During my 36 years of teaching English at the high school level, I attended many, many “professional development” workshops. I will let you in on a secret. By and large, teachers are terrible learners.
We demonstrate every bad behavior that we spend all day chastising our students about. We don’t pay attention. We pass notes. We ignore directions. We grade papers instead of attending to the presenter. Smartphones have made us even more inattentive, since now we can check email, Facebook, or chat with our friends across the room via text messages.
It is not our fault altogether. The workshops frequently do not meet our most critical or pressing needs. They are often planned by administrators who have lost touch with the classroom. And especially bad are the district-sponsored sessions that are designed to indoctrinate teachers into THE NEXT BIG, IMPORTANT THING IN EDUCATION which they are convinced we must begin to implement immediately. Those of us who have been around feel a touch of cynicism about such roll-outs because we know it is likely to be just a couple of years before we are dragged back into the same room to hear about THE NEXT BIG, IMPORTANT THING IN EDUCATION which not only replaces its predecessor, but likely undoes all of the work we just completed implementing for the previous program.
However, one spring afternoon our staff gathered for a half-day workshop with a focus on the importance of boosting students’ self-esteem. This was some time ago when caring about students as individuals was considered as important as producing good test-takers.
The woman presenter was earnest and sincere and I’m sure she gave us a lot of good ideas and strategies, all of which I have now forgotten—all except for one. She told us that she stood at the door of her classroom at the beginning of every period and shook hands with every entering student, greeting every student, every day.
She claimed it was the single most influential thing she had ever done in terms of creating a warmer and more welcoming classroom environment. She claimed that once she began, her problems with discipline were greatly reduced, her students felt better about her and about themselves and most remarkably, that she could wait until the end of the day to record her attendance because she could actually remember who had attended that day.
“Hmmm,” I thought. This actually sounded like something.
There were so many reasons NOT to try it. First of all, we were nearing the end of the year, with barely 6 weeks of school remaining. Introducing a new ritual, a new daily practice would be awkward, both for me and for them. My classroom had two entry doors, so I’d be unable to greet them coming in the door. I’d need to wait until they were seated and then circulate through the room killing more instructional time. Most of all though, the thought of it made me feel vulnerable. I imagined that the kids would think it strange, forced, artificial. I convinced myself several times to put it off to the beginning of the next year. After all, it would be so much easier to start off the year with a brand new group of kids who had no expectations, who would be less likely to see this new practice as being a weird departure from the norm.
But the idea gnawed at me all weekend. If it was really that good, if it really made that big a difference, why not take it on a test drive for 6 weeks and see if it really could have the kind of impact that the presenter had suggested?
I was nervous on Monday morning. The first period kids sat down at the bell, and I began circulating up and down the rows with my first official handshake of what would become a ritual that would endure throughout the rest of my career. Students were surprised, puzzled, skeptical, and amused as I went around greeting each kid briefly. Once I was done, I certainly had their attention because they all wanted to know what the heck that was all about. So, I told them the story of the workshop, of my decision to experiment with them until the end of the year. After we had given it a try, I told them, I’d let them tell me what they thought, whether it was something I should continue with or not.
Over the next couple of weeks, we all became used to the new ritual. I began to look forward to this way of beginning each class. I liked that I had a brief moment each day to acknowledge every student in my classes. If I had a concern with one of the kids, I could pause at his desk and consult with him for a moment. Likewise, the students discovered that this was a good time to stop me if they had a particular problem or question to which they wanted to alert me. I found myself giving impromptu handshake lessons when students would offer up what I called a “dead fish handshake”, letting their hand lie limply and passively in mine. I felt like I was performing a public service by preparing them for using the proper “business handshake” that they would need as they eventually made their way into college and job interviews.
As the year came to a close, I did not feel as though I had seen a huge transformation in the classroom atmosphere. I had, however, begun to feel a significant change in me. By spending that moment every day with every student, I began to be much more aware of the uniqueness of each kid. Especially important to me was that it gave me a chance to chat with and acknowledge those who were very quiet or shy. They couldn’t hide when I was standing over them with my hand outstretched and, over time, I think they appreciated the attention.
During finals I surveyed the class and asked them how they had felt about our little experiment. It had become so routine by then a lot of them shrugged their shoulders. “Fine” some of them mumbled. One brave soul raised his hand to comment, “What I noticed, Mr. Waldron, was that it was really hard to be mean to you when you took time to shake our hands every day.”
Well, that was enough of an endorsement for me. I continued shaking hands for the next 15+ years, every kid, every day. Through it, I discovered not only the importance of creating a non-threatening physical connection, but the importance of having unique classroom rituals. The handshake made our classroom special because no one else (that they knew of) was doing it. Howls would go up if I mistakenly tried to begin class without handshakes first. Returning student might not remember a single thing I had taught them about reading or writing, but everyone remembered our daily routine.
One student who wrote to me on the occasion of my retirement in 2012 summarized it nicely: “I remember your daily handshakes (or fistbumps if we were sick) like it was yesterday. Taking those few minutes out of your day to talk to each student really made a difference, especially during a time where every teenager is struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in. It was nice to know that at least one teacher really cared enough to take those few seconds out of their day to treat each student like a real person, not just another face in a crowd.”
Just a few minutes a day. Such a simple thing. I’m so glad I was paying attention during that one afternoon workshop so many years ago.