The saying "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" harks back to the tale of the Trojan Horse. In schools, students are the Greeks and the horse can appear in many guises, but the sentiment is the same: a gift is never just a gift.
Teachers, therefore, need to be wary. We can accept presents without too much suspicion at Christmas, Easter and the end of the summer term, as these are the natural moments in the academic calendar for student largesse. More of a worry, however, are the gifts that arrive alongside a confident knock on the staffroom door or a note on your desk. Whether it is a token of love, an attempt to lessen a punishment, a bribe for better grades or simply a kind gesture, you have to handle the situation with extreme care.
Over the years, I have received all sorts of presents, including a drawing of the Tardis, a can of my favourite soup and even a rather beautiful scarf. For the most part, however, they can loosely be lumped into three categories: home-made goods, chocolates and alcohol.
All food is given with the best of intentions, I'm sure, but when the knock at the door goes and a student hands me a lovingly crafted piece of confectionery, I say "Thank you" and toss the potential petri dish of diarrhoea into the bin.
Easter eggs, Advent calendars and the like have all made their way into my stomach but there was once a box of chocolates that did not. My low-ability class (with a myriad of behavioural and personal issues) had worked diligently and, as they would shortly be leaving school, I organised a French breakfast for them. They took the opportunity to present me with a box of Ferrero Rocher, which came with the added cachet of a student revealing that it had been pinched. In their eyes, the fact that the gift was stolen added to the gesture. Needless to say, that box was returned to its original owner.
Booze is even worse. A colleague tells me that staff at one school were given whisky that had "fallen off the back of a lorry", to which a student added how lucky it was that the bottles hadn't broken. Stolen or not, alcohol is an odd gift from a child, primary or otherwise, as it raises the question of how they got hold of it.
So what should you do when a student presents you with a gift? Let me give an example to demonstrate one approach.
Once, at a school disco, an 11-year-old male student fell to one knee and proposed to me. He proffered a beautiful ring and instructed me to "wear it with pride". I was inexperienced and naive and could not fathom what the correct response was. Flustered, I took the ring before making a hasty retreat to seek guidance from his head of year, who very kindly set up a meeting with the student and his parents the next day.
The head of year also attended, as the completely inappropriate situation clearly required careful handling. The ring was returned to his parents and we had a detailed discussion about why a marriage proposal to a teacher was not appropriate and why it was unacceptable to offer such a lavish gift. There were embarrassed faces all round but it ended well.
Unlike me, you should refuse inappropriate gifts. Always be considerate and professional when you do so and explain your reasons. It is vital, if you are ever in doubt, to seek guidance from a more senior teacher. And you should report the incident up the chain of command even if you don't need the advice.
Favours for sale
Reporting a gift may not be enough, however. In the UK, the Bribery Act 2010 applies to teachers and they need to protect themselves. Gifts can count as bribery if they are lavish or followed by certain actions, such as a child receiving preferential treatment. If found guilty, a teacher could face unlimited fines and a maximum of 10 years' imprisonment.
This does not mean that you cannot accept presents at all, rather that the school has to have systems in place to prevent bribery. These preventative measures should be in the form of policies that are published and strictly enforced.
Such measures have been applied to a few schools in Scotland, while some staff in England have been told to keep a log of gifts received. But guidance is often vague. Interestingly, universities in England have far more stringent guidelines. Some state that any gift over the value of pound;25 has to be sanctioned by a line manager and that anti-bribery policies extend to include family members of university employees.
Teachers in the UK need to lobby for clearer advice, and we should all be wary and sensible when students offer gifts. Of course, it is sad that a token of appreciation for your time and effort prompts fear rather than gratitude, but unfortunately this is the nature of the current environment and we must react accordingly.
Caroline Ross teaches in a secondary school in Hampshire
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