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An ‘Apple’ for the teacher

An ‘Apple’ for the teacher How can School Business Managers help to ensure that what may seem to be a harmless act of gratitude does not become a hindrance to inclusion and pupil progress? Alan Cowley investigates the worrying trend of increasingly expensive ‘thank you’ presents for school staff

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AN ‘Apple’ For The Teacher

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y wife, who lived and worked in the USA for 10 years, assures me that like trick or treat, hip-hop, and the ‘have a nice day’ culture, the growing trend of pupils and parents providing ‘thank you’ presents for teachers at the end of the academic year has its roots on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s always nice to feel appreciated, and teachers have traditionally had to make do with acknowledging the positive ‘vibe’ in the classroom, their pupils’ body language, or the amount of enthusiastic engagement within a lesson in order to get some feedback from their pupils. I always found one of the benefits of the parent consultation evening

was the positive verbal feedback my colleagues and I received from grateful parents. But times are changing. Come June and July, seasonal shelves in card shops become dedicated to the ‘Thank You Teacher’ cards.

Absolutely nothing. But sadly, it doesn’t stop there. The trend has moved on from cards, to gifts for teachers. A survey recently conducted by Debenhams estimated that: •

Don’t get me wrong. Having been a teacher and school leader for some 37 years I know how teachers as a profession feel undervalued and taken for granted. I must admit, when former colleagues ask me what I found to be the biggest difference between teaching and consultancy, I say that it is having people thank you for your input. So what’s wrong with pupils showing their appreciation by sending a ‘thank you’ card?

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the average spend per family was currently £10 per teacher the number of families spending over £20 per teacher is on the increase.

At the end of the last academic year there were reports of lavish gifts being given to teachers, ranging from Bollinger Champagne to laptops and from spa days to the use of a holiday home in Mustique; it would seem that the ‘apple for teacher’ is rapidly becoming a reference to computer hardware and not the fruit.

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An ‘Apple’ for the teacher

It would seem that the ‘apple for teacher’ is rapidly becoming a reference to computer hardware and not the fruit Talking of fruit, I realise that I’m in danger of being accused of sour grapes, so let’s look at the justification for my concerns. Clearly, the main objection to giftgiving in these circumstances is that it has the potential to start a complex chain reaction, leading to outcomes that no school really wants to be dealing with when parents try to out-do each other with the size of the gift. I saw one complaint from a parent who felt that she had been placed in an embarrassing situation when she was approached at the school gates by another parent who suggested that rather than everyone ‘doing their own thing’, it might be nice to club together and buy something memorable for the class teacher. She suggested a sum of £15 each. Now I’m sure that at this very moment you’re doing your maths in a way that the originator of this idea had not, and I hope that you’ll agree with me that even for the very, very best primary teacher in the world with a class averaging 30 pupils, a ‘tip’ of £450 is rather extreme. But even by suggesting a sum of £15, the parent was creating a ‘norm’ that really does not exist:

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she made an assumption that all parents were willing and able to provide a gift for the teacher. This alone has the capacity to create a tension that is not needed by many parents at the best of times, let alone in the current financial climate, and can easily reinforce the feeling of alienation of those parents who do not see themselves as being part of the school community, when most schools are doing their best to convince them otherwise.

The provision of gifts for teachers also misses the point that very few teachers today exist as solo performers in the classroom Such freelance ideas can actually undermine attempts to establish meaningful Parental Engagement, and as long ago as 1999 research was showing that one of the reasons parents from

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disadvantaged backgrounds gave for their feeling of disengagement from their child’s school was that the actions of the highly organised parents convinced them that they were not a real part of the same school community. As regular readers of my articles will know, Parental Engagement has the capacity to actually raise pupil attainment by up to 25% - so it’s not something we should willingly relinquish to the unplanned actions of others. If parents were more aware of the ‘big picture’ I’m sure they’d understand and feel the same. The provision of gifts for teachers also misses the point that very few teachers today exist as solo performers in the classroom. Whilst being responsible for the planning of the individual learning, they are also the orchestrators of a team within the classroom who all contribute to the successful education that children receive. How do you split a spa day five ways without causing bad feeling amongst the team? As employers we also have a responsibility to protect our staff, and whilst I’m absolutely sure that the vast majority of parents simply want to show their gratitude for the excellent


