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Should Teachers Be Allowed to Accept Gifts from Students?

Who Are the Real Turkeys: Alabama Lawmakers or Teachers?

It’s that time of the year again. Young children give their teachers a gift to show their appreciation for putting up with their eccentricities. It’s a show of respect after all…Or, can it be a bribe as the Alabama legislature seems to believe?

According to a press release last Monday reported on by Mary Bailey of the Sand Mountain Reporter, Jim Sumner, Director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, says students can still bake cookies or bring something consumable such as hand lotion or a candle, a potted plant or a coffee cup. He also said cash or anything that a teacher could resell is not permitted, including gift certificates, and neither are holiday turkeys and hams.

This got me think about what items might be defined as consumable. Aren’t holiday turkey and hams consumable? Who sells these things? Do teachers get paid so little in the workplace that they have to sell food to meet expenses? I know some who would say, “yes.” I just don’t get just where the bright line is drawn. I pity the teacher who has to decline a gift from one student while she or he accepts it from another.

Boaz City School Superintendent Mike Lindsey said that:  "We have issued a statement to our teachers to be careful about accepting gifts until the Ethics Commission has made a determination on what's ethical." I don't think the intent or purpose of this law was intended to be negative towards our teachers. It's going to be a sad day if we have to tell our teachers not to accept gifts from students. It's a strong topic, and I hope when the clarifications come out, we can clear up any confusion."

Tim Nabors, superintendent of Marshall County Schools, said the new law surprised him. "I'm not sure what caused this," Nabors said. "To my knowledge, I don't know of any problems that have occurred to make this change in the ethics law but somewhere down the line, someone has brought attention to it for a reason."

Amie Baker, kindergarten teacher at Robert D. Sloman Primary School in Douglas, says she doesn't understand the change in the law. "I know that I feel very appreciated when I receive things from my students. It doesn't matter to me if it's something small or something big," Baker said. "I believe if students feel like they want to get their teacher a gift, they should be allowed to. I think this is a personal matter that needs to be left alone."

Julie West, fourth-grade teacher for the DeKalb County School System at Crossville Elementary School, is also disturbed by the new law. "I don't know one teacher that gets up every morning thinking about what students are going to give them. It's not about the gifts to us. We get up because we love the kids. If a child wants to give their teacher a gift to show their love and appreciation, why rob them of that? I know that I'm not going to break a child's heart and turn down their gift, whether it's a penny or a coffee mug. I, as a teacher, don't look at this as ethics. I take it as something personal."

So, that brings me to the point of this blog. Is it unethical for a teacher to accept a gift from a student? First of all we should not put a monetary value on ethics. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Otherwise, we open up such restrictions to interpretations made by the powers that be at the time they “be powers” (sorry, I couldn’t resist the wording).

One thing is clear. If a law is needed to prevent students from giving token gifts such as turkeys and hams to their teachers this time of the year, there must be a level of distrust of teachers that they will, in fact, be objective in evaluating the performance of their students and not influenced by a gift. As a college professor I find this insulting. Teachers have the good judgment to turn down gifts of money, diamonds, a lifetime supply of gasoline for their cars, and other such monetarily valuable gifts without being told to do so. Sure, there will always be some who deviate from the norm. Just look at the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State and the Bernie Fine case at Syracuse. That does not mean we should assume the worst of all teachers any more than we should assume the worst of all assistant coaches.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 5, 2011