On the first day of school, I stand outside my classroom door during passing period and shake hands with each student who walks through. Most of my high schoolers approach this with confusion or discomfort while a few use it as an opportunity to greet me with a large smile and a brief introduction of who they are. In these 7 minutes (how long our passing period is), I already have an idea of who some of my students are: which students are more confident or chatty, which students are shyer, and which students are nervous about their first day of school. Most importantly, it gives me a chance to talk and connect with each individual student, even if it is only for a moment.
On the second day of school, I greet my students with another handshake. Again on the third, fourth, and fifth day of school. It does not take long for students to catch on that this is a daily routine and something that I find profoundly powerful (especially in the beginning of the year as it helps me learn students’ names much faster!). While we sometimes use these quick breaks between classes to check our email, erase the board, or just take a break, I find that standing by the door really builds a greater sense of community.
I shake my students’ hands every day because it allows me to check in with each of them. With five classes of 40 students, it is sometimes difficult to really talk to, get to know, or pay equal attention to all of our students. While this sometimes leads to teacher guilt, it really isn’t our fault. With only 55 minutes, tons of material to teach, and managing the classroom, it is often the students who demand more attention–the more talkative or outgoing (or sometimes even “disruptive”) students–who teachers gravitate more towards. This disallows all students to feel equally welcomed or embraced. While some students purposefully try to fade into the background of their classrooms, by welcoming the students at the door, I ensure that I interact with each and every student at least once that day.
While I’m guilty of sometimes missing a day, students expect me to be at the door every day. Students know that I will ask them how they are doing and they know that there is at least one adult on campus who is checking in on them, helping their social-emotional well-being. In those few moments with students, we have laughed over funny stories that happened to them over the weekend, and students have also cried because they aren’t doing so well today and they really needed to talk about it. These quick check-ins may seem insignificant but I truly believe they have an especially great impact on the students who need it most.
Another reason why I feel like it is important to greet your students with a handshake every day is that, well, they need the practice! I know that sounds bizarre but we never really teach students how to shake someone’s hand properly and it’s never something really practiced. Handshakes can tell you a lot about a person and are instrumental in important meetings or job interviews. My students shake my hand five times a week and I can feel the difference as time goes on. Handshakes typically get firmer, more confident, and less sweaty as time goes on. It’s slowly preparing students for a small part of adulthood and normalizes what can oftentimes be a very awkward and nerve-wracking process.
While I can list many ways I think personally greeting and shaking hands every day benefits students, it really benefits teachers too. This is a time where I connect with students, get to know them, how their weekend was, how their family is doing. I get to see their personalities grow. I give my students the option to create our own special handshake, under the condition that they are the ones that have to create it. While most of my students prefer the traditional handshake, I love seeing what they come up with! I’ve had several handshakes with students last thirty seconds and other students who just prefer to high-five, pound fists, or even tap elbows if they prefer minimal touching.
An important side note for students (or teachers!) who fear spreading germs, I also keep a large bottle of hand sanitizer accessible for all in my classroom and while I have never had a student completely refuse to be greeted in any of these ways, I think it is important to recognize and acknowledge any students who are uncomfortable or unable to participate. Take note of those students and instead of extending your hand when you see them, just check-in with them verbally! You never want to make any student feel anxious about coming to class and while I haven’t personally experienced this, it is a possibility to be aware of. And even if you do have some students that prefer not to enter the class with a handshake, the more important aspect of this ritual is talking and connecting with each student. It may only be 7 minutes and a few seconds with each student, but I promise you’ll see the difference in how you connect with students and how your classroom community will strengthen.
While I love starting the year off with this tradition, it is never too late to start! And if you’re really not able to commit every day, think about doing this once a week to check in with your students. Start your Mondays off with a handshake and a check-in because sometimes, students need to be asked “How are you?” that day more than they need to practice their comma usage.