Gifts needn't cost much to be worth a lot

16th April 2010 at 01:00

It was the end of the autumn term a few years back. Alone in my classroom, I crammed holiday marking into every crevice of my rucksack, consoling myself that it was good practice for stuffing the turkey. Then, a red-faced Year 10 boy peered around the door. He dashed up to my desk, flung a package on to it, whispered, "From Mum," and quickly left.

I unwrapped the present. It wasn't difficult. Wrapping paper and sticky tape had been applied, true, but not in the right way, and perhaps not in the right order. Combined with the "Congratulations on your New Baby" wrapper and the Arsenal FC mug it contained, I knew his mother hadn't been involved.

That is what meant the most. The present said: "I'm 15, I'm male, I'm dead embarrassed, but thanks." Body oils, Mum-wrapped in sparkly gold paper, wouldn't have said the same.

The ATL's survey about presents given to teachers resulted from anxiety that gift-giving has got too competitive. Pupils (or, more likely, parents) vie to give the best present. Most commonly given, the survey found, were chocolates and wine, but one teacher got a brace of pheasants. How I would loved to have been there when the mother wrapped that.

I was chuffed to bits with my Arsenal mug, as with the catering-sized box of 300 tea bags another pupil gave me. And I received a bottle of Greek wine in 2007 under strict instructions to drink it only with Greek food. It's still there, waiting for me to do something clever with lamb.

But, however pleasing, none of the gifts were necessary. Those lads showed appreciation regularly with thumbs-up signs or nodding approval as they left my lessons. This meant a lot, even if they had been stabbing each other with compasses five minutes earlier, because it's not so much about presents as it is about everyday positive feedback. "Good lesson, Miss" or "Enjoy your evening" from the kids, or "You have changed Sophie's mind about English" from a parent ... well, eat your chocolate heart out, Thorntons.

It is not only kids' and parents' opinions that can transform the day from hell, though. When a manager bothers to stop in the corridor to say, "I hear the poetry competition went well," or, "Great results!" it is as though Christmas has come early. Call me affection-deprived, if you like, but this can carry me through Year 9 on a Friday afternoon. That kind of positive-stroking is powerful. You often hear early retirees musing: "Everyone's saying how much they have appreciated my work. I wish they had said so before; I might not have gone so soon."

My children badgered me for teacher gifts despite suggestions that hand-made cards with appreciative messages would suffice ("What? You want us to be bullied?") Eventually, I found the answer and the kids became renowned for their end-of-term home-made jam.

There was a near-miss one scorching July when I happened to check the jars first to find the whole batch had gone off. What the teachers would have thought we were trying to say as they spread green mould on to their buttered toast is anyone's guess.

It's the thought that counts. Sometimes, it's just as well.

Fran Hill, English teacher, an independent girls' school, Warwickshire.

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