A New Standard: Handshakes and Haircuts

One of the most transformative moments of my career happened before I even began teaching.

I interned with a school before starting up teaching. As an intern, I sat and took notes of everything the teacher did, so it was less like student teaching and more like observing. I’d get there early each morning, and one morning in particular, I parked in front, got out of my car, and began my trek to the entrance.

As soon as I stepped on the sidewalk, I saw a car pull up and one of the kids in one of the classes jumped out of the front seat.

When she opened the passenger door, all I could hear was an older woman (I assumed her mother) bellow at the top of her lungs, “F$*K YOU!”

I remember my jaw dropping as I stopped right in my tracks. I watched the student hurry, stooped low and humiliated, into the school.

When I later saw her in class, she seemed like nothing was wrong.

This was memorable because this very moment defined what my career would ultimately hinge on.

I decided in that moment that my time teaching wouldn’t be about standards. Instead, it would all revolve around one question.

Did I love my kids well today?

It was here that the foundation for room 2090, my little cocoon of crazy, was built.

The brick and mortar of this foundation is simple: handshakes and haircuts.

In an effort to love my students well, I abide by two rules:

1. I always notice new haircuts.

2. I never let a student enter my classroom without first shaking his or her hand.

The Thing About a Haircut

I once read, “You only get one chance to notice a new haircut.” This is a mantra for me as a teacher. It so speaks to what we are called to do.

We have to see our students.

We get one hour with them each day.

I have one hour to get my head out of the sand that is my own life and enter into a space where I can actually notice my kids.

Why is it the haircut?

I’m not really sure honestly. I think this is such a big deal because it is a minute detail.

When looking at your kids, you really have to pay attention to those small details: a haircut requires intimate knowledge of the child both before and after the change.

Noticing a haircut means that, for five seconds, I am not the center of my universe.

So many students walk our halls and see school as somewhat of a respite from the instability of home.

Furthermore, as cheesy as it sounds, there is something magical about a kid’s smile when you notice the change they are (inwardly) proud of.

“Did you get a haircut? Well, I like it. It looks nice.”

In kidspeak , this translates to “I see you. I noticed you yesterday, and I noticed you today. I care.”

This is a small act, but I believe it makes a massive impact on the child and the classroom they’re in.

The Only Positive Touch

When I began teaching, my professor, a phenomenal mentor and literal lifesaver for the first two years of my career, told me to shake hands outside the door each day.

“Start the class on a high note,” she commented. “This is the only positive touch many of your students might get all day.”

I think about my childhood and how lucky I was to have parents who, yes, did discipline me, but also showed their love by way of touch.

They constantly hugged on and loved on me (even though my mother commented all the while, “Emmie, it’s too hot for this”).

Could you imagine never feeling meaningful physical contact from another human?

Being that my love language is physical touch, I’m a strong believer that we as humans need the positive affirmation that touch provides.

That is the reason behind the handshake.

Every day, I look into my kids’ eyes, and I shake their hands. Much like noticing the haircuts, the meaning behind it is this: I see you. I know you are here.

This is a skill that obviously has real world implications: shaking hands properly is a skill students must have outside of school.

Its rewards, therefore, are twofold.

This is something students do buck at initially. When standing at my door on the first day, I’ve had students sneer at or question my outstretched hand.

I’ve had to teach how we shake hands. It’s a part of the business, though: if you want to teach a new skill, you may have to do a little tutoring in the process.

A side note here: the hardest part is for them to look you in the eye. Students don’t really like that part. I’ve noticed, though- adults don’t really either.

At any rate, I’ve noticed that the expectation and the routine of the handshake has stuck. Students now hold me accountable by standing at my door and refusing to move or enter until I shake their hands.

Physical touch. It makes a difference, and I like to think that it (somehow) creates a bond and some level or trust that didn’t exist there before.

If nothing else, they’ll know that I at least loved them enough to shake their hands during flu season.


Handshakes and haircuts.

Shake a hand.

Notice a haircut.

These are easy items to check off. Seem simple enough. However, I’ve found that these two actions really are the foundation for the relationships I have with my students.

When it comes to my students, I want to cover them, keep them them safe, wrap them up and protect them.

The reality, though, is that I really can’t monitor their every day lives 24/7.

What I can do instead is control the atmosphere students enter into the moment they hit my door.

Room 2090, my little igloo of insanity, is built on one question: how well can I love my kids today?

That love looks differently minute to minute, and it doesn’t always look like “love” in the traditional sense.

Some days, it won’t look like I loved a kid well when I had to discipline them.

It won’t necessarily look like love kid when I teach students that, contrary to popular belief, where and were are NOT the same words.

However, these lessons are made possible by the relationships built on the foundation of handshakes and haircuts.

The standards are secondary because you simply can’t put “trust” on a standardized test.

You can, however, teach it every day in your classroom, and this just might be the key to cracking the standardized test code.

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