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."
Especially at a small school, teachers and parents notice what you do. "You want a good reputation," Gallart said.
Teacher-gift ethics seem to be largely situational in the D.C. area. When a Howard County couple last year gave 20 Clarksville Elementary School teachers and other school staff a week at the family's Maine wilderness camp, the school board's ethics panel was asked to rule on it. The couple pointed out that their youngest child had just graduated from fifth grade, so no one in their family stood to benefit from the $10,000 gesture. (The panel ultimately allowed the camp vacation gift.)
Likewise, the Jackson Hole vacation rental seemed reasonable, said one of the teachers who accepted it a few years ago. Fran Turner, of Churchill Road Elementary School in McLean, said that if the teachers hadn't gone, the vacation home would have sat unused for two weeks.
Turner said she appreciates the many wonderful presents bestowed on her by grateful parents: gift certificates to Borders, Starbucks, Elizabeth Arden, the Palm. Churchill parents often pool their funds as a class to do something special for teachers on their birthday or at the holidays and to give them breakfast during Teacher Appreciation Week.
But Turner, echoing many of her fellow teachers, said that
she is always a bit awed by the bounty and that she hopes parents know she has no expectations to get "stuff" and loves heartfelt thank-you cards just as much.
"Those notes can make a hard year into a bearable year," said River Hill High School math teacher Kevin Dorsey, who saves them in a desk drawer. "Whenever I get down, I'll take them out and read them."
As a teacher and as a coach, Dorsey occasionally receives big gifts that he knows are well-intentioned but still give him an ethical twinge: The $100 restaurant gift certificate, for instance, that he got from the family of a girl he tutored and for whom he wrote a job recommendation letter.
Still, those letters "take a lot of time and effort and they're not part of the job," he said. When they elicit a $20 Borders gift-card thank-you, he said, he sees nothing wrong with that.
Public school teachers work hard and deserve recognition, said Malin Kerwin, who has three children at Janney Elementary School in Northwest Washington. Teachers often get bookstore gift certificates given from the entire class and purchased with $5 to $10 contributions from each student. Kerwin says that way, students can give what they feel is appropriate. "We don't want anyone to feel pressure, like the Smiths have to keep up with the Joneses," Kerwin said.
One thing teachers all seem to agree on is mugs. "No more!" they plead.
"And soap, bath stuff and candles and anything with apples and 'Greatest Teacher,' " said Tina DeAnna, a second-grade teacher at Watkins Elementary School in Southeast Washington.
DeAnna said less-affluent schools such as hers are happy to get help with basic supplies. "We appreciate financial donations for the classroom," she said.