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Maybe they really shouldn't have

When tokens of esteem zoom from little to lavish, some question whether they belong in the classroom.

By RON MATUS
Published December 17, 2004


More than an apple
Is it wise to allow students to lavish expensive gifts on their teachers?
Yes. If students can afford it. Teachers deserve it.
No. It encourages favoritism and it leaves out the less affluent students.

Wanda Papillion's two daughters love their teachers at Wilson Middle School in Tampa. All of their teachers. So for Christmas, all 10 of them will get gift certificates to Tampa's upscale International Plaza.

The school is "more than a facility," Wanda Papillion says. "It's been like a family."

The Papillions' generosity, though heartfelt, puts them at the forefront of a trend that has some educators thinking twice about a holiday tradition.

While parents still give lots of cards and cookies as Christmas gifts, more and more of them are stuffing teachers' stockings with cash, jewelry and gift certificates to Outback Steakhouse and Barnes & Noble.

Most teachers love the upgrade in presents, and parents who can afford them love to give them. The practice has become so entrenched that few school districts in the United States, and none in the Tampa Bay area, have policies to regulate it.

But at the risk of sounding Grinchy, some ethics experts say the growing value of teacher gifts has unleashed the specter of influence peddling and favoritism.

"It's a bad thing," says Patricia H. Werhane, a business ethics professor at DePaul University in Chicago. "It's nice to give teachers a little present, something very small, under $10 ... but when you get over that, you're putting the teacher on the spot."

Here and there, attempts to rein in teacher gifts are under way.

In New York City this year, school officials imposed a $5-per-student spending limit on holiday gifts to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest in grading, discipline and other teacher actions. They also wanted to ease the potential stigma that might befall students from less affluent families.

Closer to home, administrators are telling parents at the private Canterbury School in St. Petersburg that gifts to teachers should be "gifts from the spirit," preferably homemade or home-baked, says Daryl DeBerry, the school's development director.

Parents who want to give more are urged to contribute to the school's annual gala, where a portion of proceeds are used for professional development courses.

Canterbury's message: "It's not as much what you buy as what you do," DeBerry says. She says the school also wants to end "the popularity contest when this teacher gets a bigger gift than that teacher."

For many parents, the practice has become second nature, a sign of genuine gratitude and a nod to the perception that teachers work brutal hours for skimpy pay.

"I think there's more awareness today than 30 or 40 years ago about the sacrifices teachers make and the impacts they have," said Barbara Ryals, whose two daughters attend St. Mary's Episcopal Day School in Tampa.

Ryals' gifts have included Junior League cookbooks, desk calendars by a Tampa artist and, for one teacher, a runner, a gift certificate at Sports Authority.

Some parents don't stop with teachers: One Tampa mother bought peppermint foot cream and socks for her children's crossing guard last year. This year, Papillion's children will give custodians and cafeteria workers envelopes with cash inside.

"It takes everybody to educate the children," Papillion said.

The quality and quantity of a teacher's holiday haul varies wildly. It's not unheard of for some local teachers to rake in hundreds of dollars in combined presents during the holidays, including a couple or three gift certificates.

But geography is key.

At Plant High School, in the affluent Palma Ceia section of south Tampa, students showered guidance resource specialist Margaret Gandy with dozens of gifts each year. The much-beloved Gandy, who retired in 2003, was widely recognized as one of the best in her field: Last year, she helped Plant students corral $10-million in scholarships.

In appreciation, she was plied with truffles and Godiva chocolates, orchids and poinsettias, and gift certificates to WestShore Plaza.

At Robinson High School, a few miles away, Santa doesn't stay as long.

Gifts? "Maybe a couple here and there," says Barbara Simmons, Gandy's counterpart at Robinson, which sits across the street from a public housing complex.

Teachers are quick to say they never expect gifts, appreciate all of them and realize that some families don't have the money to show gratitude financially.

They bristle at the notion that gifts could influence their judgment.

"I always treated every child the same, no matter what," says Kelly Austin, a former teacher at Rio Vista Elementary School in St. Petersburg who got everything from coffee mugs to a $30 gift certificate at Burdines.

School districts don't have a problem with the practice, either.

None of the five Tampa Bay-area districts limits gifts. And nothing in state law prevents teachers from taking a gift, as long it isn't given to influence an official action, such as a student's grade.

To suggest there is ever a "quid pro quo," says Roy Gordon, spokesman for Hernando County schools, "is really stretching it."

But ethics experts say gifts can influence subtly, even subconsciously.

If a student is straddling a C and a D, positive vibes reinforced by a nice gift might translate into "a little nudge," says Werhane, the DePaul professor. Teachers "don't even realize it."

And it's not far-fetched to suggest that some parents are striving to make a good impression, says professor Hugh LaFollette, the Cole Chair in Ethics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He drew a parallel to tipping a newspaper carrier.

"Are you appreciative of what the person has done? Or do you do it to make sure your newspaper delivery is up to snuff next year?" he asks. "Quite frankly, it's a little bit of both."

Werhane says school districts should limit how much can be spent on teacher gifts and forbid them until the end of the year - after grades are in. LaFollette suggests a policy that allows only anonymous gifts.

Some classrooms are moving in that direction.

At Tampa's Gorrie Elementary, some homeroom moms collect voluntary contributions from other parents, then present a collective gift on behalf of the entire class. Parents are spared the stress of picking out the perfect gift and low-income children won't feel left out, says assistant principal Kristin Tonelli.

Anonymous gifts would seem to remove any doubt about potential favoritism, but Tonelli says that isn't a motivating factor at Gorrie.

"Teachers appreciate every type of thank you," she says.

Laurel Kranzel knows that better than most teachers.

At St. Petersburg's Lakewood Elementary, one of the poorer schools in Pinellas, Kranzel doesn't get many gifts. But this year, one of her students, who is homeless, gave her three presents: a candy cane, a packet of hot cocoa and a miniature rock garden, sprouting from a cookie tin.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and reporter Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 17, 2004, 00:08:09]


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