Few of us wanted to be known as a teacher’s pet. Years of schoolyard teasing are rarely forgotten.
Yet Chinese parents seem a lot more prepared to worm their way into the affections of their childrens’ educators. Their gratitude often comes in the form of gifts of anything from washing machines to luxury goods. Purists will tell you that the practice has its roots in a cultural reverence for education. Cynics suggest it is lot more about helping your child get a leg up on classmates.
Gifts don’t normally work in getting higher grades (major exams are run by the government, so you’d need to go direct to the examiners themselves to sort that out). But a strategic gift or two might mean that the pupil is as well prepared as possible for exam day, by keeping the teacher wholly focused on the task at hand. Apparently, this type of thinking can then lead to an arms race of gift-giving. The fear is that another parent might give a better present, thus earning their child preferential treatment. That’s a serious worry for parents anxious to give their (often only) child the best start possible.
The annual Teacher’s Day (Friday last week) would seem as good a day as any to show some parental appreciation. Students across the country attend assemblies at which they express their own gratitude to teachers.
Their parents often go beyond a few words of thanks. The practice of gift-giving has now become so commonplace that books are available on Teacher’s Day ‘gift etiquette’. For many, the difficult question of what to give has become a major source of anxiety. “I feel confused every time,” perplexed parent Zhang Ping explained to CBN Weekly. “It can’t be too cheap or the same thing every year.”
The advice from the newspaper? Give something practical. One parent gave a Rmb2,000 Chanel hairpin but was worried that it might not have been appreciated. Another discovered that his child’s teacher hadn’t even been using the golf club membership he’d bought him previously. So in the end Zhang decided to do the straightforward thing: drop a Rmb1,000 gift card into an envelope. This is from Zhang Junior. Please get him into university…
Teacher’s Day isn’t the only opportunity for teachers to supplement their income. “Mid-Autumn Festival, National Day and Chinese New Year are all thanksgiving days for us, and if I choose not to follow the trend, how will the teacher view my child?” worried one parent. A Beijing-based taxi driver also told CBN that he frequently overheard passengers talking about the subject. “My daughter begins primary school this year, as it seems everyone gives gifts to teachers, I’m going to do the same when the time comes.”
The standard practice for gift giving varies throughout the country. Parents in north China seem to have it tougher since they will often buy something specifically for the teacher. In south China, a simple red packet of cash will do.
Getting your full quota of teacher time is all the more important when classrooms are crowded and teachers underpaid. A typical class will have at least 40 students. Teachers generally earn between Rmb2,000 and Rmb6,000 a month ($300-900).
Still, for some teachers it seems to be more trouble than its worth. “Some parents, after giving a gift seem to think they have some kind of privileged position, and continually make all sorts of demands,” one frustrated Guangzhou primary school teacher lamented. “If our living standards were as good as civil servants, we wouldn’t have to earn ‘class make-up fees’.”
Teachers reluctant to accept the full shopping bag of offerings face another problem: some prospective gift-givers take it as as a sign that their child will not get help in the classroom.
Luo Dan, a researcher at the Institute of Education in the South China University of Technology, warns that the practice is creating an uneven playing field. Last week the Ministry of Education posted a proposal on its website calling for an end to the gift-giving. But cultural and economic pressures mean that it’s not likely to stop anytime soon.
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