December 19, 2017     Ward Dilmore

The “ETH” Word: Ethics of Gifts for Public School Music Directors


From a young age we’ve learned that words containing the letters “e-t-h” carry a heavy load. “Giveth and taketh” immediately come to mind. 

“Eth” words have always been a key component of timeless lessons, delivered in stories that usually unfolded in biblical places like Judea, and usually at the crossroads of Eternal Life…and Damnation. “Eth” words have always said: “Behold, pay attention!”

Today there’s an “eth” word that a public school music director wrestles with during the holidays, that magical time of year when they lead their ensemble in holiday concerts, with music that embodies peace, harmony, giving, the magic of love, hope.

Usually today’s “eth” word struts in just when most of the flock want to give thanks to their ensemble director: that selfless leader who transforms their lives. After all, the holidays are a perfect time to give thanks, and tradition dictates that they should venture forth, bearing gifts. 

So…what’s that weighty “eth” word that has elbowed its way into the holiday parlance for public school directors? Ethics!

Thou should payeth attention to this: while your flock may think you as a director who can walk on water, if you ignore this particular “eth” word, you’re walking on very thin ice because most of the 50 states now have ethics rules that prevent a teacher (defined as a public servant) from accepting gifts. The thinking from the rulers-on-high is that a gift from a student might influence the grade a teacher gives. There are even state ethics forms that teachers are required to present to administrators detailing any gifts received, along with their dollar value. 

And in spite of the ethics forms, in many states a teacher can’t keep a gift larger than a small plate of homemade cookies, with or without nuts. My students once pooled their money before the holidays and presented me with a Mac laptop at their Holiday Concert. The Superintendent rushed forward and snatched it from my thankful hands before I could even rip open the wrapping, and my students were forced to return it to the store.

What’s an ensemble leader to do in accepting the love, enthusiasm, and respect from their flock? Is it still possible for a director to enlighten the holiday path with giving while avoiding the ethical pitfall of receiving?


Two young people in tuxes with violins in a concert hall.

First, by initiating a discussion about holiday giving, perhaps a few weeks before Thanksgiving, the ensemble has an opportunity to remind students of the power of their musical offerings during the holidays. While most teachers can no longer receive gifts, it’s still possible to redirect the thuoughtfullness of their students and share the essential ingredients of the Season-of-Giving. Together as one, the ensemble can create musical traditions that reflect a spirit of giving in a way that involves every member, yet avoids ethics problems. 

One example of appropriate giving is to organize a performance in a community Senior Center. Every town has a place where elders congregate and/or live. A half-hour performance for senior citizens is easy to arrange and brings the entire ensemble together with a sense of purpose that defines the meaning of the holidays. In addition, each musician can create a generic holiday card that can be given to a resident during the performance. For some seniors, it may be one of the few tangible gifts they receive during the holidays – and coupled with appropriate music, will be one of the most appreciated performances your students can give. 

Enjoy the holidays, and especially those intimate community concerts that bring your ensemble a rich experience that embodies the spirit of giving. 

Your infinite wisdom will teach your students a valuable lesson: that it’s better to giveeth than taketh. 

And thus you can speak: “Now get thee home and practeth.”

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