She whispers into the phone conspiratorially: “Tiffany necklaces.”

“In my first year of teaching. All the teachers got them for the end-of-year gift. It was extraordinary.”

But Natalie, a primary school teacher in Melbourne, felt awkward at the luxurious gifts given by parents.

“You open the package and think, ‘Oh they must not have read the report yet.’”

Still, she writes a thank you to every parent who takes the time to give any end of year gift. “We appreciate it,” she says.

Stories abound of extravagant end-of-year gifts for teachers, especially in primary school, daycare and preschool, where children are likely to have one teacher for most of their learning. It’s a topic that ignites debate in online parenting forums and is so sensitive that the names in this story have all been replaced with pseudonyms, such is the fear of being labelled ungenerous, ostentatious or ungrateful.

Because much can go wrong when you’re trying to express gratitude while weighing up what is appropriate and what is excessive.

Susan is a parent on the Gold Coast and watched an argument break out in a parents WhatsApp group chat when one parent bought a $400 bottle of vintage red wine for a primary school teacher and then asked the others to chip in.

“Some people didn’t blink, but some people felt it was inappropriate,” she says.

While stories of these grander gifts become folkloric, many parents stick to chocolates, a mug or pot plants to express their thanks for a year of support for their kids. Nevertheless, at either end of the spectrum, recent events have made traditional teacher gifts somewhat more loaded.

It’s no secret teachers struggled significantly during the Covid pandemic. It is a career that many argue is undervalued and underpaid. These two factors combined to force many teachers out of the workforce in the past few years, leading to even more pronounced gratitude among parents for those who remain.

But as we face a cost-of-living crisis, for some parents and carers it is beyond reach to fork out extra household budget for any gifts, let alone ones requiring you to flex your credit card.

Despite being an educator herself, Julie says she won’t be getting gifts for educators at her children’s daycare.

“I might make them something or write a card,” she says. “I will not be buying anything. We don’t have the money to spend. We live in Sydney. Cost of living is already out of control.”

Instead she’ll be writing a letter. “It comes back to what is the point of the gift,” she says. “Is it to show off how much you can spend? Or is the point of the gift to say what I meant to you?”

Educators are not immune to the cost-of-living crisis affecting so many, and several teachers speaking to the Guardian say they would rather receive a grocery voucher or something they can choose how to spend rather than another succulent for their window sill.

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“When I get gift vouchers, I think ‘oh great that can go towards the weekly shop,’ or things like that,” Nikki, a teacher, says.

Ali Linz is the co-founder of GroupTogether, a website where people can put in for a group gift and sign a card. You can anonymise the names of donors and individuals can just sign the card without contributing to the gift. While it is used for different forms of group giving, it has become a popular way for parents to band together for gifts for teachers and educators. Started in 2015, Linz says the site has experienced 100% growth in revenue each year for the last three years.

It is sites like this that are helping to shift gift-giving in some parent circles from the odd box of chocolates or mug, to presenting teachers at the end of the year with a higher value voucher for the likes of spas or department stores.

“If everyone spends $10 or $15 buying a little trinket, a bit of crap, then teachers end up with a lot of junk in their house,” Josie, a parent of a nine-year-old, says. “Whereas if parents put all that money together, that they were going to spend anyway, you can get something quite nice, whether a spa or coffee voucher or something like that.”

Extravagant gifts can be tricky for teachers. In the public school system, teachers have to declare gifts over a certain value, including in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. And then there is the fact they do not always fall equally across the profession. Secondary teachers and teachers who work in lower-socioeconomic areas are less likely to be given hundreds of dollars worth of presents.

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“It does feel a bit awkward when you know that you’ve gotten a really nice gift and other teachers haven
’t,” Nikki says, adding that “people don’t get presents in everyday jobs. I like the gifts but I like when a kid gives me a card to acknowledge I’ve done a good job.”

But even traditional school gifts aren’t without their issues. Julie is an early childhood educator based in Sydney and at the end of the year she always comes up against the same problem. The chocolates, the biscuits, “I can’t have any of it,” she says. “I’m allergic to a lot of the Christmas stuff.”

But while she never expects a gift – like most teachers – there are some she particularly values.

“The presents that I treasure and the ones I still have, from when I started teaching, are the letters,” she says. “A handwritten card that says what I meant to them and what I meant to their child. That I keep for years.”


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