An Apple (or Gift Card) for Teacher?

June 23rd, 2011 by Susan H. Greenberg

With convoluted state laws and varying expectations from parents, giving a simple gift to a teacher has become a complicated affair.

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The Responsibility Project

The end of the school year brings a barrage of culminating pizza parties, recitals, ice cream socials, performances, picnics, field days and barbecues – as well as the chance to acknowledge teachers and other school personnel for all their hard work during the year. In my Boston-area elementary school, the question of how to reward deserving teachers has created a basic ideological divide: cash or crafts? On one side are people like me, who prefer simply to pony up a small donation toward a nice, versatile AmEx gift card. On the other are those bent on taking back the culture of excess while creating a one-of-a-kind memento, usually in the form of a scrapbook.

I have nothing against scrapbooks, but I do see several problems with presenting one as a teacher’s gift. First, it would require forcing my squirmy 8-year-old to sit down, create a decent picture, and write a meaningful message to the teacher, then keep the page free of smudges, dog hair, and chocolate syrup until it could be safely delivered. Second, I feel quite confident that most teachers would actually prefer a “real” present over, or at least in addition to, a gluey mess of misspelled sentiments. I certainly would. After all, teachers spend six hours a day educating our children for meager pay. I think they deserve a little more than a half-hearted picture hastily drawn between soccer practice and piano lessons.

As the parents in my district recently discovered, however, there are specific state laws guiding such actions. In 2009, Massachusetts passed an Ethics Reform Bill, which among other things limits to $50 per year the value of all gifts a teacher receives from his or her class. A Starbucks gift card? Fine. A spa weekend? Not allowed. If anybody was aware of the rule, which evidently has been in place for decades, nobody paid attention to it; the administration certainly never mentioned it.

Just before Christmas this past year, our district, Andover, decided to enforce the policy and requested “voluntary compliance,” hoping to protect teachers from charges of favoritism, or even a lawsuit. At about the same time, the state amended the bill, raising the limit of allowable gifts to $150 per year—provided they come from the whole class. Each school’s PTO sent an email outlining the new regulations: “A teacher may accept a gift of up to $150 per year from his/her class as long as the gift is from the class and contributors are not identified.” One caveat: there is no monetary limit on a gift directed to the classroom, which would be used by the students and “become property of the school district.” So diamond earrings for the teacher? Out. But a SMART Board or new Mac might fly.  

Reaction was swift and muddled. Parents in the homemade-gift camp saw it as validation. The teachers themselves expressed relief over clarification of a practice that can create tensions and implications of preferential treatment. “As much as teachers appreciate the show of gratitude, parents don’t realize that they feel uncomfortable getting things like Celtics tickets,” says Annie Gilbert, chair of Andover’s School Committee. “From a teacher’s perspective, the appearance of impropriety can be as damaging as impropriety itself.” The law requires teachers to report all individual gifts, even those under $50 – a cumbersome process that I doubt many teachers follow. Smaller gifts under $10 – such as homemade cookies or handpicked flowers – need not be disclosed “because a reasonable person would not think that the teacher would be influenced by a gift that has no retail value,” the law states.

Parents who lean toward the lavish immediately started grumbling. “It was tough for them to swallow,” says Gilbert. “We got plenty of email traffic from parents who had researched the law and were looking for ways to uphold its letter, if not its spirit.” Mostly they wanted to know if they could earmark a big donation directly for their child’s class. The answer? Not necessarily. “It becomes an issue of equity,” says Gilbert, whose committee has grappled before with donations of multiple SMART Boards or other high-priced electronics, and is now required to vote on accepting gifts worth more than $5,000. “We can’t guarantee that the gift will be used in the way the giver intends.”

Other states don’t offer much of a blueprint. Most simply hold teachers to the same ethics codes that all public employees face. Illinois, for one, leaves teacher gift policies up to individual districts. Elsewhere, the guidelines are unhelpfully vague; in New York City, for instance, the Chancellor’s regulations say that teachers may accept “only those gifts that are principally sentimental in nature and of small financial value.” Teachers may accept class gifts as long as every student has the opportunity to sign the card, whether or not they contributed to the gift. Furthermore, the guidelines state, families may not be asked to contribute “more than a small amount of money” toward a class gift. But who determines what that amount is? Surely Warren Buffett’s definition is different from mine.

In my experience, whoever is coordinating the class gift gives families a suggested amount – usually $10 or $20 – but always insists people contribute whatever they’re able. My third grader’s room parents, who seem laid-back and sensible but also appropriately appreciative of the teacher’s efforts, suggested $20 per family for the year – which covers gifts for the holidays, “teacher appreciation” day, and the last day of school. I calculate that we exceeded the new $150 limit as soon as eight families anted up. But I’m keeping my mouth shut. For all I know, they may be planning to buy a new Mac for the school.  And at least I don’t have to supervise the construction of a scrapbook page.

Susan H. Greenberg is a writer, editor, teacher and author of the blog Unvarnished Mom.