Clear, present danger

Gifts for the teacher? Yet another way to punish us for being mothers, says Sue Elliott-Nicholls.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Sports day, end-of-term show, summer fair, end-of-term disco, achievement assemblies, leavers’ assembly, end-of-term drinks, sports achievements assembly, end-of-term art displays, end-of-term picnic, end-of-term temporary breakdown. All this when I, as a freelancer, was trying to finish off as many major projects as possible to have some time to spend with my kids over the summer holidays. And on top of it all, yes on TOP, some poor schmuck had to organise the end-of-term teacher’s present.

In my kid’s class, that poor schmuck was me. My end-of-term job: to collect money from people who either hadn’t got it, had too much of it, were clearly embarrassed about how much to contribute, or were just too busy to be bothered. I did this job because I felt I somehow had to contribute to all those cringey, unnecessary middle-class things a mother was supposed to do; I wanted to fit in (I never did).

My kids went to a north London primary school where the divide between the haves and have-nots was wider than Gareth Bale’s smile. Some parents gave so much my eyes nearly popped out of my head.

Then there was the awful bit where you had to ask someone who you knew darn well hadn’t got a lot of cash to spare. I decided to designate myself a modern-day Robin Hood and tell the struggling parents to just shove in a quid, giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘Class Collection’.

I was supposed to remember who I had asked, who had given, should I chase up those who hadn’t, like a sleazy debt collector? I’ve never been one for a list (I lose them).

Then there was the money envelope, weighty with coins and responsibility. I had to neither lose it nor borrow any. Thing is, there are no cash points on my stretch of the high street so sometimes, when the kids needed a quid or two, the money envelope would be burning a hole in my pocket like Frodo and his ring, whispering conspiratorially: “You could walk 10 minutes up the road to the cash point, or you could just dip into the envelope… precious…”

“I have friends who are teachers who spend the entire summer trying to palm off endless boxes of chocolates, novelty mugs and scented candles. They’re not so forthcoming with the wine, I have to say.”

I still don’t know to this day whether I replaced more or less than I borrowed but I’m fairly confident that over the 10 years I did this job everything just about evened out. I tried keeping a record but, well you know, I’ve never been one for a list (I lose them).

Then there was the card: making sure everyone had signed it, I don’t think I ever managed that successfully, not for any malicious reasons, just, you know, list issues. The time I spent waiting in the playground to grab people to sign the god damn card, or trying not to look at my watch as some mother with too much time on her hands stood there dithering, deciding what message to write. JUST SIGN THE FECKING THING.

And for what? I have friends who are teachers who spend the entire summer trying to palm off endless boxes of chocolates, novelty mugs and scented candles (they’re not so forthcoming with the wine, I have to say).

One teacher friend of mine (you know who you are) told me about the shelf in the staff room where they put the most hideous presents. I suggested you can’t go wrong with a bottle until she pointed out that you had to get those bottles home.

Another teacher I spoke to said she got embarrassed by the whole thing and much preferred a simple card with a meaningful message – easier to get on the bus.

I normally love buying presents but with so much money for someone you barely know, what do you get? Vouchers? A toaster? A yacht?

At Christmas, when I was not responsible for the collection, I would get a certain amount of joy out of thinking I would NOT buy a particular teacher a present because I hated them so much. “Ha! I’ll teach you for giving my son a detention on his birthday! You won’t get a present!” (Still panicked and got her one though.)

Unless a specific teacher makes a spectacular impact on your child’s life, why bother? I don’t remember this hoo-ha when I was at school. This is just another burden dumped on us by our friends across the pond. Yet another way to punish us for being mothers. When have you ever seen a dad collecting money for the teacher?

Let’s suffer the consequences of disappointed tearful children; be brave, teach our children to make a stand even though they will hate us for it and forgo the frankly unwanted teachers’ presents once and for all. (We won’t though.)


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Written by Sue Elliott-Nicholls

Sue Elliott-Nicholls is an actress and writer. Often heard washing her dirty laundry on Woman’s Hour. Sue is currently on your TV screens playing Moody Margaret in Horrid Henry and Nanno in Hugglemonsters, as well as appearing in Tracey Ullman's show on BBC1. She is also a lone female voice attempting to be heard in a family of Alpha males.