Arresting new guidelines from the gift police

Stephen Jones

So, how did you do in the Christmas popularity poll? A bottle of dodgy wine and a lurid card from your tutor group maybe? Or a couple of those "star teacher" mugs often found cluttering up the staffroom in the new term?

But if you are a true professional, the answer will be "none of the above" - because now accepting gifts from students is one of a long list of no- nos known as "failing to maintain professional boundaries".

If you haven't come across this litany of prohibitions, you soon will. More and more colleges are issuing detailed guidelines to their lecturers.

Of course, it is not unreasonable for employers to address this issue with their staff. Where to draw the line in that tricky no man's land known as "relationships" between the teacher and the taught is a perennial problem.

But many of these codes of practice fail to recognise the ambivalences raised by such issues; instead, they treat them as absolutes. That's certainly the case with the one in which I found the "no-presents" rule. "There are some situations," it says, "that are never appropriate while working with learners." Included is "accepting money or gifts from a learner".

No one's going to quibble with a ban on money changing hands. Bribery has a nasty smell, however you try to sweeten it. But how often does it happen? I've never come across it - or even heard of it - in 30-plus years in teaching.

Gifts are another matter. True, some can be undesirable. If you accept a present from a student part way through their course, you could argue that something is being "bought" - even if it is only a fleeting feeling of goodwill.

But almost all such presents are of small monetary value, and, as such, buy little in return. And does the blanket prohibition extend to the occasional presents you get as a course is coming to an end? Should they too be politely declined or filed under "B" for bin? What if the Christmas or end-of-year present is the product of a whip-round by the whole class? It would take a very hard heart - harder than mine - to say "Thanks, but no thanks" to the ranks of smiling faces as the book token with cheery messages was handed over.

So what else is considered to be "never appropriate" between student and teacher? How about number seven on the list - "giving a student a lift home"? If an impressionable youth has a crush on you, then offering him or her a ride in your car would not be one of your better decisions.

But what if you have been teaching an evening class and spot one of your septuagenarian students (who doesn't, as far as you know, have a crush on you) standing at the bus stop in the rain? If you follow the guidelines to the letter, you should drive straight past, pausing only to give a wave that says: "I'm dry, you're wet."

Right at the top of the list comes "drinking alcohol". Combine this with "arranging to meet a learner outside of work hours" (No 10) and you're straight into "going to the pub with the students" territory. Getting dragged into a pub crawl with a bunch of leery 18-year-olds can be a career-changing (or ending) experience - particularly when, sitting in the police station later, you find that half of them were actually only 17.

But surely it's different if the students are adults? One of my classes of mature students asked me to join them for a Christmas drink a couple of weeks ago. In the end, I didn't go. But it wasn't because I thought it inadvisable, or contrary to a code drawn up by someone long out of the classroom. Sadly, although it was the end of the day for the students, I still had two or three hours of paperwork to get through before I could even think of leaving.

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Stephen Jones

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