Teachers are "inspired, exhausted, and poor," quipped a keynote speaker at a recent education conference. Now’s the time of year when many parents and students will be wandering the halls of department stores, looking for teacher gift ideas, wondering, What can I give this hero to keep her faith alive? How do we show them we care? Will a giant ceramic apple send the right message? A “world’s best teacher” coffee mug? Meditation tapes to reduce stress? A bottle of gin?

After exhaustive research, we’ve cracked the code on teacher gift ideas. Here’s our primer on which to avoid (all of the above) and which will give them the goods to keep teaching another year.

A break from baked goods

Tempted to brush the flour off the family cookie recipe? Think again, say veteran teachers, who get more than their gut-busting fill of cupcakes and chocolates every year. If you really want to go homemade and edible, consider making a sauce or jam that can keep for a while. Otherwise, all the work you put into baking may go to waste.

“I’m usually going out of town the next day for two weeks of vacation, so I could never eat it all even if I was tempted,” says Leila Sinclaire, on leave from teaching in El Cerrito, CA, about the pile of perishable sweets she typically receives. Likewise, a plant may be a better bet than flowers.

Green light on gift cards

If you’re at a loss for what your teacher might really like, consider a gift card from a bookstore. “I bought books for my classroom or myself and thought of the child who gave it to me when I made the purchase,” says Carol Gordon Ekster, who taught fourth grade for 35 years in Derry, NH.

Gift certificates good for a local movie theater or restaurant are also popular. Even a coffee card from a café near school is another way to give your teacher a much-needed break. “Teachers spend so much of their personal money on school supplies that it’s wonderful to get treated to food and coffee through gift cards by generous parents,” says Ekster.

Coordinated love bomb: The group gift

For a real splurge, the whole class can take up a collection and send the teacher to a spa for a massage or other pampering treatment. Or if your school has a fund for needy children, the class can make a donation in the teacher’s name.

If you really think big, the whole school can collaborate on a gift for all the teachers combined. When Susie Kameny was a paraprofessional working with autistic students at Grattan Elementary School in San Francisco, the PTA subscribed to an organic delivery box for the teachers so that they could enjoy fresh fruit in the lounge every week.

Remember, such coordinated group gifts need not break the bank. If you know that a sophomore English teacher loves the work of a local poet, students might write letters to the luminary asking him or her to pay a visit to the class. Does your kid’s chemistry teacher revere a certain Nobel prizewinner? Consider contacting the scientist and asking for an autographed photo and letter.

What teachers really need

With many school budgets strapped, your child’s teacher may be spending a lot of his or her own money on basic classroom supplies. So some teachers appreciate the most practical sorts of gifts.

Randi Richards, who retired last year from teaching middle school in Winslow, NJ, says that her favorites over the years were tissues, hand sanitizer, Post-Its, pencils, and pens — all things she used regularly in the classroom.

Don’t be shy about asking your teacher what he or she really needs to get the job done. “This saves teachers a lot of out-of-pocket expense in the classroom,” says Kate McCauley, the mother of two and a teacher herself for more than 25 years in the Washington, DC, area. “It’s much more useful than a ‘world’s best teacher’ mug.”

Thoughts that truly count

The most meaningful gifts are often those that show just how much teachers mean to their students. Anita Bell, who teaches third grade in Berkeley, CA, says, “One year my class and a room parent worked together to make a huge glittering sign with pictures and individual messages on the bottom and ‘Anita rocks!’ in six-inch glitter letters across the top. I was surprised to find it posted on the classroom door when I came to school one day. It made my day, week, year.”

A photo album or scrapbook from the class will deliver the same emotional wallop. Theresa Gramza, a fifth grade teacher in Vernon Hills, IL, got a CD on which students and parents had recorded their favorite memories using a service called LifeOnRecord. “All the other teachers were jealous,” says Gramza.

Parents and students need not feel obligated to shell out a lot to make teachers feel special. “The best gifts I have gotten are thank-you cards telling me how much the student or parent appreciates me,” says Danny Kofke, a special ed teacher in Georgia. “These notes help me realize why I became a teacher — to hopefully make an impact on someone’s life and make this world a better place.”