spending

When Is a Gift to the Teacher Over the Top?

Knight Kiplinger gives his advice to a teacher uncomfortable receiving expensive gifts from students' parents.

Q: I’m a teacher who transferred this year to an elementary school that has a tradition of holiday gift-giving by every student to every teacher. Most gifts are sincere, inexpensive expressions of appreciation. But some of the gifts strike me as too valuable, perhaps given with a parental expectation of favorable treatment. Am I right to feel uncomfortable about this? How should I handle it?

Yes, you are right to feel uncomfortable. Small, heartfelt teacher gifts — homemade presents such as cookies, a child's artwork, a greeting card or a houseplant — are a long and wonderful tradition in education. But there is a fine line between a thank-you and a bribe.

That's why various states, teachers' organizations and PTAs have set guidelines on gift value — typically, nothing over $50 — and some require disclosure of the gifts received. (Rules are often the same for all public employees in the state.) Some states, such as Massachusetts, allow a whole class to give a teacher a higher-value present — say, a gift certificate of up to $150 — if the identities of the contributing families are not revealed.

If your community doesn't have rules on this, suggest that your PTA create them for your school. Then, if you feel it necessary to graciously return an expensive gift — always awkward to do without offending the giver — you'll have some cover.

Have a money-and-ethics question you'd like answered in this column? Write to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger at ethics@kiplinger.com.

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