Grinch? You Decide…

In New York City the school chancellor Joel Klein put in place a $5 limit on holiday gifts for teachers. This NYT story has more. The reasons behind it are obvious and sensible but many people also cried foul. Is the policy Grinch-like?

Eduwonk solicited the views of some teachers and administrators in various communities to see what they thought. Here is a sampling:

Rural Public High School Teacher:

As a professional, I do not think it right to expect a gift from my students. I do not see the holiday as a time for handouts.

The [NYT] story talks about elementary school teachers. Often elementary school teachers spend a lot of money out of their own pocket to buy necessities for their classroom. Parents could help out over the holidays by buying items for the teacher’s classroom. If it is not a personal gift, there is no conflict of interest. If they wish to donate expensive items to the classroom, I do not know any teacher who would say no. As long as it is very clear that the gift is for the school and not the teacher.

If I could write a “Dear Santa” letter as a teacher, I would ask the taxpayers of my county to raise the salaries of teachers, buy some books to donate to the school library, take an active role in your child’s education, take an active role in the lives of children who do not have money to spend on the holidays, and support my efforts to give your child homework. Those are the best gifts I could ask for.

I think the policy to limit gifts to teachers is just fine. The most important gift a student can give me is to put in extra effort in their school work. When they do that it shows me that they care about themselves, and they feel proud that they have done something for me. Students also give me cards and notes at the holidays that are an important way for them to say “thank you.” I actually think more students would want to give gifts if they knew they only had to spend $5.00. They would enjoy the challenge of getting a great gift for that amount.

A K-8 Private School Teacher:

I totally agree with placing a limit on gift amounts to teachers. They are in a position of authority over students, and their influence and grades should not be able to be bought. HOWEVER, creating a limit of $5 means that even the most sincere holiday wishes or appreciation could not reasonably be granted. Most greeting cards cost up to $2.50. Even a candle from a grocery store could cost $5.00.

Teachers are always getting the short end of the deal. Maybe holiday time is the one time of the year when teachers can be appreciated and be told by their students how much they do for them. Limiting gifts usually means that you are also limiting the cards and hand-written notes that go with them. Our school sent out a letter to parents to limit the gift giving and now it means that I don’t even get a lot of cards from my kids telling me thank you for being such a great teacher.

In a profession where I give up $100,000 in salary every year based on the equivalent salary I would have in any other profession given my number of years on the job and level of education, I think that teachers should be able to receive gifts from students. A limit of $25 or $50 would seem way more reasonable. That is the point beyond which a gift would be lavish. Setting the limit at $5.00 is basically sending the message that it is not even worth it to attempt giving a gift.

Urban Public Elementary School Teacher:

I doubt I’ve ever gotten a gift that costs more than $5. When it comes to gifts from students, it’s really the thought that counts. I wouldn’t want my students or their families to spend money on me. I don’t know if there should be an official rule about it but it doesn’t bother me much.

Former Private High School Teacher:

I think the real question here is what, exactly, can one get for less than $5 in New York? A diet coke? A pack of gum? Tissues?

As a matter of policy, it seems to me that Klein would have been better off banning gifts altogether, if he’s serious about wanting to protect kids who can’t afford to give gifts to their teachers. I don’t agree with it, but at least that would be a meaningful statement. The $5 ceiling seems arbitrary and just plain silly.

Suburban Public High School Teacher:

I asked around the lunch room and got some mixed responses. Some folks believe that accepting gifts is a real conflict of interest and that it could be construed in a poor light by some people. We heard stories of an elementary school teacher in XXXXX that received an all expense paid trip to Bermuda (or some place like that) from the parents of her students. We thought that was a bit excessive. Some teachers say “bring on the gifts.” Personally, I think that if a student or parent wants to express appreciation then they should be free to do so. Just today I received a bag of chocolates with a $10 gift card to Starbuck’s in it. I guess in NYC I’d have to return it. I also think that teachers should use professional judgment in accepting gifts. An all expense trip would be nice, but I think a true professional would not accept something that extravagant. However, we all know that many people (teachers included…) lack professional judgment. Teaching in a school where extravagant gifts are part of the norm is just one more reason that schools like that are more attractive. I can see how limiting gifts would even the playing field. I don’t know the answer to this one…I can see the logic behind both sides….

Rural Public School Principal:



The issue is one of potential “undue influence” on teachers in relation to their evaluation and support of students. I think one of the biggest issues facing educators today is palpable lack of trust from parents, administrators, and communities, and this situation only serves to highlight that lack of trust. We, under the law, allow significant amounts of capital to flow from private interests to lawmakers’ campaign chests at the state and national levels, but the system can’t trust a teacher to make good decisions about students’ education as a result of a gift worth 10 or 12 dollars? No wonder that, as I once heard a superintendent say, “I know more ex-teachers than ex-anything else!”

Former Public High School Teacher:



I usually would side with not putting low-income parents or kids in a bad situation or one where it appears you need money to compete. However, there are so few ways for parents to thank and support teachers, that a holiday or year-end gift is one of the only chances. The problem with the profession is that good teachers rarely receive rewards that all other teachers don’t get as well and this is likely one of the only areas where teachers get what they deserve. Am I sounding like a “let the market run its course” Republican?

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