Just before Thanksgiving, all the parents in our school were informed of the existing policy in Massachusetts regarding gift giving for teachers. In a nutshell, it’s a violation of the law to give a gift worth more than $50. It’s a violation for a group of parents to pool their money for a gift valued over $50. The only exemption to this is if the gift is intended for classroom use, such as books or software, supplies or materials.
Thus began the brouhaha.
Newspaper articles and talk shows focused on this hot-button holiday issue. Some parents are in an uproar, feeling that they ought to express their gratitude in any way they like. Teachers don’t make a huge salary, and, some say, the holiday season is a great opportunity to give these hard-working educators a little something they wouldn’t be inclined — or able — to get for themselves.
Others are in favor of supporting the existing regulation. Some say this annual ritual is akin to slipping the hostess a twenty for a fast seating. Some claim that parents who, for all intents and purposes, tip their children’s teachers are hoping the teacher rewards the child with better grades or simple favoritism. Others point out that even with the $50 limit, teacher gifts can get expensive, especially if you have more than one child (hmm…groceries or teacher gifts?).
Whatever side you’re on, the fuss shows a general dim view of teachers. On the whole, teachers don’t get into the business to make money or reap the benefit of seasonal generosity. If they do, they couldn’t have been too bright in the first place and ought to be dismissed for that singular act of stupidity. No, most teachers start their careers with at least a minimal sense of service, a desire to help make a difference in the lives of children. How that changes over many years in the system is anyone’s guess, and maybe these are the educators who enjoy the festival of tipping.
But I would venture that most teachers are as touched by a child’s hand-made card as they are by a gift card to Bertucci’s or a bag of Lindor truffles (or a Coach bag, if you happen to teach in that kind of town).
Time for me to ‘fess up. In my first year of teaching I was employed by a small Catholic school in southwestern Connecticut. My salary was a whopping $18,000 a year. Yup. This wasn’t 50 years ago. More like 15. But I was 24, living with my parents, and happy to be doing a job I loved, at a school I enjoyed immensely. The parents were painfully aware of our piteable salaries, and Christmas gifts rolled in. I mean, seriously. It was a little embarrassing to pack my car at the end of the day. Most were tokens, ornaments or plants or a bag of chocolate. I was touched by the effort, and every year when I decorate my tree I remember which child gave what decoration, and I wonder where that child is today as an adult, whether they yet have children of their own. That year, the parents en masse collected funds and gave each teacher a cash bonus of $500. Seriously. That was fantastic. $18K doesn’t take you very far, even living at home. But it only happened once, and I never expected it then or ever. A couple of years later, when I worked at a private school on the South Shore of Massachusetts, the gifts were fewer, but equally heart-felt. I loved that surly middle school students would sit down to pen a thank you note and offer a”Happy Holidays!”, even if their parents made them. I know, I’m a dork, but I still have some of those cards in a box in the basement.
I really believe teachers don’t need more, don’t expect more. It’s the parents who get in a bunch about it, and interestingly, it’s the parents in wealthier communities who find this issue to be most disturbing. Parents with vacation homes who give the gift of a week of skiing. Seats to a Sox game. A spa weekend in the Berkshires. It seems more like an effort to one-up the neighbors than to say a simple thank you to someone who is doing a good job. Maybe some do expect preferential treatment for their kids, maybe they don’t. I can’t say. But I do wonder how the teacher feels, what his or her perception is of that parent’s expectations, how the teacher must wonder what others think whenever the child of a overly-extravagant gift-giver happens to get an A.
This is a teachable moment for parents and children alike. What message do we want to send our kids in this already stuff-crazy season?
I’m an English teacher, so I turn to a book. The definition of a gift = “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary).
The best gift a child can give to her teacher is an honest thank you. Instead of shopping or collecting money or making collages and scrapbooks, maybe we parents should spend that time with our kids and talk about why we appreciate our teachers, why teachers are worth far more than the world pays them. Maybe we parents should, in a giant surge of grassroots activism, gather our huge numbers and spend our time changing the way teachers are compensated for a job that society deems thankless but for this one time a year.
Teachers don’t need chocolate or gift cards. Show thanks with support and advocacy. Let that be the lesson for the kids. Put your money where your mouth is.
Not $50. Priceless.