I had a colleague once. He was a Geography teacher, which might explain the following anecdote. Jim – that’s not his name, but it will do – held of a number of beliefs. Firmly. Some of these related to gifts from his students at Christmas, the end of the school year and, if the chance arose, at Easter as well.

His theory was that, as a teacher, he did have a right to expect some sort of tangible gratitude for the hours he spent preparing lessons and marking books. Therefore, it was only right that he should receive gifts that he actually wanted. It made sense (in his eyes, at least) – an unwanted present lets down everybody; students, parents and teachers themselves.

So a month or so before the end of term, Jim would dig out a pack of post it notes from the Geography store, and on each separate sheet scrawl the name of a gift that would please him. These post its would be handed round during a lesson, so students could take the slip that they (or their parents) were prepared to buy. That way, there was neither wastage nor duplication. A perfect solution to the perennial problem of the unwanted gift to Sir.

Just to be clear, the gifts Jim sought were worth having. No gift packs of soap, no cheap bottles of wine or boxes of own brand chocolates. Jim knew what he wanted: expensive aftershave – Penhaligon’s was a special favourite; specific bottles of red; whiskey (single malt of course) and clothing – size, colour and style all included.

I’m not sure how the parents took all of this – badly, in all probability because one December poor Jim was summonsed to the Deputy Head’s office and the list disappeared, never to re-surface.

When Size Matters

Of course, Jim’s example is extreme. But there is no doubting the one upmanship of gifts for teachers. There is a certain pride – come on, we all know it – in leaving school with a box of goodies, the holidays beckoning. If it takes two trips to load the car, all the better. I worked in one school during the 1990s where there was a kind of gender convention for gifts; male teachers got bottles of wine, female boxes of soap or chocolates. There was a degree of feminist angst among the lady teachers as Christmas approached, which was fair enough.

Meanwhile, most of the young men (and, I am ashamed to say, I was as guilty as the next man) would seize an area of shelving in the staff room and stack up the bottles. Penis envy, or what? I was never top dog, but came close once or twice. It started one year as a touch of post ironic humour, and soon became unpleasantly competitive. Mind you, the head was no better. For ten months of the year his office door remained resolutely closed, but in December it would be flung open, a veritable Santa’s Grotto of gifts suddenly on show. These served not only to remind the staff who was boss, but to encourage any passing parent to get shopping quickly, lest they be marked down as a ‘non-gifter.’

Many of us will have read the other day of the consternation of one parent hit with the current trend for grouping together to buy Miss a gift. The lady who had put herself in charge was demanding £40 per head and, according to the story, had sent back one donation of £25, claiming it was ‘not enough’. In a nutshell, therein lies the problem with gifts for teachers. Sometimes, what should be a simple thank you becomes a status symbol. For the giver, as well as the receiver.

Bin for the Idea of ‘The Gift’ and Not Just The Wrapping Paper

It is hard to find any objection to the child who brings in a small present as a thank you. Most teachers go beyond the call of duty and contract and to have this recognised is both a kind gesture and a good thing. Imprinted on my memory is the scar of taking a bag of sweets to my first year juniors teacher – I think the only gift I ever took. (It was less of a requirement back then.) To me, aged seven, mints were grown up sweets, and the best of these were Foxes Glacier mints. I used my saved up pocket money and bought Mrs Pope a bag; I recall taking it up to her, but found myself behind the bunch haired clever girl who carried a whole box of chocolates. ‘My favourite sweets,’ said Mrs Pope to her; then, as my meagre bag was offered: ‘My other favourite sweets,’ she smiled. But the damage was done. It’s taken me half a century to realise that she was probably as chuffed with the mints, even if the chocolates tasted nicer.

But when present giving becomes competitive, then the idea begins to look dubious. Let’s be conservative and assume that there are twenty in the class where the mum demanded £40 per parent. That’s £800 on a gift. Firstly, it probably fits into the tax declaration category and secondly, such a gift will be embarrassing to receive and cause a degree of unrest in the staff room.

The Bah Humbug Approach To End of Term Gifts

Some schools, especially those run by Ebenezer Scrooge types, try to mitigate against such oddities, but that is as misguided as the parent who thinks that providing the biggest present is the aim of the game. We have heard of schools were all gifts go into a pot and are shared out. I read of one where anything above a certain value is raffled off, which seems totally wrong, given the gift intended for the kindly Miss who gave up her time preparing the school play ends up with the head of sport, a subject the giver loathes intensely.

Similarly, for a school to declare ‘No Gifts!’ seems churlish in the extreme. If a child and parent wishes to express their thanks, why shouldn’t they? We are all grown-ups, and if Miss Smith gets more boxes than Mr Jones, then so be it. Let’s just hope parents keep their donations to a sensible limit.

So, in conclusion, it seems as though the end of term gift is just another burden teachers have to bear, which was what I told myself the year I was given a £120 bottle of limited edition vodka. Indeed, I had to drink it all alone just to mitigate against the guilt such a gift induced.

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