For Jerusha Willenborg, the start of a new school year means a whole new batch of handshakes to master.
The third-grade teacher at Gordon Parks Academy in Wichita starts and ends each school day by sharing a unique handshake with each of her students. The greetings include high-fives, fist-bumps, elbow-bumps and full-body twirls, each of them designed by the student and practiced to perfection.
“The kids love it, because it’s like we have this special connection,” Willenborg said. “Every child is different, and so is their handshake.”
The tradition started when Willenborg was a first-year teacher at Spaght Elementary, she said. She told her students she wanted a fist-bump or high-five from each of them before they left for the day.
“One of my students was just having fun, and he kept adding on to it,” she said. “We would do that every day, and the other kids said, ‘I want to do one.’ So I just said, ‘OK, you teach me and I’ll learn it.’
“It started like that, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
A video of the handshake parade posted on YouTube last year garnered more than 3.6 million views and thousands of comments.
“I wish my teachers were like this!!!” one woman wrote.
“That teacher is so amazing,” said another.
“How does the teacher remember all of these?”
The answer is simple, Willenborg said, and it serves as a lesson for her students: Practice, practice, practice.
“When I’m first learning all of them, it is really hard,” she said. “I tell them it has to be short — you can’t have too many moves. But once they get it, we do it three times in a row. That repetition kind of sticks it in my mind. And then we just practice.”
Eventually, one glance at a student’s face will spark that child’s handshake in Willenborg’s mind.
“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” she said. “I usually can just go right into it, even with last year’s students.”
The video recorded in a hallway at Gordon Parks Academy last fall shows Willenborg shaking hands with a line of more than 40 current and former students. They bump hands, elbows, hips and feet in rapid-fire combinations. They clap and slap their legs. Most of the handshakes end with a hug.
The final handshake features a couple of dance moves and the phrase, “Oh no, you didn’t,” which the rest of the class shouts in unison.
The routine helps Willenborg establish a special connection with her students, which helps in the classroom. Her class had the highest attendance rate in the school last year, she said.
“If they’re having an argument I’ll say, ‘You know what? Go make a handshake up and come tell me,’” she said. “And it’s hard to not get along with somebody you’re doing a handshake with.”