Teachers and first responders certainly deserve extra kudos this holiday season. For months they've been working overtime to adapt and adjust amidst a scary and constantly changing reality, often at the expense of their own safety and a well-being. Even in the best of times, teachers work long days on their feet without a bathroom break, all while meeting the social-emotional needs of kids. Add to that the stress of Zoom and a global pandemic, and it's safe to say that many are likely running on empty.

It's clear that the holidays will be different this year. Some of those differences, like missing out on parties and time with family, are going to be a bummer no matter what. However, there are likely some traditions that could do with a deeper look and a reevaluation beyond the risk of COVID exposure. Which holiday traditions actually bring joy, and which ones just result in stress and extraneous spending? With so many out of work, traditions that were once affordable may not be in the budget this year, so how can we pivot in a way that keeps the holiday spirit alive while still maintaining sanity and financial stability?

In the past, my daughter and I put together Christmas goodie bags for the staff at her school, filled with homemade cookies and treats. Last year I completely spaced and forgot about them until the night before we were to drop them off. I stayed up all night baking in a mad panic and remember snapping at my daughter as we frantically wrapped them before school the next morning. At some point I wondered, "What am I really doing here? Are these cookies an authentic expression of our gratitude for these hardworking folks, or am I just ticking off a holiday box?," and so I resolved to be more thoughtful about it this year. Fast forward to the 2020 holidays, and distributing homemade goodies en masse seems especially inappropriate, not to mention impractical. All this drove me to question what is truly the best way to express our love and gratitude for the folks who give so much of themselves all year long.

"I've had students make me a handmade card, and it sounds cheesy, but honestly, it's my favorite thing because it makes me feel good and affirms that I'm doing something worthwhile," said Kristen Sowinski-Langer, an art teacher at Washington Middle School in Springfield. "This year has been so crazy, all I want is grace. Obviously, if someone hands me a gift card that's awesome, but just taking a minute in the spirit of things to say thank you and have your kid make a card means so much. That's what we need more than anything right now."

Carrie Jeffries, a third-grade teacher at Chatham Elementary School, reiterated the importance of families reaching out. "A heartfelt note truly means the most, especially when it highlights the things your child is enjoying about school. It's probably not the best year for homemade treats, but if folks do want to give a gift, something really nice that our PTO does is have a 'Teacher's Favorites' section on their webpage, where teachers and staff can list favorite sports teams, type of candy, etc."

For those that are able to buy gifts, consider the daily realities and needs of teachers. Small niceties that teachers may not necessarily buy for themselves, like a pack of nice pens or a light to clip on their computer to enhance their Zoom experience are thoughtful choices. Items that promote relaxation and self-care are also ideal, such as candles or bath salts. And with so many small businesses struggling, gift cards for take-out at locally owned restaurants are an amazing way to support both teachers and the local economy. Many businesses are able to email gift cards directly to the recipient, which simplifies the matter, especially in the era of virtual everything.

Whatever you do, take the time to let all the teachers and other hard-working people in your life know they are seen, heard and appreciated.

Ashley Meyer is a Springfield mom of two, freelance writer and chef.

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