Gifts won’t make you teacher’s pet

26 March 2010
The Guardian
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More and more pupils are giving teachers presents, but the practice only creates insecurity in parents and staff

The strangest present a colleague of mine received was a perfectly formed turd. Michael Whyte was teaching in Plaistow some years ago in a school that’s now closed, when sitting down to teach his first lesson of the day he smelt an overpowering stench. Pulling open a drawer, he discovered a beautifully concentric pile of excrement on top of his A4 paper.

Thankfully, presents of this sort are very rare, but a new survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) shows that presents are becoming increasingly competitive, with teachers such as Whyte and I being lavished with a lot more than the proverbial polished apple. Gifts mentioned in the survey include a Tiffany bracelet, opera tickets, designer clothes and bags, as well gift vouchers amounting to thousands of pounds.

I’ve certainly noticed some pupils and parents being feverishly overgenerous of late. Last year, I received not one bottle of wine but four for helping a disaffected pupil through his GCSEs.

By and large, my colleagues report the gifts differing along gender lines. Gents get ties, mugs, booze and, if they’re really lucky, tickets to cricket and football matches. The ladies are often presented with flowers, jewellery, chocolates and, the most dreaded thing of all, “smellies”. “Extremely smelly soaps and shower gels go straight to the bring-and-buy sale,” one female teacher told me.

While gifts may be becoming more extravagant, I’ve noticed that there are many more strings attached to them than there used to be. For example, I received a quite expensive but rather hideous ornamental fish to put on my mantelpiece from a parent whose child was really failing on his A-level course. Accepting the gift made it extremely awkward when it came to chucking the boy off the course. The parent made it very clear that she felt we had an “understanding” and that I was betraying her goodwill by insisting her child chose a more suitable course. Contrary to the myth, in my experience giving gifts to teachers doesn’t get your child preferential treatment or extra attention. Teachers are savvier than that.

I’ve noticed, too, that the prevalent “gift” culture can make you feel really insecure as a teacher when you see certain colleagues’ desks loaded up with flowers, bottles of wine and chocolates, while all you have to show is the odd card – if you’re lucky. It feels like a parent’s version of performance-related pay: the really good teachers get the full works while the duffers are handed derisory presents like half-eaten Mars bars – a “gift” one teacher in the ATL survey received.

When my son was at private school, I noticed there was a real competitiveness between the parents about giving presents to teachers, with expensive baskets from fancy stores and huge bouquets being handed out on the last days of term. Since my wife and I only gave thank-you cards, it was clear we were not “classy”. Now he is at an inner-city primary, we’ve noticed that this kind of nonsense seems to have more or less disappeared. For one thing, there isn’t that kind of money floating around – but there isn’t that kind of competitive culture either.

Personally, I think gifts to teachers should be banned beyond the thank-you card: they cause many more problems than they solve, creating insecurity in both parents and staff. Perhaps the recession and the lack of money in people’s pockets might be a good excuse for the government to issue some guidelines to schools that gifts shouldn’t be accepted by teachers.

The gifts that I really value are the cards which say a genuine thank you. I still keep them in a file at home.

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