One of my earliest memories of being in a Sheffield school was excitedly arriving on the last day of term to give my teacher a present at Christmas.
I can just about remember my first day at school and then the school memories jump to that Christmas.
The gift we got for my first teacher – and I can still picture her right now – was not elaborate and it wasn’t expensive – just a cheap mug filled with her favourite ½ p chews.
Such a simple gift, it was a couple of weeks in the making and a lot of planning and thought went into it – I can still recall the pride I felt when I handed it over and the look of pleasure on her face.
Fast forward four decades and I’m in the somewhat surreal position of now helping my daughter choose a present for her teacher, to say thank you at Christmas time for helping her to settle in and inspiring her to learn.
Funnily enough, my daughter in Year 4 has gone for exactly the same combination as I went for all those years ago, so her teacher will be getting a mug filled with sweets and I’m sure she’ll like it, even though the chews will cost more a fair bit more than ½ p these days.
Seeing a story in the news this week which suggested there was a gluttonous, materialistic side to giving teacher presents really made my heart sink.
One school in the country has asked parents not to give teachers any presents at all because it didn’t like to put parents under any pressure. Instead, the school has asked for donations to be made to a charity.
The notion of raising money for charity and of deterring high-end spending which may lead to some kind of macabre competition amongst parents is understandable – the last thing we want to encourage mums being forced to fork out more than they can afford.
At the same time, the giving of a thank you gift at Christmas is something rooted in the folklore of schooling and something that can help to develop the bond between teacher and pupil.
It needn’t be expensive – you might read about posh parents presenting theatre vouchers worth £40 to their teacher, but such incidents are actually very rare.
Most kids are happy to spend just a few pounds, maybe on some bubble bath or a bottle wine, while the most high-impact gifts are often of the home-made variety such as a decoration or some festive buns.
As a secondary school teacher, I don’t have to declare a pecuniary interest when writing this column – the number of Christmas gifts I get presented with can definitely be counted on one hand.
I’ll average one wrapped-up gift a year at Christmas, usually either from an eternally grateful Year 13 at the end of A-Levels or a newly arrived Year 7 who hands it to me on the quiet so as not to appear uncool.
It can mean so much, though, and even the smallest box of chocolates can have a lasting impact. There are some teachers working in some schools where the localised culture means they so rarely get any thanks at all; not from managers, not from colleagues, not from parents.
Getting a hand-written card and a mug declaring they are the ‘World’s Best Teacher’ can actually mean a lot and inject some energy and self-belief into what, at times, can be a disheartening job which makes you question your own abilities.
Banning the tradition of giving Christmas presents, even if for what seems like honourable and ethical reasons, isn’t going to do any good in the long term.
How many parents will actually heed the request and donate that money to charity?
And how many young children will be upset that they can’t think of something thoughtful to hand over at this special time of year.
What schools need to do is urge parents to limit spending on Christmas presents, reducing the uneasy situation that can develop where there is a desire to go lavish rather than meaningful.
Such an approach would keep the spirit of Christmas alive in schools and be a lot less ‘Bah Humbug.’