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September 9, 2013

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Teachers’ Day gift giving spins out of control

In the West, an “apple for the teacher” was once the epitome for expressing gratitude and respect for the work of classroom instructors.

But it’s more than simple apples that mark Chinese Teachers’ Day, which falls tomorrow. The day has evolved into a big gift-buying event for parents trying to curry favor for their children in the classroom.

The gifts may vary from cash and prepaid shopping cards to luxury items such as designer purses, perfume and cosmetics. In an environment when the central government is waging a campaign against public ostentation, Teachers’ Day gift-giving is coming under renewed scrutiny.

Many countries in the world have days honoring teachers. The Chinese government first designated September 10 as Teachers’ Day in 1985 to give recognition to the hard work and dedication of a relatively low-paid profession. It was meant as a symbolic day but has all too often turned into a commercial one.

Perhaps to return to the original meaning of the day, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, last week released a public consultation paper about moving Teachers’ Day to September 28, to coincide with the birthday of Confucius, the ancient scholar celebrated for his commitment to education.

But would moving the date have any effect on the gift-giving that seems to be souring the whole point of the day?

Shanghai Daily talked to 20 parents whose children are in either local kindergartens or primary schools and asked them about gifts for teachers.

Twelve parents said they will not give material gifts to teachers but will encourage their children to make their own little gifts for them instead. Eight parents said they will give mooncake coupons, prepaid cards and small luxury gifts to teachers, without letting their children know.

“We decided to give mooncake coupons because the Mid-Autumn Festival is just around the corner and we don’t want to have to send gifts twice for two festivals,” said Du Xiping, whose daughter is in a kindergarten in the Minhang District.

Du said sending a gift expresses their gratitude for a teacher’s dedication in taking care of children. Each mooncake coupon has a bar value of only 88 yuan (US$14.37), so Du said she will send two coupons each to the two teachers in her daughter’s class.

Her daughter won’t be told about the gift, Du added, because “these are adult matters.”

Teachers face dilemma

Cai Caizi, mother of a four-year-old, is planning to give a Coach purse and some Dior lipstick to her daughter’s kindergarten teacher in Songjiang District. She said she bought the gifts before she went on a vacation to Malaysia in July.

Cai said her daughter loves dancing but wasn’t good enough to perform. The teacher worked with her daughter, heaping praise and encouragement on her, until she advanced to performance level. That has made her daughter very happy, Cai said.

“My daughter is shy and introverted,” Cai said. “But once she saw how much the teacher liked her, she became more confident and opened up. I think the gifts are very worthwhile in helping the character development of my daughter.”

To avoid drawing attention from other teachers, Cai packed the gifts and sent them to the teacher by delivery service to look like goods ordered online.

The gifts put many teachers in a quandary. It’s hard to reject presents from warm-hearted parents but equally embarrassing if they appear too extravagant.

Kang Nini, a primary teacher in Pudong, said she was quite red-faced once when a parent insisted she accept a prepaid card in front of other parents. Though Kang didn’t accept the card, she said she feared the incident would leave the impression that she had accepted gifts less publicly bestowed in the past.

Shui Bing, a first-grade teacher at Yangpu Primary School, said some enterprising parents find out teachers’ home addresses and send the gifts directly to their homes.

Pressure to give gifts plays on parent’s fears that their children might receive less attention if they don’t mark Teachers’ Day. They are afraid that children whose parents do give gifts will get the prized front row seats in class, will be chosen for class leadership positions and awards, and will get the first crack at participating in educational competitions.

The rise of social networking has only made things worse, with some parents comparing online the gifts they send to teachers.

Tough to break custom

To curb a custom spiraling out of control, the Shanghai Education Commission has ordered the city’s 31,289 teachers to refuse cash and other gifts from students and parents and warned violators could be disqualified from teaching.

Some schools issued “no gift” notices before Teachers’ Day to advise parents against sending any kind of gifts, including greeting cards and flowers. School authorities said the custom of gift-giving is particularly unfair for migrant children, whose parents are too poor to afford presents.

However, as long as parents believe some teachers are accepting gifts and letting them influence how they treat students, it’s a hard custom to break.

Some parents have suggested the government follow the example of Hong Kong, where teachers are subject to the same anti-bribery regulations as other public servants. Teachers who accept gifts there can be fined or even jailed if convicted of bribery.

Kang said she doesn’t mind small homemade gifts from students, such as hand-drawn cards, little pencil jars or a small plant from home. Shui said the only thing she wants are letters from her former primary school students, letting her know how they are doing in middle school.

Shui said: “I just want parents to know that we treat each student equally and fairly, love them, care for them and help them without any discrimination.”



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