Teacher's Pet Peeve: Useless Gifts

By Kathleen Hom
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

Mary Sinnott, a reading resource teacher at Crofton Woods Elementary School in Crofton, has been teaching for 20 holiday seasons and has seen her share of "best teacher" apple ornaments, paperweights and similar trinkets from students. But after a couple of decades or so, enough is quite enough.

That goes for pens and mugs, too. "I'm grateful," says Ron Gheen, a physical education teacher at C.M. Bradley Elementary School in Warrenton, "but you only have so much . . . cabinet room at work and at home."

Teachers, generally a caring and supportive lot, often are reluctant to complain about quirky or useless holiday gifts they've received, or to appear unappreciative. But some will admit they've unwrapped some pretty odd presents, from dollar-store re-gifts and worn-out stuffed animals to pajamas.

It's an annual gifting quandary, beginning in preschool and tapering off around middle school, for teachers and parents. So we asked teachers across the Washington area what they thought about the holiday ritual. We talked to parents who were unsure about what to give, how much and to which teachers, coaches or aides. We consulted school administrators, some of whom pointed out that many schools have policies limiting -- even discouraging -- gift giving.

Several teachers say they appreciate the extra thoughtfulness of personalized gifts, such as engraved objects. Tiyonna Jenkins, an English teacher at Lanham's DuVal High School, says students tease her about crying when she laughs. She was amused to receive tissues labeled "stop crying" and "get back to work."

Gifts that acknowledge a teacher's particular interests or hobbies are also memorable. "You're their psychological project" during the year, says Zena Whitworth, who teaches English and journalism at Fairmont Heights High School in Capitol Heights. "They study you" to find out your interests. Whitworth, a fan of reggae, has been given Bob Marley T-shirts and CDs along with green tea, which she drinks during class.

Homemade cakes and cookies can be a big hit. "Some of the greatest gifts I got was when a mother made me some rolls, . . . a pie or sent me a cake," says Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association in Washington. "It was something that they knew that I liked."

Gift cards are popular with teachers and parents. Starbucks, Staples and day spas are frequent choices. Gift cards for school supplies "are always well received because we're already spending money in this area" when classroom supplies run short, says Terri Connell, a fifth-grade teacher at Island Creek Elementary School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.

Lavish gifts, however, can put teachers in an awkward position and embarrass other students, parents or school officials. Sandy Walker, a former principal at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in Chevy Chase, says the wide range of household incomes in her school has resulted in some teachers getting more expensive gifts than others, which she thinks is unfair.

An appreciative letter to a teacher can mean more than a material item, some say. Even better: "A note to the principal praising a teacher is welcomed and can help them in their professional path," says Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association.

Tumisha Alao, who teaches English at Fairmont Heights, points out that students or parents should not think gifts or kind notes are going to win anyone better grades. "I've failed many kids who've given me gifts," she says.

Despite their confusion, many parents say they feel some gesture of appreciation is important.

"You certainly thank the mailman and the newspaper delivery person," says John Gerson, who with his two sons has been handing out presents and personalized thank-you notes for the past 10 years to teachers, bus drivers, principals and anyone else his children value. "So those involved in the daily success of our kids are at least as important or even more so."

In some classrooms, parents have tried contributing to a gift fund for teachers. But this, too, can raise problems. At Rock Creek Forest, for example, the PTA introduced a short-lived program in which entire grades would pool money and all teachers -- including music, physical education and art teachers -- received gift cards of equal value.

But some parents objected that they didn't want their money to go to a teacher who didn't work with their child. They didn't want to be obligated to contribute in place of baking cookies or making homemade gifts, and argued that the group gift took the creativity out of giving. The issue became politicized, former PTA president Pamela Fields says.

Some schools encourage book donations to the school library or giving money to other programs rather than gifts to individuals. Money pooled from parents can be helpful "because of the cost of things that I need and because of the school budget," PE teacher Gheen says. "I'd like to buy a climbing wall for the kids."

Before giving anything, however, check with your school district to see whether it has gift policies. Some have guidelines, though critics contend it is difficult to enforce such rules. For example, Fairfax "discourages" gifts, instead endorsing thank-you letters, which are considered more appropriate. In Montgomery County, the district has a spending limit of $25 per single gift and no more than $100 over the school year.

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