Dear Ted

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

I'm a mature NQT taking a Year 10 tutor group at a boys' school. When I was at school, my form tutor gave every pupil a small present on their birthday. Should I do this too?

Ted says

Steady on. Times have changed since you were at school, so think carefully.

Think 15-year-old boys. Birthday. Little pressie from teacher.

Mates all watching. Death by a thousand blushes.

It is a thoughtful idea, but today's acne brigade might not react in quite the same way as the innocents of yesteryear. Worse, the politically correct merchants might even send in the thought police to arrest you for fostering obesity and tooth decay, unless you presented everyone with a raw carrot.

And if you did pull it off, some of your less well-off colleagues might not thank you for starting a trend.

Now I'm feeling guilty for thinking only of negative reasons. It is amazing what teachers can do if they believe in something and are prepared to brass neck it, so I usually urge people to back their own ideas, even if they seem slightly dotty. The world is full of pressures to conform and comply, and teachers with a bit of character are much more memorable than those who simply follow official work schemes to the letter.

If someone held a gun to my temple and made me hand out presents, despite the alarm bells clanging in my over-cautious brain, the only way I could carry it off would be to send the whole thing up. A suitably naff "present", maybe a comic verse, and a solo rendition of "Happy Birthday" would be the best I could manage with a straight face. But do it if you want to, and hang what I or anybody else says.

You say

Thanks never go amiss

I send a postcard from wherever I spend my summer holiday to every pupil in the school (I'm a headteacher) who gives me a present at the end of term.

Almost without fail they (and their parents) thank me when we reassemble.

It proves that a "thank you" is appreciated.

Alister Gourlay, Suffolk

Pencils work for me

As an NQT last year I had the same dilemma. I decided that as one of the major roles of a form group is to share each other's successes and celebrations, I would give them a small gift. On each birthday, or nearest school day, each girl (I work in a girls' school) received two pencils, one glittery, one velvet-covered, in co-ordinating colours, wrapped in metallic ribbon. This was inexpensive - vital for NQTs - and the pupils loved them.

Kirsten Clark-Lyons, email

There are other ways

It's your decision, but I wouldn't. Apart from the expense, there is the aggravation of remembering each pupil, including those whose birthday falls on a weekend or in the holidays. It could also set an expectation that you do the same for other classes; colleagues could also feel pressurised into doing likewise. When I had a key stage 3 form, I lit a candle on the desk in front of the student with a birthday for the duration of the tutor period. Health and safety would probably discourage that now, but I would suggest some collective way of marking a classmate's birthday.

Dave Lumley, Summerhill School, Suffolk

Do it at your peril

As an NQT, you could find this gesture being misconstrued as attempted bribery. This may also do you no favours when students start to use it against other staff who do not do the same. And what happens when you forget one student's birthday? He may take this personally and believe he doesn't have the same value as other students who have received gifts.

I understand that you want to recreate your own feeling of pleasure when you were a pupil, but this is not the way to go about it. If you have a tutor group and feel strongly about awarding students, you should do so in line with the school reward systems.

Nicola Yearwood, Suffolk

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