A Thumbless Handshake

photo (11)[Cross-posted to The Teacher Challenge]

That’s what each of my students received on the first day of school.

So, as you can imagine, things started off a bit awkward. A new year, new class, a new teacher standing outside his door shaking everyone’s hand as they entered. And boy, there’s something just a little off about this handshake here.

Let me explain if you don’t know this about me already. I was born without thumbs.

Most students seemed a bit surprised to get a handshake at the door, especially a thumbless one. They were even more taken aback when I tracked down a couple students who slipped by me. When I asked who I missed, no one fessed up. I picked them out of the crowd eventually.

A few students needed a reminder to use those thumbs of theirs to tighten up their grip.

One student refused to shake my hand. “I just saw you last week Ziebarth,” she said, as if some law kept her from formally greeting her teacher too often in too short a window. I persisted. She caved.

I LOVE that we’re kicking off our Teacher Challenge with a personal greeting for each student. Traditionally, on the first day of school I memorize every student’s name and then practice them over the first week of school so I can consistently match their face with their name. I can’t imagine doing otherwise! I’m responsible to know these students, their strengths, their weaknesses, their learning styles. The least I can do is learn their names before I expect them to learn anything from me.

Memorizing their names is difficult enough, but greeting each student is probably tougher.

We only have seven minutes between class periods and if it takes any time at all to erase the board, clean up after the previous class, or do any last minute preparations, students stream easily into class before I can get to them. Then, like on Friday, I literally ran between the students who snuck in early and the students who were just entering the classroom. It was like catching sand with a sieve. The students got a kick out of my frantic ping-ponging between them though, so it was worth it.

One period I had to resort to greeting them on their way out of the class. I definitely prefer greeting them as they enter, but better late than never.

On the second day I welcomed students with a fist bump. It just happened that way. I like to mix things up, avoid ruts, and there I was fist bumping my way through 37 students in less than seven minutes.

The third day I used my elbow. Elbow bumps are a very effective way to greet someone who’s lugging around a tower of books in their arms.

By day three the students were totally hooked. If they had missed their greeting, they’d come up to me to get an elbow bump. Then students started suggesting other greetings, a high four, high eight, the turkey!

This challenge has been so humanizing. It’s way too easy for students to slip into class, unnoticed, take a seat, fly low and avoid a teacher’s radar for the entire class period. Maybe even for days at a time. Then they’re just a seat, a name on a chart, a grade, a face in the crowd.

Greeting each student on a daily basis shows that you respect them as people, as members of your community, your class. They are part of your class, right? It’s not their job to greet us. They are our customers, our students under our stewardship. They deserve a smile, a hello, a handshake. With or without thumbs.

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One thought on “A Thumbless Handshake

  1. One night back in ’91 (or maybe ’92) I was hanging out around the studio of AM 960 KFMY in Provo, Utah, talking with the guy who ran the Student Review radio show, one Sean Ziebarth. (This was in the days before he was Sean Boy Walton with our rowdy FM co-tenants, X96.) I’d gotten to know Sean a little from our interactions, mostly me as station manager trying to keep the Student Reviewers from getting us shut down with their antics. Or maybe it was their show was a bit edgy for our K-FaMilY daytime listeners, all 12 of them. In a bold moment I decided to ask Sean the question on my mind at the time:

    “Sean, what’s it like having no thumbs?”

    “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had any” was the response I got.

    I’ve repeated that little exchange many times over the ensuing years, not to display my insensitivity or ignorance, but as an example of how we know what is normal for us, which might not be normal for someone else.

    I decided it was time to thank Sean for his teaching moment. So, thanks Mr. Ziebarth!

    Kent Vorkink

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