Why gifts from students are problematic

A recently graduated student regularly brought our group delicious and sticky baklava that she made when she went home. We looked forward to it, shared it, and tried to resist eating too many of the flaky, nutty layered treats. Other students give chocolate, or little trinkets, often from another country, typically after a letter of recommendation is submitted.

Most treasured for me are personal notes about how my class or mentorship helped them take the next step, or proved meaningful at a difficult time, or simply are thanks for being a teacher they valued. There is no ethical problem with these notes, but what about tangible gifts? Is there a limit? What should it be?IMG_4762

I’m inclined to feel uncomfortable with any gift of more than token value. What might that be? The federal government sets the limit for employees receiving gifts from outside at $20. Alabama limits school children’s gifts to teachers to $25 or less. This makes sense to me. A colleague simply announces to her class that no gifts will be accepted. Any that come in anyway are donated.

So what is the problem? Why do I feel uncomfortable with gifts? Certainly no one can influence my letter of recommendation in this way, but might a bigger gift give the appearance of influence? Is it really true gifts can’t influence? Of course they can. I think there is a problem even when the gifts  come after all official contact is over. If gifts are part of the culture, it makes it that much harder for students with fewer resources. To me gifts muddy the relationship of mentorship and teaching.

Maybe you see it differently, but I think the best gift is the heartfelt note. Inexpensive food to share is also all right. Anything more should be donated, or gently refused.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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