or she learned from the teacher. Or you could get something that the teacher would enjoy but might feel guilty spending too much on, such as a fancy fountain pen or even a lovely notebook with superb paper—and a heartfelt note from your child on the first page.

Well I happen to know a few teachers, and I saw a couple of them tonight at a neighborhood party, and their reaction to Dan’s answer was unanimous – he couldn’t be more wrong.

As teachers, they get those sort of handcrafted works of art by their students all the time. So perhaps to the parent, the gift may mean something because it was from their child, but what does a teacher do when he or she is getting these sort of gifts by the dozens, year after year. Plus, many of these teachers already have a house full of such gifts from their own children.

One of the teachers recalled going to the annual Christmas party for the teachers, and over the course of the evening, every single teacher realized that they had each received, independently of each other, at least one gift that had one of their student’s handprints memorialized on the gift. I’m not sure what the parents expect the teacher to do with such a gift..

While teachers are very appreciative of any type of gift, if a parent wants to  give more than a note of gratitude, then gift certificates and cash are the best kind of gift.

And some of Dan’s readers seemed to be of the same mind as these teachers.

Here’s one response:

“Consider giving a funky little piece of art (such as a decorated planter) made by your child”   Imagine a teacher getting forty of these?

and here’s another:

Dan’s advice is absolutely wrong on teacher gifts.  Teachers get many Christmas gifts every year and all are appreciated.  But the unique items he envisions rarely are appealing.  You can’t guess what your child’s teacher will appreciate as art or might wear in public.  And I KNOW from experience. Gift cards are MOST appreciated.  Our family has not had financial needs, so it not a matter of a financial benefit.  But it is enjoyable and much appreciated to have a dinner, see a movie or buy an item knowing it is from a student’s gift.  Most of those other gifts went in a drawer if they we not discarded immediately.  Notes of appreciation from students are actually more valued than the gifts. Get the teacher a gift card!  She/he will appreciate it.

and this response received its own response:

My wife is a teacher and she wholeheartedly agrees with you (and not with Dan).

So I guess even a guru can be wrong every once in a while, especially when they venture outside their area of expertise.

But perhaps the most important takeaway is to offer some token of appreciation for the amazing work that pre-k through 12 teachers do.




Published by

Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

One thought on “I Think One of My Gurus Got This One Wrong”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *