Jane Bradley: Why giving Christmas gifts to teachers can be a bad idea

The idea of getting presents for 11 teaching staff at her daughter's school has been giving Jane Bradley sleepless nights.
Schoolchildren give flowers to their teacher. (Picture: Getty)Schoolchildren give flowers to their teacher. (Picture: Getty)
Schoolchildren give flowers to their teacher. (Picture: Getty)

Some indigenous groups in the US and Canada hold a competitive gift-giving process called a potlatch.

At the celebration of a major life event – births, deaths, weddings and so on – there is a massive gift exchange and distribution of wealth, to such an extent that the practice was at one time considered to be a major lynchpin of the local economy. Most importantly, the more wealth that a family or tribe gave away, the more prestige was bestowed on them.

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As the end of the Christmas school term approaches and the last day looms, I am reminded of the potlatch. Teaching friends tell me that gifts used to appear only at the end of the school year in June as a thank you for everything over the

past nine months. But now, it has morphed into an every term affair, each one more competitive and elaborate than the last. The conundrum has kept me awake at night this week. What is the etiquette for this class? Should I buy gifts? Should I not? I am sure that some parents in my child’s class are likely to indulge.

Therefore if I don’t, will my offspring be forever more blacklisted as ‘The Child Who Does Not Appreciate Her Teachers’? Then again, if others don’t buy and we do, we will look like some ridiculous, over-the-top brown-nosers.

And, in our particular case, if I do, how on earth am I practically going to do it? My child, for various reasons which I won’t bore you with here, is taught at our local state primary by no fewer than three different class teachers and at least four classroom assistants (on a job-share arrangement), a weekly visiting French teacher, PE teacher and music teacher.

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Of course, the long-suffering head teacher shouldn’t be left out of any kind of gift-giving – she is the kind of hands-on manager who is there, just doing stuff, every time you set foot in the school: dressed as a pumpkin to serve food from the buffet table at the Halloween disco, making the tea on parents’ evening and teaching the kids, not to mention managing the budget, recruiting staff and whatever else it is head teachers are supposed to do. I half expect to turn up to school one day and find her up a 20-foot ladder, clearing the leaves out of the guttering. She definitely deserves a treat.

Am I really supposed to buy 11 different Christmas gifts, wrap each one and get my daughter to spend her last day of school this term traipsing round the school grounds in search of each of the recipients to perform a ritual of thanks? Or should I just purchase a giant tub of Celebrations and dump it in the classroom?

Many teachers actually say they would prefer not to receive end-of-term gifts. Their houses are packed to the rafters with well-meaning but in reality, pretty purposeless scented candles and packs of three-for-two Tesco Value chocolates.

Just imagine being a teacher and having to fix a smile on your face as you are handed 30 separate presents, each one potentially more useless or insane than the next. One teacher friend tells me she was given a box of chocolates by one child – only to find that half of them had already been eaten before she received them. Another unwrapped a single sock, its pair was missing.

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Of course, the gifts are not all bad by any means. Some teacher pals have received hugely lavish thank-you presents: one got an iPad, another Jo Malone candles, while others have been handed hundreds of pounds in gift vouchers bought after a whole-class collection.

In those cases, most tell me they feel embarrassed and guilty to receive such presents from some families when they know that others, some of whom cannot afford to buy anything, look on from the playground. Some have handed back the gift, telling parents they cannot accept it. The issue is not about whether teachers deserve our gratitude. Of course they do, they do an amazing job. And a nice, handwritten note in a Christmas card, penned by either the adult or child depending on the age, is a perfectly decent way of showing it. But the idea that we have to shower staff with presents has got out of hand.

Now, the sensible, but some might argue, Scrooge-like, folk at Falkirk Council have come up with a solution: ban the practice entirely. A policy which has applied to other council workers for some time has been rolled out to include teachers. It claims the policy has come about to bring teaching staff in line with other employees, adding that if “gifts or hospitality offers are accepted, then these must be properly recorded”. Some parents are up in arms, claiming their little darlings are desperate to give a gift to their beloved teacher.

One angry mother claimed her son couldn’t understand why he couldn’t “show his teacher how much he appreciates the job she is doing and the help she gives him”. I would wager the vast majority of the rest will be breathing a sigh of relief or even quietly doing a little dance of celebration on their way to school pick-up in two weeks’ time, freed from the trauma of festive gift issues. I only wish I was among them. Have I got time to move to Falkirk before term ends?