Commentary: Should you buy a Christmas gift for your child’s teacher?
Gift giving in schools can turn into a crazy, competitive endeavour for parents, says Financial Times' editor Claer Barrett.
LONDON: Have you done all your Christmas shopping yet? It is so easy to fall into the trap of overspending at this time of year — particularly when gift giving turns competitive.
If you have children at primary school, you will know exactly what I am talking about.
The chances are that the class rep at your child’s primary has set up a “group chat” on WhatsApp. This a godsend for finding out about non-uniform days — particularly the sort where your little darling needs to dress as a character from their favourite book — or the timing of the nativity play.
But the digital equivalent of chatting at the school gates is also being used to extract money.
PING! Can everyone please bring in £10 this week for the Christmas collection for Miss or Mr X and the teaching assistants?
GIFT GIVING AN OPPORTUNITY TO SHOW OFF
Friends with young children report that £10 (US$13) per child — so an assumed £300 per class — is pretty standard for London state primaries nowadays. Similar collections also occur at the end of the summer term.
In our classic British way of not being able to talk openly about money matters, I have discovered there is a deep pit of resentment about these demands.
To be clear, nobody is in any doubt that teachers do a fantastic job and deserve to be thanked and praised. The chief gripe is that giving presents to teachers has moved beyond an opportunity for your child to say “thank you” to one for rival Alpha Mums to show off.
A friend begged me to write about this topic last week, after she received an essay-sized WhatsApp message requesting a fixed amount of cash for the end-of-term collection. The organiser made it pretty clear that parents didn’t have to contribute if they couldn’t afford to (but imagine the shame of admitting to that on a public group!).
Once you have coughed up the cash, the messages do not stop.
PING! We have collected £250 — thanks to everyone who has donated, and do see me on Friday if you haven’t yet done so! But what shall we buy for Miss/Mr X?
Several other friends report being “slapped down” in their class WhatsApp chats for daring to suggest using the funds to buy Amazon or John Lewis vouchers.
PING! Vouchers are rather impersonal, don’t you think?
One felt like replying: I am in the middle of a meeting in the City discussing capital raising requirements, and frankly couldn’t give a monkey’s what you buy.
Another parent with too much time on her hands suggested paying to make a framed canvas, in which all of the children had scrawled a message of thanks. “Like the teacher is going to want to hang that in her hallway,” my friend scoffed.
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PRESSURE OF GIFT GIVING IS DRIVEN BY PARENTS
Few teachers are given envelopes stuffed with cash — although the escalation of generous gift giving does have the whiff of bribery about it.
It was recently reported that some teachers in a (private) primary school in Oxfordshire had been given Mulberry handbags by wealthy parents — perhaps a form of “insider trading” to make sure their child is not the back end of the camel in next year’s nativity play.
The Teacher Toolkit website stresses that the “pressure” to give gifts has not come from teachers, but is driven by parents.
“Gift giving isn’t expected and it isn’t necessary. It can also leave teachers and some children feeling very awkward,” it says, adding that it is up to individual schools to decide whether to implement a “gifting policy” to stem seasonal exuberance.
One teacher in Scotland hit the headlines this Christmas when she wrote to parents, requesting they made a class donation to the local food bank, saying this would teach the children a valuable lesson “about the spirit of giving and kindness”.
ARE COLLECTIVE GIFTS BETTER?
Are there any positives about collective gifts? They do avoid the teacher ending up with more boxes of chocolates or bottles of wine than they can safely consume.
These tend to be the most common individual gifts — friends who are teachers say they are gratefully received, but they usually end up “re-gifting” some of them. Others say their class groups have given book tokens, which the teacher can then enjoy spending on themselves and the class.
Yet having organised and contributed to a collective gift, other friends rage that some parents still insist on giving another present on top.
I say parents — but all too often it is mothers. Another common gripe of friends on school group chats is that these networks seldom extend to dads, but that’s a whole other column.
The majority of primary schoolteachers are female, too. So should we be surprised that a whole ghastly industry peddling sentimental tat has appeared in the form of personalised teacher gifts?
Some of the most nauseating are personalised Christmas tree baubles, with the teacher’s name and your child’s name entwined.
Even worse — a personalised plant, labelled “Thank you for helping me grow”. Or a “wish bracelet” inscribed with the message “It takes a big heart to shape little minds”. The price tags are just as unattractive.
EXPRESSING GRATITUDE DOESN'T HAVE TO COST ANYTHING
Rejecting this rampant commercialism still leaves parents with plenty of ways of expressing their gratitude. Some teachers say the best gifts are those that cost nothing.
A teaching assistant friend tells me she treasures a homemade bookmark saying “Thank you for helping me with my work” from a pupil who flourished after extra reading sessions.
The last word goes to my friend Shelley. “I think what many teachers appreciate most is a lovely letter, card or email to thank us for a job well done — even better if the email gets copied to the head,” she says.
Unlike chocolates and wine, these words of thanks can be read again and again.
Feeling valued is the part of the job that keeps us going.
© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd.