A Handshake A Day…A Classroom Practice That Changed Everything

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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.

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Cool People Need Not Apply

Tom

 

Yes, by posting my ninth-grade yearbook picture, a pic I usually keep under lock and key, I’m taking one for the team—the team of all of you who hate any pictures of yourself from high school. This is not a look I would wish on anyone, especially a young high-schooler hoping for some degree of acceptance and popularity.

I did not enter high school thinking of myself as a nerd, but I certainly had all the essential elements of what I now consider to be an outdated definition of nerd-ity. There was no tape on my glasses, and even I knew better than to use a pocket protector (after all, that’s why I kept a pencil box handy), but my social awkwardness, painful lack of self-assurance, and absence of athletic ability led me to focus on the only thing I was good at—academics. Clearly, in the strict stratification of high school society, I had “nerd” written all over me (see picture above).

I attended Saint Augustine High School, an all-boys Catholic school in San Diego, and sitting in freshman orientation, I felt incredibly alone because there were boys from all over the county, but very few from my small parochial school. I immediately latched on to the first person who was nice to me, Ralph, a friend I kept for exactly as long as it took me to make several new friends and to realize that (if possible) Ralph was actually even less cool than I was (Sorry Ralph, I still feel bad about that one).

I eventually escaped high school with some sense that I had outgrown the “nerd” label. By the end, I had a solid and varied friend group, was near the top of the class, had become co-editor of the school newspaper, and become active in drama (OK, I know, that one is a toss-up).

Also, one of the men I worked with at the grocery store where I had a part-time job took an interest in me and helped me improve my wardrobe (no small task during the early 70’s), feel more confident around women, and introduce me to the world of hair stylists which helped me to get beyond the slicked-down Vitalis look that I had cultivated as a ninth-grader. Best of all was a conversion to contact lenses my junior year, and my purchase of a 1968 metallic blue Mustang during my senior year, a car that remains the coolest vehicle I have ever owned.

While none of these improvements gained me entrance to the “cool kids club” on campus, I did leave high school with good memories, some very good friends, and a sense of confidence about the future.

Years later, as I began teaching, I felt a special kinship to kids who felt isolated or awkward and it was clear that the term “nerd” still carried a heavy stigma. But, something happened as the years went by. Just as in The Princess Bride when Inigo Montoya has to chide the evil Vizzini over his repeated use of the word “Inconceivable!”, respectfully pointing out, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” the word “nerd” began to have a much more positive connotation.

This elevation of word in our language has precedent. In the 1300’s the word “nice” used to mean “simple,” or “ignorant.” To be “fond” meant to be “foolish.” Likewise words can decline and develop a more negative sense. Today’s “villain” (a la Voldemort, Moriarity, or Dick Cheney) simply meant “servant” long ago.

I’m not sure when the tide began to change, although it seems to me that it had something to do with, of all things, Harry Potter. There may have been precursors, of course, but this book series created such a cult among all ages that it unleashed midnight book releases, midnight movie showings, kids and adults showing up to both dressed in full costume—a total identification with the characters, the setting, and the story. There was something about the immersion in a pop culture phenomenon that allowed kids (and adults) to proclaim themselves as “Harry Potter nerds” with a sense of pride, not a sense of shame.

Toward the end of my career in the classroom, increasingly kids began to self-identify as “nerds,” sometimes with a grimace and a shrug, but more often with a laugh, often surrounded by a gaggle of other fellow nerds—happy, well-adjusted, athletic, and popular. After all, who wouldn’t want to be around people who are passionate, knowledgeable, and involved in either singular or multiple pursuits?

The title now seems much more associated with people who have a passionate dedication to something. While often, these passions are directed at icons of pop culture (i.e. Game of Thrones, Marvel Comic films, Star Trek, musicians) it also bleeds into much more mainstream pursuits. I mean, have you ever gotten stuck with someone who is desperate to explain to you just how well his/her fantasy football team is doing?

As a young person, being cool must be exhausting. There seems to be a slavish adherence to both a dress and behavioral code. One has to pretend to be friends with all the clan members while quietly forming strategic alliances and living with the notion that with just one slip, you can be voted off the island, cut off as someone who “used to be cool.”

I had to watch Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film, Almost Famous, at least 8 times before I started to notice how important it was for everyone to be considered cool. They were all trying so hard, and even the members of the fictitious band, Stillwater, were plagued by insecurity about how they were perceived, begging William (Patrick Fugit) the teenaged rock critic, “Just make us look cool, man.” Later William’s mentor, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) wisely counsels him, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you are uncool.”

It strikes me that being cool is just too much work. Give me nerd-dom any day. All one has to do is go out and buy a new action figure for her collection, stay at home on a nice day and watch “The Hunger Games” for the tenth time, don’t let a single summer go by without re-reading the Harry Potter books—all of them. Yes, it’s just fine to spend three valuable hours working out trades for your fantasy football team. Just please don’t bother me during the baseball season from 7AM to 8 AM while I’m having my coffee and carefully reading and analyzing the box scores from the night before. It’s important work. Someone has to do it.