Why an apple (and maybe a card) will keep teacher happy
Forget over-the-top gift cards, these days presents for teachers can be a simple handmade card, discovers Kathy Donaghy
If you're the mother of a primary school child, chances are you're thinking about buying a thank-you present for their teacher as another school year ends. But, before you splash the cash, it's worth bearing in mind that for many teachers a home-made gift or card is worth its weight in gold.
At this time of year with only a few weeks of the school year to go, a question that is perplexing many parents is whether to give or not to give a present and, indeed, what to give?
In the early noughties, stories abounded of primary school teachers in some leafy Dublin suburbs being presented with substantial vouchers for Brown Thomas.
In more affluent areas, some teachers are still being given presents of bottles of wine and gift vouchers for several hundred euro.
But, apart from private schools and those in well-heeled neighbourhoods, the most common gifts for teachers are still a box of chocolates, a mug or a candle.
Some schools have even banned the practice of giving gifts to teachers entirely to ease the financial pressures on parents.
While a number of schools have a policy on gifts, the vast majority do not, leaving it up to parents to use their own discretion.
So how much is too much or, worse, too little? Give too much and you can look flash and extravagant. Give too little and you may be out of sync with everyone else. And are you giving in genuine appreciation of the time and effort put in by your child's teacher or are you giving because everyone else is and you don't want your child to stand out?
Sean ó Donaile, the principal at the Gaelscoil in Cabra says while they don't have a written policy, it isn't much of an issue for them. "We wouldn't actively discourage it, but we don't really encourage it either. We don't get many presents here – Cabra is a working- class area and people are under financial pressure. Since the recession, people don't give presents as much as they used to and I don't think it's an issue in working-class schools," he says.
Of the 230 students at the school he estimates that about a third would bring in a small gift for their teacher.
ó Donaile says the most he's ever had spent on him is about €10.
"I've worked in schools where children are competing to bring in presents, but it's not an issue here," he says.
ó Donaile points out that in a country where primary schools are so poorly funded, often the parents have to take up the slack and regularly contribute to the schools coffers. And he says there are enough draws on parents' money without them spending money on gifts at the end of the school year.
Anne-Marie Rodgers, a 34-year-old teacher from Gortahork in Donegal, has spent 12 years teaching, mainly in Dublin. In one private school in the capital, the parents came together at the end of the year and presented her with large gift voucher.
"While I appreciated the gift voucher, I know not all parents can afford to buy presents. And while it's nice to get presents, a card with a lovely message on it means more than a gift. I'm teaching in Donegal now and parents haven't got the kind of finances to give expensive presents. One of the nicest things I ever got from a pupil was a hot water bottle," she says.
For most parents, acknowledging the teacher's work is very important. Emer, a mum of two boys who go to a school in North County Dublin, does not agree with its strict no-gifts policy.
"About three or four years ago, we got a note home saying that in the current climate there should be no cash gifts. It said you could give a card or make something at home. I had always given a little present like a candle or something until this policy came in," says Emer. "I stick to the policy, but I don't agree with it. I would like to be able to give something. I would say parents at the school are split 50/50 on this. Some parents feel the teachers are being paid well enough to do their job, but others feel they would like to give something".
"Regardless of what they are teaching, the teachers are in charge of your child as the kids are trying to find their way. They are nurturing them every day. It doesn't matter if they are paid or not paid. In my mind, no money would pay them," says Emer.
For 40-year-old mum-of-three Andrea Mara from Dun Laoghaire, the pressure parents can feel is not just financial. They are also concerned about not wanting their child to stand out by doing something different, she says.
Mum to Elissa (6), Mia (4) and Matthew (2), Andrea says parents of children in her eldest daughter's class at St Patrick's School in Blackrock agreed to take up a small collection for the teacher. She says this takes the pressure off.
"In my daughter's class, we have class reps who liaise with the parents. We all give €15 for a voucher for the teacher and the special needs teacher and that will be presented to them on the last day of school," says Andrea who writes a blog – Officemum – on balancing life and work.
"I guess there are parents who will say a hand-made present is far better, but if you're working and you're coming home in the evening you don't need that pressure. My ideal is to contribute to a voucher," she says.
At Marymount Girls National School in Drogheda, deputy principal Kay McQuaile says because theirs is a Deis school – which applies to schools in more disadvantaged communites – gifts are very low key.
While the school has a policy in place at Christmas time where parents buy non-perishable food items for Drogheda Homeless Aid in lieu of a present for teacher, there's no such policy at the end of the year.
"Parents don't go over the top with presents here – they couldn't afford it.
"They would buy modest presents like candles or a box of Roses.
"It's not something we'd say is getting out of hand," says McQuaile.
According to the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), teachers don't expect presents from children but, like everyone, they will always welcome a token of appreciation for their work or kindness during the year.
INTO spokesman Peter Mullan is urging parents to be aware of slick marketing campaigns at this time of year with 'presents for teachers' ideas.
"These are commercial campaigns run by shops and retailers to sell their products. They are not supported by schools and teachers, many of whom have actively requested that parents not buy such gifts," he says.
'I kept the life-size papier mache version of my head '
Louise Brady was two years into her teaching career at Marymount Girls National School in Drogheda when she received a gift she will never forget.
Now in her late 20s and after eight years teaching, no gift has come even close to this one's inventiveness.
"This little girl was leaving at the end of the year and she told me she was making me a present.
"She kept mentioning it and was so excited about it. Finally she brought it in – it was a papier-maché head in my likeness. It was life-size and there's no doubt it was like me. She had made such a huge effort and even got brown wool for the hair," says Louise.
Louise keeps the head in her family home in Longford and says she will always treasure it. "It's certainly the most original present I've ever received. I also had a gift from a child who was really into fashion. I wore a purple coat for one year and she brought me in a red scarf to go with it. She said she was matching it with my coat.
"The kids get really excited about presents and they want you to open them in front of them.
"They love to see your face when you open them."
For 26-year-old teacher Alannah McNally, there's one present that she will never forget.
"In my first year teaching, the mother of little boy with Down syndrome gave me a Newbridge Silverware Christmas decoration with a picture of her son in it.
"That was something that really stood out. I put it up on the Christmas tree every year," she says.
"Over the years, I've got mugs with 'teacher' on them, magnets and boxes of chocolates. Home-made presents are always great. I remember one child giving me a little bracelet that she'd made.
"I keep a box of cards that children have given me at home. They write little messages on them and I like to keep them all."
'No parent should feel under pressure but I do think a teacher's work should be acknowledged'
As a teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel Boys National School in Killiney and a mum of three, Niamh Cruise O'Malley wears two hats when it comes to the issue of gift-giving.
"No parent should be under pressure to buy anything extravagant but I do think a teacher's work should be acknowledged," she says.
Mum to Grace (5), Robyn (3) and Mark (10 months), Niamh says in 16 years of teaching she has got everything from bottles of wine to candles and soap.
However, she says the most precious gifts are cards with kind words of appreciation from parents.
With her eldest daughter coming to the end of her first full school year, Niamh says she is grateful that her daughter has had such a positive experience at school. She explains that last Christmas, a parents' representative asked if people wanted to make a donation for a present for the teacher and everyone put in about six euro.
She says it will probably be the same now coming up to the end of the school year.
"As a parent, I know that my daughter's teacher puts her heart into her work and that work should be appreciated. Grace has had such a great year.
"Her teacher, Mrs O'Connor, is so approachable. I just really want to acknowledge all that she does.
"I bought her a card and I'm going to write her something nice. She certainly deserves that acknowledgement."