There has been a recent study in Turkey about the ethical implications of teachers accepting gifts.1 They looked at how teachers’ feelings towards students, as well as their behaviour and judgements, changed depending on whether or not they received a gift from the student or their family.
As much as teachers may not want to admit it, this study supports the theory that it does make a difference whether the teacher wants it to or not. There are a couple of reasons why:
- It creates expected bias towards certain students.
- It sets a bad precedent for the other students.
- You may have unconscious bias towards a student.
Expected bias towards certain students.
While many students and families get their teachers gifts for pure and well-intentioned reasons, this is not always the case. It is normal to want to give your teacher a gift for the holidays or the end of the year if you’ve really appreciated all of the support that they’ve given you or your child, but there are many parents who are trying to get some special treatment.
While it’s nice to receive a present, this can create an imbalance in the teacher-student relationship. It creates an unequal power dynamic, with the parent being in a position of authority over the teacher. The teacher may then feel obligated to give the child preferential treatment or even give a gift in return, which can be unfair to other students. This sense of obligation on the part of the teacher, which is not a healthy foundation for a teacher-student relationship.
Additionally, the teacher may feel like they have to accept every gift, no matter how inappropriate or expensive. It’s important for parents to remember that teachers are professionals who are bound by ethics and laws. Giving gifts can be seen as a form of bribery, which is inappropriate and potentially harmful.
It sets a bad precedent for the other students.
I remember when I was in school and some of the kids would bring their teacher gifts around the holidays. It would be these really nice, expensive gifts and I always felt bad because my parents couldn’t afford to get me something like that. I know the teacher appreciated it, but it just made me feel bad that some kids could afford it and some couldn’t.
If it is obvious that you as the teacher are receiving gifts from some of the students and their parents, other students may also feel obligated to do the same. Even if you are not intending on providing preferential treatment to the students who give you gifts, there is the perception that those who do not may not receive any special treatment.
It’s not fair to the kids who can’t afford it and it puts a lot of pressure on the parents. Not only is it a reminder of the differences between your students and that some are more well-off than others, but it certainly gives the impression that those students who can afford presents will be better off at school.
Unconscious bias towards a student.
One of the key, surprising findings of this study from Turkey is that even if the teachers did not want to give those students who had given them gifts preferential treatment, they would. Even if they knew that it was wrong to give a student a better grade depending on whether or not they had received gifts from them or their family, they would often do so without even noticing.
This can be a problem with building strong relationships with your students regardless of whether there are gifts involved or not; if you’ve seen a student struggle and you’ve given them mountains of support, you’re more likely to be forgiving and not objective when it comes to judging the quality of their work.
This is a very human thing. Teachers are not objective robots who work without any bias at all, that is simply unreasonable. It would also greatly limit their ability to do their job as they need to build relationships and connections with their students and their families.
What can you do as a teacher if you receive a gift?
It is a good idea to set your expectations around gifts and what your boundaries are. Talking to your students about it in class is a good way to start, but if you’re serious you will also want to send a note home to their parents. You want to let them know that you will not accept any gifts from them, but they are welcome to send you cards or thank-you notes instead.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have received a gift, there are a few things you can do. First, try to graciously accept the gift and express your appreciation. If the gift is truly unwanted or unnecessary, you can always donate it to a local charity or school fundraiser. Alternatively, you could return the gift to the parent with a polite note explaining why it isn’t necessary.
Whatever you do, try to avoid offending the parent or causing them to feel guilty. After all, they’re just trying to show their appreciation for your hard work. If you have set a boundary and a parent keeps insisting on giving you lavish gifts though, it is worth talking to your school administrator. This is unacceptable behaviour and someone higher up the chain than you should probably get involved.
Do you often receive gifts from your students? How do you feel or react when you get an expensive gift? Comment down below!
1Aydın, İ., Güner Demir, T., Toptaş, B., & Erdemli, Ö. (2021). Teachers’ struggle with gifts: gift culture at schools and associated ethical problems. Ethics & Behavior, 31(5), 335-349.