Teacher Gifts Run the Gamut -- But No More Mugs, Please

"We appreciate financial donations for the classroom," said Tina DeAnna, at the District's Watkins Elementary. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Fern Shen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The school year is winding down and kids aren't the only ones finishing big projects and taking major tests. Parents face their own tricky final exam question: What is the proper end-of-the-year gesture for their child's teacher?

A coffee mug? A handwritten thank-you note? Or something more?

In the Washington area, parental largess has included a VCR, hundred-dollar gift certificates to shopping malls and pricey D.C. watering holes including the Palm -- and two weeks at a Jackson Hole, Wyo., vacation rental, bestowed on two lucky teachers.

Over-the-top teacher gifts have been setting off ethical alarm bells, prompting some school systems across the country to ban teacher gifts.

That's what happened in one Philadelphia Main Line school system. "Kids were giving teachers bracelets, expensive perfume and blouses," said Dom Pendino of the Lower Merion Education Association, a Pennsylvania teachers union. Now a note goes out every year to remind parents to refrain from gift-giving. Teachers are required to turn over any presents they get (even brownies, they complain) to their principal.

In New York City, parents beseeched Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein to do something about the raging gift inflation. He did, imposing a $5-per-student limit.

Many Washington area school systems have established guidelines on gifts to teachers, but generally they don't set specific dollar limits, and enforcement is left up to principals.

At some of Washington's most prestigious -- and expensive -- private schools, there's an attempt to rein in teacher gift-giving. St. Albans School guidelines say that teacher gifts should be "modest" and "not involve cash." Sidwell Friends School asks that gifts be homemade or modest, and that they be given before or after the school day. The Madeira School suggests that gratitude be expressed "through the written word."

Regardless of guidelines, Washington area parents are out buying for teachers. Dani Boyd and Monita Gallart were at White Flint Mall recently, picking out gifts for teachers they said were deserving of generosity. Boyd, a Laytonsville mother of five, was buying a couple of sets of Calphalon pans, dish towels and spatulas at Williams-Sonoma.

"I don't think I'm spending more than $70" per teacher, Boyd said, pointing out that some teachers will probably have more than one of her children in class in the next few years. "It's important to develop a relationship" with teachers, she said, adding that she was bowled over by the amount of care the Woodfield Elementary staff has showered on her children.

"I am so impressed with them," she said of the Gaithersburg teachers. "Why wouldn't I go hog-wild?"

Still, there's more to teacher appreciation gifts than appreciation, said Gallart, who lives in Montgomery Village and whose children attend St. Bartholomew School in Bethesda: "Don't think politics isn't involved."

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