Third-grade teacher Judy Maurer figured something wasn't right when a faux diamond stone on a necklace popped out as she unwrapped a gift from one of her pupils.
"I said, 'Oh, this is nice,'" said Maurer, recalling the memory from several holiday seasons ago. "The student said, 'Oh, do you like it? I got it out of my mom's jewelry box this morning.'"
Maurer called her pupil's mother, who told the teacher to keep the imitation necklace.
"It does have special importance to me," said Maurer, a teacher at Ilchester Elementary School in Ellicott City. "It shows how cute the whole thing was and that she thought enough of me to find something that she thought was special."
It is the season for giving, and for teachers that means receiving everything from cookies to trinkets to unusual items such as the necklace taken from a mother's jewelry box. It's a common practice across the country for children and parents -- especially at elementary schools -- to buy gifts for their teachers as a token of gratitude and affection.
"It's a time for appreciation," said Nancy Smith, a mother of three children at St. John's Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City. "A lot of kids are interested [in giving], whether it's a special card or picking up something."
Smith let her sons in kindergarten and second grade select the teachers they would like to buy gifts for. Her kindergartner picked out a scented candle for his instructional assistant, and the second-grader chose an art book for his art teacher.
Smith and her fourth-grader rewarded each of his four teachers with a $10 gift certificate to Bare Bones restaurant in Ellicott City.
The holiday presents run the gamut from homemade Christmas cards to tree ornaments to Avon products to donations to a charity or a cause on behalf of a teacher. Gift cards to Barnes & Nobles, Borders and Blockbuster have become popular, too.
But whatever the gesture, teachers say they are moved and surprised by the kindness of students and parents.
"We don't expect anything, but it never fails. The parents show appreciation for the work we do," said Webb Lippert, a second-grade teacher at Ilchester Elementary.
Over the years, including this holiday season, Lippert has gotten gift cards ("I think I'm the first male teacher for some students. I don't think they know what to get me.") and this week, homemade cookies ("someone took the time and effort to do that").
Julie Bartel, a fourth-grade teacher at Ilchester Elementary, has accumulated many tree ornaments over the years. With each one, Bartel writes the child's name and the school year.
"Every year when I take them out of the box, I think, 'Oh, she's in college right now,'" she said. "It makes me remember the kids."
The spirit of giving has its limits. With some parents showering teachers with lavish gifts, a few school districts are regulating such gifts to defuse any appearance of a conflict of interest or favoritism.
In New York City this year, school officials established a $5-per-student spending limit for teacher gifts.
School systems in the Baltimore area have broad policies that govern ethical standards for all employees, school boards and superintendents.
Generally, school employees are prohibited from accepting gifts exceeding a certain value. The limit is $25 in Howard and Baltimore counties, and $50 in Carroll County.
Unsolicited gifts of "nominal value," awards and meals associated with speaking engagements and similar situations are permissible.
Because Howard County's ethics regulations, like most others, don't specifically address gift-giving to teachers, it's unclear whether a present such as a $200 gift certificate -- bought from the donations of an entire class -- would constitute a violation, said Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association.
In most cases, the value of gifts from individual parents and students don't exceed $25, teachers and school administrators say.