AN ‘Apple’ For The Teacher

educational experience their child has received over the course of a year, there is a danger that the gift-giving could be misconstrued by some. Potentially this could lead to accusations of favouritism and unprofessional behaviour arising from the teacher’s efforts to provide personalised help for some pupils. There could also be an assumption on the part of the giver that in some way or other they are buying influence with the teacher concerned.

I never expected a tip from any of the parents of the children I taught In all of this we haven’t yet mentioned the most important people in the equation – the pupils. There is evidence that in schools where teachers are given gifts, some pupils feel the predictable pressure not to be seen as being different, and understandably want to conform to what everyone else appears to be doing – even if that means spending money they or their parents don’t have. Of course, the really sad point in all this is that we are perpetuating the same myth that many parents fall into the trap of at birthdays, Christmas or other festivals and celebrations where presents are given, that a present has to have a high financial value to be worthwhile. If you ask most teachers about how they would like their pupils and their pupils’ parents to show their gratitude, most would say quite simply, they’d like a personal ‘Thank you’. That can be delivered face to face by parents, or in a letter, and if you’re a parent yourself you’ll know how special

those cards that were actually made by your children were when you received them; the thought that someone has thought enough about you to spend their own time doing something is usually appreciated.

s SLT Discussion Point

a culture of lavish Do we know if we have hool? gift giving within our sc recognise the dangers 2. Do our colleagues gifts? of accepting over-lavish ? ple policy on gift giving 3. Do we need a sim anism through which 4. Do we have a mech ymous financial parents can make anon gifts to the school? es our behaviour 5. To what extent do os in particular, policy and the school eth tion of others? encourage the apprecia ys do we have for 6. What tangible wa ? measuring the last point

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There are a number of simple ways of avoiding this situation. A school policy can cover the giving of gifts, setting upper limits to ensure that they are seen as token gestures. As part of your implementation strategy you should open a dialogue with all parents explaining the need for the policy along with the suggestion of other ways that parents can show their gratitude if they would like to. Some states within the USA have introduced registers where teachers have to record gifts they are given by individual parents. In Alabama for instance it is illegal for gifts to have a value greater than $25 and for gifts from any one parent to any one teacher to exceed $50 in any one calendar year. As the school business manager there are other ways in which you can have a positive impact on the situation. Firstly, if you haven’t already done so, you might like to consider applying for charitable status for the fund-raising arm of your PTA or equivalent organisation. This will enable tax-free donations to be made to the school. As part of your policy of gift-giving you can invite those parents who wish to express their gratitude by making a financial contribution, to do so by making

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it anonymously through this charitable fund, which will benefit all children in the school. Personally, I prefer a much simpler solution. I came into teaching because I loved the job – I certainly never expected a tip from any of the parents of the children I taught. But what never failed to please me was when I witnessed an act of thoughtfulness. This could have been a simple ‘Thanks for what you’re doing’ or ‘X really enjoys your lessons’ at the end of a parent consultation session, a warm greeting as I walk through a busy town centre, or a pupil holding a door open for me – or indeed anyone else for that matter. Schools should be fostering a constant awareness of appreciation for others in all who pass through the doors, and teaching them how they can express that gratitude and warmth through their everyday behaviour. This sort of ethos makes the grand gesture totally unnecessary and in actual fact, we all gain far, far more from the result. It’s time to put the small ‘a’ back in the gift of an apple for the teacher. n

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How can School Business Managers help to ensure that what may seem to be a harmless act of gratitude does not become a hindrance to inclusio...

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